As you travel through the USA, sampling regional specialties in fabulous cities, you’ll sometimes feel that you’ve woken up in Europe. So much of the American cuisine has been adapted from the culture of the early European settlers. But American food is evolving, helped by a steady influx of new global influences fusing other cultures with the established traditions.
In the must-see cities, this ethos is typified in the variety of cuisines available. The slow food movement, artisanal producers, locavore gourmets, and agritourism, are global trends. A Vancouver or New York will be home to Generation Food, the nose-to-tail diners whose dream of bliss involves raising organic hogs and making pate for the rest of their lives. But there is a homegrown alternative. Exciting world travels has taken you to the big cities and smaller towns but this is about the rancher, the cowboy and the foods that won the west.
Missionaries, Cowboys and Ranchers Away from the cities and their magnetic vibe, you’ll find an altogether more rugged, homespun American style of cooking and eating. A style that relies on honest, earthy food, the stick-to-your-ribs dishes to fill up a hungry man who’s been out all day, riding the range, branding steers or mending miles of fencing.
The roots of Southwestern food and Tex-Mex cuisine began with the Spanish missionaries who introduced European livestock, fruits, and vegetables. During the Mission Era, these newcomers worked with the indigenous people, teaching them about the Old World and along the way there would have been a cross pollination of ideas.
By the time these missionaries arrived, the Native Americans had three main crops, beans, squash, and corn. These were known as the three sisters. The missionaries would have encouraged the growing of other crops and animal husbandry. Sheep, pigs, horses, and cattle were all animals that were introduced from the Old World.
And so it came to the point, out in the far flung outposts and isolated cattle ranches where a unique, regional cuisine was born. In the days of the old frontier, spices and recipes from Mexico, traveled all over the southwest. Texas and California were part of Spanish territory then and the cooking styles developed from this shared heritage.
This regional cuisine, like all American fare, has been adapted over decades from several key elements. Known as “Tex-Mex”, (a portmanteau of Texan and Mexican) this hybrid nosh has traveled as far afield as Paris. Southwestern cuisine is similar to Mexican cuisine but since there are many local variations, we’ll take a look at the most popular and what, as a foodie tourist, you’ll be likely to meet.
Spanish colonial settlers, cowboys, Native Americans, and Mexicans throughout the post-Columbian era would have eaten this type of food. Spicy and robust, it relies heavily on corn, beans and meat.
Where to Find It
You’ll be most likely to find Southwestern Cuisine in the states of New Mexico, Arizona, California, Texas, Colorado, Nevada and Utah. The terms ‘Southwestern’ and ‘Tex-Mex’ are often used interchangeably because many key foods associated with southwestern cooking are also identified as Tex-Mex. In Texas, it’s often simply called “Mexican food.”Burritos, chile rellenos, quesadillas, chili con queso, pozole and the classic, chili con carne are well known “Tex-Mex” favorites. Along with nachos, fajitas, tacos, taquitos, taco salad and stuffed peppers, these foods are recognized by adventurous eaters everywhere.
Just when you thought you had it figured out, each state will have its own local take on a dish so you’ll get a California burrito, an Arizona cheese crisp or a Colorado burrito.
Menudo, a traditional Mexican soup and King Ranch Chicken, a popular Tex-Mex casserole, are also specifically southwestern dishes. Then there are other, more exotic foods to try like Rattlesnake fillet, which the writer, Alistair Cooke says tastes “just like chicken, only tougher.”
How to Find It
True Tex-Mex, as we know it today, began with the “chili queens” in San Antonio in the late 1800s providing plentiful helpings of chili and beans and a tortilla, all for a dime. While excellent Tex-Mex food is native to Texas, it can’t be limited to only one place. As a transplanted Texas native says, no such thing as a “best” Tex-Mex restaurant exists. The family owned restaurants have to be recommended by locals. It is the only way to find out where to go.This is the time to get out there, meet residents and connect with the locals. Start with the people you meet at your lodging, ask them where to go. An ice-cold beer and a pot of chili, together with a wedge of freshly baked cornbread is a quintessential Tex-Mex meal.
Follow these tips from Exciting World Travels to judge a restaurant even before you get sight of the food. Firstly, it must be family-owned, and slightly shabby (never dirty). Secondly, if it’s been added onto (to accommodate more patrons), well so much the better. Thirdly, the other customers must be plentiful and represent a cross section of society, look for laborers and lawyers and if there are Hispanic folks, you’ve hit the jackpot!
Planning your vacation is so much better when you can get a taste of what to expect. This easy recipe produces an authentic chili without much fuss, feeds a crowd and lets you show off your culinary skills. And you can say you found it on your exciting world travels.
Assemble some friends, grab a cold Dos Equis or Corona and put on your apron…
Texas Chili Con Carne, California Style
Feeds 6 – 8
5 slices smoked streaky bacon
1 kg (2 lbs) good, grass-fed, ground beef
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 large green pepper, finely diced
5 cloves garlic, minced or use your garlic press
45 – 60 ml (3 – 4 Tbs) chili powder
15 ml (1 Tbs) ground cumin
10 ml (2 tsp) paprika
10 ml (2 tsp) dried oregano
30 – 45 ml (2 – 3 Tbs) tomato paste
1 bottle of beer
4 blocks of bitter chocolate or 30 ml (2 Tbs) unsweetened cocoa powder
1 – 800 gram (28-oz) can whole tomatoes, crushed (you can use a potato masher)
375 ml (1-1/2 C) beef broth, plus more if needed
2 – 425 gram(15-oz) cans of black beans, drained and rinsed
Salt to taste
Hot sauce to taste
The How To
Fry the bacon in a large, heavy based saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat until crisp. Drain on a paper towel, and when cool, crumble and reserve.
Using the same pan, leave 1 tablespoon of bacon fat in it (reserve the rest of the drippings). Increase the heat to medium high, and brown the beef, crumbling the meat with a wooden spoon. Put the browned beef in a bowl and wipe out the pan with a paper towel.
In the same saucepan, heat 1 tablespoon of the reserved bacon fat over medium-high heat. Add the onion and bell pepper and cook, stirring, until soft. Then add the garlic, chili powder, cumin, paprika, oregano and tomato paste and cook, stirring, until the tomato paste is brick red, adding a spoon or two of water if the mixture begins to catch). Pour in the beer and simmer until almost entirely reduced, about 3 minutes.
To this mixture, add the beef and any juices from the bowl. Add the tomatoes, beef broth and beans and bring to a simmer over low heat, then add the blocks of chocolate or cocoa powder. Cook, stirring from time to time, until the chili thickens slightly.This will take about one and a half hours.
Taste the finished product but be careful not to burn your mouth. Stir in hot sauce and season to taste with salt. If the chili is too thick add a bit of beef broth or boiling water but not too much.
Serve in bowls with warm, flour or corn tortillas or freshly baked cornbread
Top with shredded cheddar or jack cheese, finely sliced green onions and sour cream, (for that California southwestern touch)