The people of ancient Mexico ate many foods that were unknown to Europeans in the 1500s. These foods are still an important part of the Mexican diet. Among them are corn, tomatoes, squash, avocados and many varieties of beans and peppers. Another food that ancient Mexicans gave to the world was chocolate, which had a very special meaning to the Mayas, Aztecs, and other Indian civilizations. Cacao beans - from which chocolate is made - were sometimes used as money. A bitter drink made from the beans was considered sacred and was reserved only for priests and rulers. Chocolate sweetened with sugar is popular all over the world, but the people of Mexico have a special fondness for it.
Of all the foods native to Mexico, corn is the most popular and most important, in modern times as well as in the past. The corn tortilla — a kind of thin, flat pancake — accompanies almost all Mexican meals, either as bread or as part of the main dish. A versatile food, the tortilla can be toasted or fried, rolled or folded, stuffed with meats or vegetables, or topped with rich sauces. Many modern Mexican cooks make their tortillas from a specially prepared dough called masa, or they buy them every day from tortillerías, stores that sell freshly made tortillas. In some rural areas, however, tortillas are still made in the age-old way. Kernels of dried corn are cooked in lime water until soft and then are ground by hand with the mano and metate, stone grinding implements used for centuries by the Indians of Mexico. Pieces of the soft corn dough are shaped and flattened by hand until they are just the right thickness. Then they are cooked over an open fire on a clay or metal griddle called a comal. Tortillas made by this method are delicious, but the process takes a great deal of time. It is not surprising that modern Mexican cooks use shortcuts in preparing this important food.
Another native food essential to Mexican cooking is the chile, or pepper. Relatives of the familiar bell pepper, Mexican chiles come in many sizes, colors, and flavors. Some are more than twelve inches long, while others are no bigger than a dried bean. When they are young, chiles are usually various shades of green and yellow. When they become ripe, most of them turn bright red or orange. Many chiles have a sweet, mild flavor, but some are so hot that they make your eyes water just to smell them. These fabulous peppers have beautiful names such as jalapeño, poblano, and serrano. They give a special flavor to a great variety of Mexican dishes.
Mexican cooking also depends on many ingredients that are not native to the country but were brought from Europe by the early Spanish settlers. Beef, chicken, and pork are European contributions to the Mexican table. The only domestic animals used for food by the Aztecs and other Indians were wild turkeys and small, fat wild dogs. Rice and wheat also arrived with the European settlers, as did spices such as cinnamon and cloves. Because of their European heritage, modern Mexicans enjoy apples and peaches in addition to the papayas, mangoes, and other tropical fruits known to their Indian ancestors.
Source: Easy Menu Ethnic Cookbooks by Rosa Coronado - Cooking the Mexican Way