What Puts The "Tex" in Tex-Mex?

Learn about some of the ingredients, techniques and cultural influences that give Tex-Mex food its identity

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December 18, 2015 4 min read

Signature Tex-Mex dish.Anyone interested in pursuing an education from a culinary arts program must learn about a variety of regional dishes. Understanding the local delicacies that people love makes you a better, more versatile cook. One cuisine that often causes confusion is Tex-Mex.

After glancing at the menu of a Tex-Mex restaurant, many diners have wondered what makes the food any different from traditional Mexican fare. After all, the items on offer likely include tacos, chimichangas and enchiladas. However, the dishes served at both Mexican and Tex-Mex establishments in the United States have several major distinguishing aspects. Learn more about some of the ingredients, techniques and cultural influences that give Tex-Mex food its identity:

Tejano roots
Tex-Mex food comes from Tejano culture, the Spanish-speaking residents of Texas whose history in the region stretches back to the colonial era. The History Channel recounted that as American settlers came to the region in the 19th century, several culinary traditions mingled. This cultural exchange resulted in adaptations of Tejano home cooking that increasingly used different ingredients from traditional Mexican food.

The first popular success of what would become known as Tex-Mex cooking was chili con carne. Based on Native American recipes, this spicy stew contains beef, chili peppers, tomatoes and beans, accompanied by seasonings such as cumin, garlic and onion. The stew became widely available in San Antonio in the 1880s, sold by street vendors, and was even ladled out at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

The other signature dishes of Tex-Mex developed over time: the first combo plate featuring rice and beans appeared in 1900, and nachos, topped with melted cheese and jalapeno strips, were first served in the 1940s. The familiar Mexican fast food restaurant, with its heavy use of pre-made tortillas and sour cream, became a common sight in the 1950s.

As Texan food writer Robb Walsh explained to The Splendid Table, the meals served at such restaurants were just considered “Mexican” by most Americans until relatively recently. In 1972, Mexican cooking expert Diana Kennedy published a highly influential book called “The Cuisines of Mexico” that declared Mexican food in the U.S. to be inauthentic. Tex-Mex thus became regarded as a separate type of cuisine, defined by its multicultural origins.

fajitasThe key ingredients
Tex-Mex cooking is most clearly distinguished by the use of ingredients common in Texas but not found in most authentic Mexican cooking. According to Thrillist, the elements that set Tex-Mex apart are beef, yellow cheese, wheat flour, black beans, canned vegetables and cumin. For instance, fajitas, an American-made dish that came to prominence in the 1970s, bring together wheat tortillas with strips of beef. Enchiladas, originating in Mexico as simple corn tortillas dipped in a chili sauce, are routinely filled with shredded cheddar cheese.

Walsh credited the heavy use of cumin in Tex-Mex dishes to the influence of 18th century settlers from the Canary Islands, who brought with them the traditions of Moroccan cooking. Of course, Tex-Mex cooks used the spice with their own spin: the chili powder used in many dishes combines cumin with ground ancho chilies,oregano and black pepper. This premixed seasoning blend was first sold in 1890s San Antonio.

Tex-Mex cooks have also employed different cooking techniques with Mexican foods. For example, the puffy taco features tortillas that are briefly deep-fried. As a result, they have a crisp exterior with a softer interior and are ready to be filled with all the delicious ingredients that characterize American tacos.

The future for Tex-Mex
Chef Rick Bayless, known for running several Mexican restaurants, told Serious Eats that he has seen a major transformation in Tex-Mex food in recent years. “Tex-Mex has now evolved to a different stage,” Bayless said. “It was once a very simple cuisine, but now there are a variety of dishes on the menus.”

As a style of cooking that emerged from a collision of several different cultures, it makes sense that Tex-Mex has continued to grow and change. Chefs experimenting with the staples of the cuisine have arrived at a range of gourmet elaboration. Restaurants like El Chile Cafe y Cantina are celebrated for bringing high-quality ingredients and culinary invention to foods that have usually been made cheaply and quickly.

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