5 Authentic Mexican Dishes for Cinco de Mayo

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Yes, we know: Cinco de Mayo is not a "real" Mexican holiday in the sense that some people may think. The true Mexican Independence Day is observed on Sept. 16 in a celebration known as El Grito de la Independencia, commemorating liberation from the Spanish. So why bother making authentic food for a "fake" holiday?

Click here to see the 5 Authentic Mexican Dishes for Cinco de Mayo Slideshow

Well, it's probably a little uncharitable to call it a fake holiday, because Cinco de Mayo does celebrate something very real — namely liberation from the French (haw haw) during the Battle of Puebla in 1862. Although it's not celebrated in any big way in Mexico, it's a huge part of Mexican-American culture. And what better way to flip a bird at the French than to make some really good Mexican food?

So we teamed up with Pati Jinich, the official chef of the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, D.C. and author of Pati's Mexican Table, to get some invaluable advice on how to cook authentic Mexican food at home.

Jinich has cooked at Blair House, the official guest house for the president of the United States, and has been featured on TODAY and The Chew. Jinich grew up in Mexico City and was immersed in the flavors of authentic Mexican cuisine from the very beginning, and at heart she is a home cook, so we thought she was the perfect person to turn to for help with simplifying authentic Mexican cooking.

The first thing we wanted to know though was, "What is real Mexican food?"

Jinich says, "It just depends on your perspective. For me, as a native of Mexico, authentic Mexican food is the food I grew up eating. It is the food that has been passed down generation after generation, but at the same time it is also the food that has been concocted in home kitchens using contemporary ingredients."

But there must be so much more than what we see on the menus of so many Mexican restaurants in the United States — namely, heavy burritos, tacos, quesadillas, fajitas, and the like bursting with cheese. To which Jinich replied, "It's tricky — if you come into my house and I serve the authentic Aztec dishes that were served before the Spanish came, you would probably jump out of my house; you probably wouldn't eat it."

On a more serious note, though, Jinich notes that as with any cuisine with a long history, context is important. What many people think of as traditional Mexican cooking — sopes and tortas, for example — shows mestizo influences, a term which refers to the mixing of Spanish and native cultures in Mexico through intermarriage. Jinich says, "Traditional Mexican food includes the pig that was brought by the Spanish, all of the milk products that were again brought by the Spanish, and onion and garlic and Mediterranean spices. Traditional food is the food that resulted from 300 years of cultures mixing, and the tricky thing is that it continues to evolve." And it's not just Spanish influence that has shaped Mexican cooking; the French had an effect on the cuisine as well. The bolillo roll, for example, is an adaptation of the French baguette, but it would have been impossible to make before the Spanish came through, bringing wheat flour with them.

So it's no surprise then, that Americans have such a hard time grasping what real Mexican food is. Jinich thinks that most of the misconceptions fall into one of three categories:

Mexican food is always spicy. However, true Mexican food is not always spicy, nor does it always have chile pepper in it.

Mexican food is very laborious. Jinich thinks that people have this misconception because of a few dishes, such as mole poblano and chiles en nogada, which require some extra time to prepare. She acknowledges that Mexican food is highly "condimented," meaning that the different components of many dishes build layers of flavor, but this usually doesn't require that many ingredients or flavors most of the time. Jinich says that "When there are spices, it's always a judicious amount… So I'm always surprised, for example, when people use a tablespoon of cumin in their dish." And simple techniques can help people coax more flavors out of the ingredients they already have, rather than having to run to the store. Jinich says, "A lot of times it's not how many ingredients you have, but how you use them — for example, charring tomatoes and garlic."

Mexican food is "Tex-Mexy." Some people have this idea that it's always covered in cheese or cream sauce or always has a fried tortilla in it, says Jinich. Even though she believes that's what most Americans think of as "Mexican," she says, "I think Tex-Mex is its own cuisine; it started on its own and it's evolving beautifully."

Now that we've cleared the air, it's time to get cooking. Check out the slideshow for more tips and some great recipes.

Will Budiaman is the Recipe Editor at The Daily Meal. Follow him on Twitter @WillBudiaman.

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