THE WHOLE ENCHILADA - A Historical Perspective

September 18, 2018


In 1883, an American traveller was not exactly smitten by one of the most iconic forms of Mexican cuisine: "Enchiladas, a greasy tortilla sandwich containing chilles and a number of other uninviting looking compounds, and other nasty messes, are sold everywhere, filling the air with a pungent, nauseous smell" (Wikipedia). These views were later challenged by writers who were authorities in international cuisine. Enchiladas are now generally considered to be a particularly delicious form of Mexican fare. Their colourful history is written in the sands of majestic ancient civilizations and later in the legacies of conquerors and warmongers. The story of the enchilada is as enthralling as that of its country of origin.


"The 'Real Academia Española' defines the word enchilada, as used in Mexico, as a rolled maize tortilla, stuffed with meat and covered with a tomato and chili sauce. Enchilada is the past participle of the Spanish enchilar, ‘to add chilli pepper to’, literally to ‘season (or decorate) with chilli’ (Wikipedia). Even reading the basic recipe for enchiladas teases the mind with hints of pure deliciousness: lightly fry corn tortillas in oil, dip them in a special seasoned tomato sauce made with chilli peppers, and roll them up with a filling of any combination of cooked beef, chicken, or fish, beans, potatoes, and vegetables. They can then be baked with a mozzarella cheese topping or served unbaked with lettuce, cheese, or radishes on top.


The first form of the enchilada dates to the time of the ancient Mayan civilization who inhabited the Yucatan area, of what is now known as Mexico. "The earliest Maya settlements date to around 1800 B.C., or the beginning of what is called the Preclassic or Formative Period" ("Maya", The practice of rolling tortillas around other food dates to those ancient times. Centuries later, the Valley of Mexico was the epicentre of several pre-Columbian civilizations, including Teotihuacan, the Toltec, and the Aztec. "The people living in the lake region of the Valley of Mexico traditionally ate corn tortillas folded or rolled around small fish" (Wikipedia). The idea of a tortilla wrapped around a food filling and eaten in various forms was further explored and developed by the Aztecs, who came into Mexico in the 12th century AD.  


Around 1519, the Spanish Conquistadors invaded Mexico. The expedition against Aztec Mexico was led by Hernán Cortés, who marched inland with 400 men and conquered the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City). The conquistadors kept detailed records of everything the locals were eating and the tasty food inside a tortilla was discussed (including how it was made) extensively around the new territory. One of the conquerors, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, documented a feast enjoyed by Europeans and hosted by Cortés, which included foods served in corn tortillas.


After the American tourist's damning review in 1883, Mexican cooking authority, Diana Kennedy, publicly challenged this negative characterization of enchiladas. Her love of Mexican cuisine led to nine books on the subject. Kennedy's The Cuisines of Mexico started changing perceptions around the world about food from the land of sun and tequila.


Enchiladas are now enjoyed all over the world — mouth-watering, delectable, and spiced with history.

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