Culinary Tourism in Mexico

Nowadays, people generally have a more stable and disposable income. This allows them to tour around the world. Touring gives people the chance to have experiences in different parts of the world at their leisure. With touring, people tend to leave their comforts zones and daily routines to explore unknown and unusual places. By doing so, many tend to immerse themselves in the culture, history, and land of the area they are in. With the various social media platforms that people utilize on a daily basis, it inspires people to visit and learn about new places. These factors have made it easier for tourism to rise as a business in the past decades, which in turn helps the economic and social standing of many countries. These exposures brought on by curiosity has made more and more tourists in the world “look for concrete learning experiences, and in this endeavor, the gastronomic experience, in highly diverse ways, is playing an increasingly prominent part” (World Tourism Organization). This statement is especially true in the food culture of countries that were overlooked by many, such as Mexico; where it is filled with a rich history in its food and how people identify with it.

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Mexico Gastronomical Map

 

When many think of the food of a location they think about the history, authenticity, and new spices and flavors they will encounter. Amy S. Choi in her article “What Americans Can Learn From Other Food Cultures,” brings up a fact about how people think about food especially their habits and personal history. Many seem to form a “food identity” starting in one’s childhood and onward when being exposed at home, restaurant outings with loved ones, and when vacationing in new places. Food is something humans will engage with multiple times a day which gives them “opportunities to connect to memory and family and place” (Choi). This could be said about any dish offered around the world, for now, I will specify more about Mexican food and culture.

To talk about Mexican gastronomy is to travel through time and learn about the important cultural elements within not only the history of Latin America but throughout the world. Now more representation of “authentic” dishes from different parts of Mexico are finally standing out in the world to reclaim its place in our modern times, but it has achieved it through respecting its traditions and honoring its history that spans over one thousand years. This makes each dish unique and spectacular not only in terms of flavors and aromas but in spirit and identity. The typical authentic cuisine of Mexico is not something one can find in an average Mexican restaurant since the palate of the cook can vary. To find it, one must first understand where it comes from and how it has changed and created legends and stories that are told from generation to generation. Even from one Mexican restaurant to another, they vary in flavor because they have access to different flavors in their environment.

Mexican cuisine expresses a cultural system that goes far beyond merely gastronomic aspects since it is involved in religion, rituals, and traditions of centuries ago that continue on today. Mexican food is a matrix of ancient knowledge enriched in different stages of miscegenation, which survive today not only in furrows and Milpas, in kitchens and tables, but also in some way in temples and cemeteries, in Cunas and altars, in prayers and customs of the people, whether indigenous or not.  Like tamales which were an important ritual food and “considered sacred as it is the food of the gods” (Clark) and they were offered to various gods at their appointed festivals. Almost all religious celebrations included offerings of food to the extensive pantheon of the Aztec gods and even to the dead on Los Días de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). On Day of the Dead in Mexico, Christmas, and order special holidays or events tamales will be made in a similar manner from the past like the ingredients used and the help of the community or family it takes to prepare and cook tamales. The kitchen essentially becomes the cultural hub of the community, family, and the practicing of tradition so to not lose one’s cultural roots. Mexican cuisine, besides all that, also combines contemporary techniques that give it the character of innovation and constant adaptation. Because of this, it has managed to preserve itself and remains for several generations.

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Tamales by Kate Kosaya

The way certain countries are globally marketed effect how certain foods are promoted and presented to the world whether it be a misrepresentation of food that tourist associate with certain cultures daily lives or how the food is represented globally as cheap marketing instead of their purest form. This can affect how people expect for certain Mexican food to look, taste, and smell. Jeffrey M. Pilcher writes in Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food, how Mexican food was “invented in the global marketplace by promoters of culinary tourism in order to compete against industrial foods from the United States” (Pilcher) and to an extent to the rest of the modern world. A perfect example of this is like when one thinks about Mexican food they mainly think about tacos, burritos, and nachos. Let’s say that if there were a part of the world where the only exposure to “authentic” Mexican food is Taco Bell or Chipotle, it can lead to an unintentional disrespect to the history of food from the motherland. Particularly since there can be a group of tourist who doesn’t understand or care to learn the history of the food that Mexico has to offer. So companies will try to market “nations with food” (Pilcher) like tacos that are homemade by “marginalized groups” (Pilcher). This can get tricky, besides the fact that some may confuse an Americanized taco and a Mexican taco, some may even believe that all other tacos are conformed to one way. That’s not true since tacos, tamales, and every other cuisine in Mexico can vary in seasoning and presentation depending on the region.

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Mexican Taco vs Tex-Mex Taco by FIX

First, it must be clear to people that Mexico was not a colony, but a viceroyalty, which caused the collision of two ways of understanding food to be immense. Before the arrival of the Spaniards, the diet of prehispanic cultures was largely based on corn dishes with chilies and herbs, usually supplemented with beans, tomatoes or nopales. For the second decade of the sixteenth century, the Spanish invasion also meant the arrival of a large variety of animals, such as cattle, chickens, goats, sheep, and pigs. And not only that but also new ingredients such as rice, wheat, oats, olive oil, wine, and almonds. However, this should not be confused as a complete fusion because the Spaniards did not alter the Mexican food. They just simply brought ingredients that only exponentiated their potential in the kitchen. The Mexican cuisine that developed through this exchange is complex and one of the reasons why it is one of the largest cuisines in the world.

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Mexican Ingredients by Vicky Wasik

Since food tourism has gained increasing attention over the past years globally,  tourists are attracted to local produce; leading many destinations to center their product development and marketing accordingly. With food so deeply connected to its origin and ancestors like in Mexico, this focus allows destinations to market themselves as truly unique, appealing to those travelers who look to experience the Mexican culture and lifestyle. In the Global Report on Food Tourism by World Tourism Organization (UNTWO), they bring up how in rural communities, many of them “have struggled in the face of rapid urbanization and shifts away from traditional economic sectors. With their proximity to food-producing lands, rural communities often enjoy a comparative advantage when it comes to serving up traditional fare.” They face multiple other challenges like the environment, changes in agricultural patterns for the production of food,  and the invasion of foreign foods that come to break the balance of the traditional diet. The more obvious challenge of rural communities lies within the transnational trade issues that make Mexico import a lot of their products and receive in exchange other products that are not the best for Mexico’s citizens.

As for gastronomic tourism in Mexico, this is the second element that generates the most economic impact on tourism in Mexico. Elena Fernández in her article brings up how “the gastronomic heritage, the Mexican cuisine, the regional and local cuisines have become one of the most powerful attractions for internal and external tourism” (Fernández). People move in search of new flavors, original flavors that many may not get exposed to outside of the motherland. Tourism has evolved a lot and right now the concept of gastronomic destinations is very important. It is a fact that people look for museums, historical centers, and beaches, but also look for where to eat tasty and well. With the help of Instagram, Twitter, and various other media platforms have made it easier to find places that locals recommend or go eat on a daily. In that sense, Mexican cuisine is an unparalleled attraction.

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Mexican Street Food

 

Many culinary destinations in Mexico are recognized because they have been in charge of promoting themselves and making known their benefits; being these states Oaxaca, Puebla or Yucatan. But now, there are many other important destinations in the country that are manifesting themselves as crucial members, something that they did not do before, and that they have a lot to offer. Such destinations include places like Nayarit, Colima, Chiapas, and Mexico City. There are also tourists who will take part in the new trends of cultural consumption. These people are travelers seeking the authenticity of the places they visit through food. They are concerned about the origin of products. To apply some context to these people, understand that when tourists visit in Mexico many may not want the Americanized or gourmet versions of local food, they want what the locals have. The food that locals eat in their daily lives would most likely be street vendors, nice small mom-and-pop shops, or (if they know someone who lives in the place they are visiting, then) home cooking. There is a divide between actual everyday foods and assumed everyday foods in regard to how different cultures are promoted and represented. This divide can be extended to everyday foods in any culture and the expectations surrounding those foods, particularly the expectations of outsiders to that culture. Individual cultures sometimes see their everyday foods as being so commonplace that they deem it to be unworthy of study, or as not particularly insightful in order to gain an understanding of that culture. Yet these foods often give not only insight into the cultures they belong to, but also to the foods and palates of outsiders of that culture. People have recognized the value of gastronomy as a means of socializing, as a space for sharing life with others, for exchanging experiences. Such tourists who go out of the way to eat authentic food have higher than average expenditure and are more appreciative of the food they consume.

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The value of gastronomy as a means of socializing

Tourism, particularly food tourism, allows these communities in Mexico and worldwide to generate income and employment opportunities locally, providing jobs for vineyard tour guides or local chefs, while fuelling other sectors of the local economy such as agriculture. But this also can take a toll on the people just trying to hold on to traditions while maintaining a modern lifestyle by catering to what will capture tourist. This can mean that local workers may slightly change the flavor, spices, presentation of the food they make so tourist will buy from them. Which is ironic since the whole point of culinary tourism is to get “authentic” food.

Additionally, food, and consequently the circumstances under which we consume it, allows us to connect and forge alliances with others. The social act of eating is part of how we become human, as much as speaking and taking care of ourselves. Learning to eat is learning to become human. This could be the other main reason why culinary tourism has become so popular. Fox suggests in Food and Eating: An Anthropological Perspective that “food is almost always shared; people eat together; mealtimes are events when the whole family or settlement or village comes together.  Food is an occasion for sharing… for the expression of altruism” (Fox). This powerful act of food sharing and eating may involve simple everyday foods to extravagant ritual foods, is thus inherently layered with meaning for cultures throughout the globe. How foods are eaten every day or how people join some dietary group are classified as such vary across cultures, and typically offer some insight into cultural norms, tradition, easily accessible ingredients, and the influence of seasonality. Understanding or at least respecting the origins of a culture’s eating habits can only benefit multicultural societies as our global community continues to grow.

 

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Traditional Mexican Food

 

Gastronomic tourism is a local phenomenon that is in a clear growth phase; it has a positive impact on the economy, employment, and local heritage. As tourists seek to get to know not only the local food but also to know its origin and production processes, they are making gastronomic tourism out to be an expression of cultural tourism as well. It has great potential to manifest as the main motivation for tourism trips, despite this type of tourism momentarily being practiced by a minority of tourists. Tourists are helping to create a global conversation about being respectful and inquisitive about Mexican food. They are showing that just through food alone, human interaction has increased through the growing interest of cuisines worldwide.

 

Work Cited

Choi, Amy S. “What Americans Can Learn from Other Food Cultures.” Ideas.ted.com, 18 Dec. 2014.

Clark, Ellen Riojas, and Carmen Tafolla. Tamales, Comadres and the Meaning of Civilization: Secrets, Recipes, History, Anecdotes, and a Lot of Fun. Wings Press, 2011.

Fernández, Elena. “Cómo Llegó La Gastronomía Mexicana a Ser Patrimonio De La Humanidad.” Forbes México, Forbes, 10 Dec. 2016.

Fox, Robin. Food and Eating: An Anthropological Perspective. Social Issues Research Center, 2014.

Pilcher, Jeffrey M. Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food. Oxford University Press, 2017.

World Tourism Organization (2012), Global Report on Food Tourism, UNWTO, 2012, Madrid.