Sizzle up that Grill for Fajitas!
Having grown up in Buffalo, New York I occasionally ate "Mexican food" at restaurants with friends. I was familiar with tacos, enchiladas, chips, salsa, guacamole, and queso. But it wasn't until I spent five years in Dallas, Texas that I REALLY became familiar with "Mexican foods", or so I thought. There is such a large Mexican population in Dallas, and throughout Texas as a whole, that Tex-Mex restaurants are ubiquitous! It was during my years in Dallas that I learned that although good Tex -Mex food is delicious and very satisfying, there is a substantial difference between Tex-Mex and authentic Mexican cuisine. Essentially the "Mexican" food that I have been eating my entire life has been Tex-Mex cuisine.
This distinction took on life in 1972 when Diana Kennedy, an English-born author, published a cookbook titled 'The Cuisines of Mexico.' She spent a number of years living in Mexico City and subsequently taught Mexican cooking classes in NYC. She beautifully detailed the various regional styles of authentic Mexican cooking in an effort to show that what Americans thought was "Mexican" food was something quite different.
So, what makes them different?
Tex-Mex cuisine is actually a fusion of Texan rancher and Northern Mexican cuisines and has its roots in San Antonio, Texas. From the early 1500s to the early 1800s, both Texas and Mexico were part of the Spanish colony known as New Spain. Texas later gained its independence and ultimately became part of the United States in 1845. Throughout their complicated history, their culinary traditions have become inextricably combined. The Rio Grande area was awash with unique and exotic dishes that were novel to the Anglo-American settlers who migrated there. It was in the 1880s that chili con carne emerged onto the scene in San Antonio. Chili con carne consisted of chunks of tomato and tons of ground beef spiced with chili powder, ground cumin, and mild paprika. This became the mother of Tex-Mex dishes.
The differences between Tex-Mex and Mexican foods are found in a few key ingredients listed below.
CHEESE: Tex Mex food uses A LOT of cheese and it is yellow cheese, like cheddar. They scatter cheese on everything and even use it for dipping. Queso dip, for example, is entirely a Tex-Mex specialty. Queso for dipping is not something you find on an authentic Mexican menu. In contrast, cheese is rarely a main ingredient in authentic Mexican dishes. They use it SPARINGLY in their dishes and when they do it is white cheese like queso fresco, queso blanco, queso Oaxaca and cotija.
CUMIN: This spice is not a traditional Mexican spice. It came to North America with workers of Moroccan descent from the Canary Islands who were brought to the San Antonio settlements by the Spanish in the 1700s. Cumin was then incorporated into the San Antonio chili con carne. This was later incorporated into dried chili powder, as well as other Tex-Mex dishes. Authentic Mexican cuisine doesn't use cumin. Mexican dishes, instead use spices such as chili peppers, cacao, oregano and cilantro (coriander).
TORTILLAS: Traditional Mexican cuisine always uses tortillas made of corn (maize). It was only North of the Rio Grande, in Texas, that wheat flour was used to make tortillas. So those large, soft flour tortillas loaded with massive amounts of filling are Tex-Mex food. Crispy corn tortillas are also Tex-Mex, for in Mexico you would get a soft-shelled corn tortilla for a taco.
BEEF: Beef fajitas, Beef tacos, beef chili are all solidly Tex-Mex, as Texas was (and still is) a cattle-heavy area. Authentic Mexican cuisine tends toward the incorporation of pork (cochinita pibil), chicken, and even seafood in coastal locales, like the Yucatan.
SAUCES: A cheese sauce, a cream sauce, and a red sauce are all characteristically Tex-Mex. Traditional Mexican foods are almost always topped with a green tomatillo sauce or mole, which is a traditional sauce made of chiles and cacao.
CONDIMENTS: Tex-Mex utilizes sour cream, but Mexican cuisine uses a crema, which is runnier, lighter, and more similar to creme fraiche.
BLACK BEANS: Tex-Mex uses canned beans and often pinto beans, whereas Mexican dishes generally use fresh beans and black beans.
What are some traditional Tex-Mex Foods?
Some of the common Tex-Mex menu items are queso, quesadillas, burritos, enchiladas, chimichangas, chili, and nachos, to name a few. Fajitas are also unarguably Tex-Mex food and a USA creation. The name 'fajitas' comes from the Spanish word 'faja' which means strips .. as in strips of meat. Fajitas originally were made with strips of beef, but now strips of chicken are just as common, and paired with wheat flour tortillas alongside assorted vegetable. We frequently make grilled chicken fajitas with all the fixings. It is definitely a family favorite and a crowd pleaser! So I want to share with you the recipe I use to make Chicken Fajitas.
Chicken Fajitas Recipe
1/3 c. honey
2 cloves garlic
2+ Tbsp. fresh cilantro
1/4 c. lime juice; freshly squeezed
1/4 c. olive oil
2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbsp. red currant or sour cherry or red pepper jelly
1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
1/2 red pepper; seeded and chopped
1 whole jalapeno (optional, if you like it spicy)
1 tsp. dried thyme leaves
2 tsp. salt
Put all the above ingredients into a food processor and purée together.
6-8 chicken breasts; skinless, boneless and filleted
3 medium onions
2 red bell peppers
2 orange bell peppers
shredded Mexican cheese
Pour marinade over filleted chicken breasts in a large sealable storage bag. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours prior to grilling.
Slice the bell peppers and onions and place them into a cast-iron skillet. Drizzle with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Grill in the skillet until tender.
When ready to grill the chicken, place the chicken breasts onto the grill and pour the marinade into a small saucepan. Boil it well. Baste the grilled chicken with the boiled marinade.
Once chicken breasts are done, cut them longitudinally into 1/2" wide strips.
Serve with flour tortillas, sour cream, shredded Mexican cheese, avocado slices, and salsa.
So, yes, most of the "Mexican food" that we eat at "Mexican Restaurants" throughout the USA is Tex-Mex. That's doesn't take away from the fact that it is very tasty, but it is good to know that there is a distinction. I encourage you to give this Tex-Mex Chicken Fajitas recipe a try. I hope you enjoy it as much as we do!