Ruben Hernandez

The enchilada

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From the metates, comales and cocinas of Mexico the enchilada has emerged, a cultural and culinary phenomenon that goes far beyond simple belly-filling. 

Enchiladas are rooted in Mexican language, rituals, religions and traditions that span millennia. The enchilada is one gastronomic delight that is considered quintessentially Mexican, and yet continues to evolve way beyond those borders in the 21st century. 

Enchiladas, tacos and mole poblano all vie for the title of plato nacional of Mexico. A national dish is special to a country, and speaks to its history and with ingredients that originate on its farms. 

Enchiladas are tightly interwoven with Mexico’s sense of identity, and even more so for Mexico’s expatriates in the United States, who claim enchiladas as a symbol of ethnic heritage, cultural pride and family unity. 

Across generations, the enchilada has been considered the centro cultural of Mexican and Mexican American families. This delicious, corn tortilla-based meal goes hand-in-hand with family. The enchilada escorts us from birth to death. It is served at milestone meals, such as baptisms, graduations, marriages and after-funeral get-togethers. And nothing displays a mother’s love more than a piping hot pan of spicy, fragrant enchiladas served fresh from the oven, rolled and stacked side-by-side like bullets in a bandolier. 

For Hispanic Heritage Month, Latino Perspectives celebrates the iconic enchilada in its many Mexican regional variations and cross-border adaptations exhibiting flavors and textures as rich and diverse as Mexico itself. 

Join us as we provide an historical overview of this irresistible aliment, launch a culinary expedition to Mexico and other places where enchiladas grace tables and hearts, share enchilada insights and recipes from the Valley’s famous Latino chefs and food enthusiasts, and point out enchilada references in film, song and speech.    

In this 8th anniversary edition of LPM, we give you the whole enchilada about enchiladas. ¡Buen provecho!

Enchiladas through the ages

“Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are,” wrote Honoré de Balzac, a 19th century French novelist. 

Connections between what people eat and who they are – between cuisine and cultural self-image – reach deep into Mexican history. The cultural history of enchiladas traces the influences of gender, race and class on this dish from Aztec times to the present. 

The Real Academia Española defines the word “enchilada” as a “rolled maize tortilla stuffed with meat and covered with a tomato or chile sauce.” Enchilada is the past participle of the verb, enchilar, meaning “to add chile pepper to” or “to season with chile.”

The tradition of stuffing corn flatbread (called tlaxcalli in Nahautl) with meat, seafood, beans, potatoes or vegetables occurred first in the Basin of Mexico. It was the Spanish conquistadores who gave tlaxcalli the name “tortilla.” Cheese was added as an enchilada ingredient after the Spanish imported it.

In the 19th century, as Mexican cuisine was being nationalized, enchiladas were mentioned in the first Mexican cookbook, El Cocinero mexicano (The Mexican Cook), published in 1831, and in Mariano Galván Rivera’s Diccionario de Cocina, published in 1845.

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