This is an often asked question, and many of us don't really know what the difference is, or if there is one at all! So, let's set you straight and explain in more detail.
Firstly, is there a difference between Tex-Mex and Mexican food? The answer is a resounding YES!
Tex-Mex is a fusion of Mexican and American cuisine, primarily due to the Tejano culture (Native Americans of South Texas). They adapted traditional Mexican dishes and added their own elements borrowed from Spain and traders from the Caribbean to create their own feisty and bold favours.
Conversely, Mexican cuisine has been around for thousands of years, blending the cooking methods of the indigenous communities (such as the Mayans and other Mesoamerican groups). Traditional Mexican food is mainly made with ingredients native to Mexico, such as corn (maize), chilli peppers, tomatoes, squashes, cocoa, vanilla, beans, and avocados.
A simple way to tell the difference between Tex-Mex and Mexican comes down to four key ingredients. These are:
- Cheese - in Mexico, dishes found in a cocina only use small amounts of cheese, and it’s only white cheese (or queso blanco). If you see yellow cheese, like cheddar or Monterrey Jack (and lots of it!) on your plate, you know it's Tex-Mex. Yellow cheese is the ultimate characteristic of authentic Tex-Mex – without it, it ain’t Tex-Mex!
- Cumin – this excellent spice adds a bold flavour, and is responsible for the smoky, spicy kick you'll find in a plate of chilli con carne or chimichangas. Used liberally in Tex-Mex recipes, you'll barely see it in any Mexican dish. Authentic Mexican dishes commonly use fresh herbs, including chile peppers, oregano, tarragon, coriander, cacao, and epazote.
- Tortilla – four tortillas and crunchy corn shells are Tex-Mex ingredients. In Mexico, they favour corn tortillas.
- Beef – if you have ground beef in your taco's, it's likely to be Tex-Mex due to the ample supply of cattle in Texas. In contrast, traditional Mexican dishes usually feature steak, chicken, pork, and even fish in the coastal areas. These are the more readily available meats in Mexico and more common in traditional recipes.
Tex-Mex tacos are usually made with hard corn shells or flour tortillas (typical of the north region of Mexico) filled with ground beef, tomatoes, lettuce, and shredded cheese.
Mexican tacos are mostly on a corn tortilla and filled with many types of meat or guisados like cochinita pibil or carne asada and topped with cilantro, lime, and onion.
Once you understand the use and style of each of the four key ingredients above, it's easier to tell the difference between Tex-Mex and authentic Mexican cuisine.
Some of the most iconic Tex-Mex Dishes for you to try are:
- Chilli con Carne - made of chilis, chicken broth, and chicken, beef, or pork.
- Steak Fajitas - grilled meats usually served on a taco, with delicious spices and toppings.
- Queso – a staple of Tex-Mex cuisine, it’s a gooey, melted yellow cheese with green chillies.
- Puffy Tacos - small tortillas filled with cheeses, sauce, and fillings such as meat, beans, or vegetables. Traditionally, a Mexican taco is very basic, and rarely contains more than just meat, sauce and few toppings. But the Puffy Taco is a speciality from San Antonio. It is stuffed with several meats, along with lettuce, cheese, and salsa.
- Cheese Enchiladas – these large tortillas are stuffed with veggies, beans, and meat, and then covered in cheese and baked.
Some of the most delicious and iconic authentic Mexican Dishes are:
- Mole - a sauce with around 20 ingredients including chilli peppers, tomatoes, tomatillos, black peppers, garlic, and other ingredients, which is usually served over meat.
- Chilaquiles - a popular traditional breakfast dish made with quartered and lightly fried corn tortillas. They are then topped with green or red salsa and enjoyed with fried eggs or pulled chicken, as well as cheese.
- Pozole – this comforting traditional soup or stew, is made from hominy, pork, and red chile. You can also add shredded cabbage, radishes, cilantro, lime, and avocado.
- Chiles en Nogada – this consists of poblano chiles stuffed with ground turkey picadillo and covered in nogada - a creamy walnut-based sauce. It’s then topped with pomegranate seeds and parsley.
- Tacos Al Pastor - made with sliced marinated pork shoulder , these are usually served with sliced onion, pineapple, and cilantro.
It doesn’t matter whether you prefer Tex-Mex or traditional Mexican – both are super delicious and great to enjoy on your own or with family and friends!