Tex-Mex vs. Mexican Food

Did you know there’s a difference between Tex-Mex and Mexican food?

If you look around online, you’ll find lots of debate over which cooking style is better. Some “traditionalists” even question if Tex-Mex is an actual form of American cuisine.

No matter where the debate goes, Tex-Mex has officially earned its place on the American table. Still, that doesn’t answer how Tex-Mex differs from authentic Mexican food.

Though your ability to get Tex-Mex varies greatly by your geographic location in the United States. In California, it’s hard to find Tex-Mex food. Since Mexico’s colonization of our region happened directly before our statehood we’re well versed in the tastes that are authentic to Mexican food.

Roots of Tex-Mex Food

The roots of Tex-Mex cuisine trace back to the Spanish when missionaries brought their recipes to Texas. When they left the area in the 1700s, the natives of the region had already assimilated portions of their cooking culture into their own.

Along with this influence, early colonization of Texas also included other cultures. Individuals from the Canary Islands brought a different flavor palate with them, which included garlic, cumin and chili powder. These flavors form the foundation for the Tex-Mex favorite, chili con carne.

This blending of outside cultures with Mexican farm food and Texas ranch food is evident in many other modern Tex-Mex dishes.

You will find a lot more beef in Tex-Mex recipes than in traditional Mexican dishes. Even though beef cattle could be found in Mexico, grasslands were overgrazed and herds were scarce. Pigs, wild fowl, chicken, turkeys, and seafood were more likely available to the average Mexican household. As a result, these ingredients were found in more Mexican dishes.

On the other hand, beef cattle have long been a staple in Texas, so it is only natural that beef plays a more predominate role Tex-Mex recipes.

Beans, corn, and rice formed the basis for many meals before trade and commerce exploded in Mexico.

As Mexican people moved north, these foods found their way onto the plates of many households in Texas. In return, Texans introduced Mexican cooks to more plentiful milk and cheese, in addition to beef. This blending of cultures and cuisine created excitement, especially during the 1940s and 1950s as the borders between the two countries opened up.

During this time, the term ‘Tex-Mex’ was coined and was proudly used to describe Mexican dishes adapted by Texan cooks. However, as decades passed, the recipes lost much of their heritage. By the 1970s, many wonderful Tex-Mex dishes were almost completely revamped into unrecognizable concoctions introduced at carnivals and fairs. Cheese filled nachos, Chimichangas, and soggy tortillas eventually gave Tex-Mex cuisine a bad name.

Along with carnival and fair food, much of what we know as Tex-Mex links to the fast food restaurants that introduced “Mexican” food to most Americans. These menus normally featured pre-made taco shells filled with a variety of ingredients buried under piles of cheese and sauces. Though these restaurants slightly touched on “south of the border” flavor, their menus had little in common with authentic Mexican or Texan cuisine.

What was once an exciting blending of cultures was given a less-than-honorable spin in order to appeal to the masses.

Restaurants were popping up all over America claiming to serve only “authentic” Mexican food, when they were actually making a stab at Tex-Mex, and usually missed the mark on both.

This is too bad because it left many believing they don’t like either Mexican or Tex-Mex food. If this applies to you, you may want to give both styles of cooking another chance now that you know more about it.

When it comes down to deciding which is best – authentic Mexican fare or Tex-Mex cuisine – there is no right or wrong answer. All you can do is compare and decide for yourself which you prefer.

Dive into the many cookbooks available for both Tex-Mex and Mexican cuisines to see what appeals to you. Then visit authentic local restaurants to try for yourself.  In the end, you don’t have to choose, because there’s always room for both.

Did you know my cookbook launched a few weeks ago? You can purchase it through my shop. If you like what you’re reading, be sure to check out my sloCooking archive site.