Heart and Soul of Southwest Cooking

If corn is the heart of southwest cooking – then chile must be the soul!

With Cynthia’s Mexican and Southwest family recipes, you will be able to make the most mouth watering southwest food that you have ever tasted – Guaranteed! Learn everything you need to know about Southwest Cooking.

I come from a family of incredible cooks, so when I retired from nursing, I found it only suiting to follow my passions: Education, Art, and Cooking.  I really see cooking as another form of artistry, and that makes it even more of a passion.  I grew up in the rural Southwest, where all types of “Mexican” foods can be found.

My father and husband are both from New Mexico, so I learned early on that not all Mexican food is the same.  For me, learning even more about the cuisine, it’s origins, and the bright bold flavors it gives us, is something very satisfying.  My father’s family came to New Mexico while it was a territory, his father first and then his mother, arriving right after statehood.

My husband’s family was there even before that.  His parentage comes from Spanish explorer, Alonso varez de Pineda,and a grandmother who was Aztec.  On the Gonzales side there is a kinship to the Mexican Revolutionary General, Pancho Villa (1878-1923), and the famous Apache leader, Cochise (1815-1873). Cochise had some roots into Mexico.

My husband’s grandparents have a history deeply rooted in New Mexico.  His grandmother, Felipa, is a feisty little woman of 4 feet, 5 inches, who weighs in at 75 pounds soaking wet.  She keeps her kitchen the same as those before her did, always ready for a road weary traveler looking for a meal.  I look forward to sharing some of the recipes she has made over the years, so you can taste the Southwest for yourself.

I have seen cooking become a dying art in our young people, my daughter included, and I want to do what I can to help revitalize the joy that comes from making something wonderful to share with those you love.

Cynthia Detterick-Pineda

The Heart and Soul of Southwest Cooking

I do not know how many times I have heard someone say how much they love Mexican food, and then wondered if they had really ever eaten Mexican food. Today’s culture has lumped together almost all types of Hispanic cuisine into one big group.  I happen to love most all types of Latin American cuisine, including Mexican food.  Growing up in the Southwest United States has given me an interesting taste perspective of the various types of foods and cuisines that are available.  With society’s cultural mix, people from all parts of the U.S. have been exposed in at least some way to what is commonly called Mexican food.

So just what makes a food Mexican food, and does it really have anything to do with Mexico? 

If we call something Mexican, then it should be Mexican.  If we call it Tex-Mex, then it should be influenced by the pioneers and settlers into Texas, and by the Ranchers who supply the beef that way.  If it is Cali-Mex, then California cuisine should be fused into the mix.  Fusion cooking is not a new idea, it has been the basis of all culinary evolution since people began to travel among the various parts of the world.  Maybe one of the easiest ways to see this is to look at the variety of food products used in each of these and in true Mexican food.  Of course, we should also consider some of the recipes that have come from each as well.

Mexican Cuisine: The Real Deal:

True Mexican food can be found in all 31 Mexican states and the federal district.  It can also be found in various places around the world where connoisseurs and cooks alike have made Mexican food one of the passions.  Just like the regional variances of the United States, foods in Mexico also vary from one area to another.  This is just a general overview.

Various cultures have added to the foods of Mexico over the years.  Originally, it was mainly the Aztec and Mayan Civilizations with their fruits, vegetables and occasional meats.  In the 1400’s Spanish Conquistadors brought rice and flour that changed the way breads were made, which were originally made from corn.

Some of the most common ingredients in true Mexican cooking consist of:




Cacao (Later to be made into Chocolate)

Fish in the seaside regions


Peppers (yes, the chili kind of peppers, mainly jalapeno chile peppers)







Wild game meats in small quantities

The Aztec and Mayan styles of cooking can still be found in some areas.  The more “exotic” ingredients in their cuisine can include iguana, rattlesnake, deer, spider monkey, and insects.  These proteins were the ones available to the ancient Indians inhabiting the area.

Tamales were an invention of early Mexican cooks, used much as we do a sandwich today.  They were small, portable, and a good meal for the warrior on the go.

Until the arrival of the Spanish, the meals were usually bland.  When the Spanish Conquistadors came to the Americas, they brought other varieties of flour and new recipes.  The introduction of wheat flour and rice changed the way starches such as bread and tortillas were made.  Spanish rice came with the Spanish and Quesadillas were introduced.  Oregano, sugar, cinnamon, black pepper, and cilantro came with the Spanish.  This began the evolution of Mexican food as we know it today.

During French occupation of Mexico, even more new foods were introduced.  What we know of today as the Bunuelos is believed to have come from the breads made during this time.

Onions and garlic, found in most all variations of Mexican and Native American foods may have came in with the European invaders, but the presence of these bulb plants being here already in a wild form along with cilantro, may mean the species used was changed, not the ingredient.  Even species to species, taste change.

The Spaniards and the French took some of the native foods home, and introduced them into their own cuisine.  Mexican food has become a world traveler.


New Mexican Cuisine – Land of Enchantment and Enchanting Foods:

If any cuisine comes close to true Mexican cooking, then this would have to be the one.  After all, New Mexico was part of Mexico up until 1848, and was not even admitted into statehood until 1916.  Over the past 100 years New Mexico has come far in it’s recognition as a real state (and yes, there are still a few people out there who have yet to realize that New Mexico is not a part of Mexico).

Mainly Navajo, Apache, and various other tribes and pueblo dwellers inhabited the area of New Mexico before the Spanish occupation.  New Mexico remains in the top three states having the largest Native American populations.  This without a doubt has influenced New Mexican cooking.

Cooking in New Mexico is probably best associated with the chilies grown there.  Jalapenos are not often the pepper of choice when it comes to New Mexican cooking.  It is instead the long green variety.  Two areas of the state well known for their Hatch Chile Peppers are Hatch in the South Central region and Chimayo a small village tucked away in Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Santa Fe.

New Mexican Cooking, like Mexican cooking, pulls in many of the foods of its native inhabitants:




Fish in the seaside regions


Long Green Chile Peppers

Red Chile Peppers (same as long green, only allowed to ripen and usually dried.

Pins aka Pine nuts



Other indigenous plants such as Cacti, Mesquite and many other plants along the roadside that we think of as weeds.

What had affected Mexican cooking in the past, also affected New Mexican cooking.  Contributions by the indigenous people of the areas did vary, however.  Indian Fry Bread – Indian Tacos is a flour based bread almost identical to the Sopapillas and is found in many places across New Mexico.  New Mexican cuisine may be defined more in the way it is cooked, rather than the ingredients in general.   Comino (cumin) which is most common in Tex-Mex cooking, is used little in New Mexican cooking.  Cumin is not a Mexican spice, as many believe, but a Middle Eastern Spice.

Tex-Mex Cuisine – Here Comes the Cowboy Influences:

When Texas calls itself “A whole other Country,” I sometimes wonder if they would not be better off calling themselves “A whole lot of countries put together”. Tex-Mex was one of the original spin-offs from Mexican cooking that really strayed far from its roots.

Texas is the land of cattle ranches, oil wells and big appetites looking for big bold flavors.  Mexican food on it’s own can be bold, colorful, and bursting full of flavor, but Tex-Mex has done it’s best to make it a unique cuisine, with only a few of the roots left intact in many of it’s dishes.

Tex-Mex was the driving force behind many of the establishments people consider Mexican food, both fine dining and fast food.  It may have even been the starting point of mass-producing the spicy and savory dishes that we have come to consider as Mexican food.  Although street vendors are common throughout Mexico and Central America, so they are the real pioneers.  What many people do not realize is that Mexican food and Tex-Mex are only cousins in the culinary world.

The pioneers and settlers to Texas were more influential on Tex-Mex cuisine than any other group of peoples.  The cattle ranchers brought beef, which although it had been introduced previously into Mexican cuisine, was prevalent in many dishes.  It was even added to dishes, which previously were meatless (Enchiladas in particular).  In fact, enchiladas are one of the best examples of how all these cuisines vary on one single dish, so we will take a better look at shortly, and maybe you will even get a good taste as well!  Pioneers coming from other parts of the country, and even other countries, were bringing the flavors of their culture into Texas, and these would be mixed into Tex-Mex cooking as well.

The 1830’s marked the beginning of German immigration into Texas.  By the time of the Civil war, Texas had numerous German settlements.  Many of these were near San Antonio, which is often considered the heart of Tex-Mex cooking.  Although it most likely originated in the Middle East, sour cream was a favorite in Germany and came in with the settlers.  Sour cream is among one of the stapes of Tex-Mex food, for both cooking and as a cooling garnish.

Tex-Mex is noted for its unique usage of sour cream, large amounts of cheese and meat, heavy use of Comino (cumin), jalapenos, and even olives.  Tex-Mex was a fusion just waiting to happen, and it continues to evolve even today.

Cali-Mex Cuisine:

California is another state sharing a border with Mexico, as well as a history of being a part of Mexico.  California cooking would bring even more new and unique taste combinations to Mexican cooking.  Fresh vegetables and fruits grown in the state would help to do this.

The meats are most often shredded, not ground like Tex-Mex cooking, and the recipes are consistent with a lot of California cuisine in that fact they are “lighter.” They still contain a bright, bold taste, just a bit of a different taste.

Even Cali-Mex has its divisions.  People in the north are accustomed to one sort of cooking, while people down near the Baja peninsula prefer “Baja Mex”.

This is the same all over, each region adds to or takes from the basic recipes of Mexican cooking, and makes it their own.  These are unique recipes, often passed down to family members.  For some families, these may be the die-hard traditions of holidays, family celebrations and their own “comfort food.”

Mexitalian Cuisine:

Ok, I will admit it. I don’t know if something like this actually exists as a term or not.  I just had to add it, with a comment made by my parents after a trip into the Northeast a few years back.

While on a long RV trip up into the North East part of the US, through Eastern Canada and into Nova Scotia, my parents got a craving for some Mexican food. They were camped somewhere in Vermont and found a restaurant they thought would satisfy this craving.  The food looked good on the plate when it was brought out, but the first bite would bring disappointment to satisfying their craving.  They said the taste was definitely Italian.

Now I am not saying the food was bad, or there is anything wrong with the spin the restaurant had on their cooking, it just was not Mexican food.

There are many shared ingredients in Italian and Mexican cooking, as well as other cuisines, so flavorings could be similar depending on the cooking method.  I think that true Mexican food, or any of the variations from it, should be called just what it is and be proud for what it is.

There are followers for each and every one of these variations and some who love them all.  There are those who will go to blows over the classification of a meal, and those who just want whatever “Mexican food” is presented to them.

So next time you think you want Mexican food, stop and think is it really Mexican food you want?


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Comments and Reviews

3 Responses to “Heart and Soul of Southwest Cooking”

  1. Don Crawfort

    We have a group of people from all areas of Texas, Texas has 7 distinct area of Mexican Cuisine ; most are about the same, but different textures and flavors.
    There are 30 couples from across Texas and 3 from the Albuquerque area that travel to different states yearly and meet in various states each year for a reunion.
    We always have two cook-off’s each year at the RV campground (RKO); one BBQ and one Mexican Food. We invite the other travelers there to judge our cuisines of the day.
    Over an eight year span Tex-Mex wins 8
    out of 10 times unless we are in New Mexico or south Texas.
    So our little group feels , that Tex-Mex is preferred nation wide over the other styles.
    Tex-Mex has a smooth flavor without the bitter Twain and without an extreme heat of the chili, that we find out in New Mexico and south Texas.
    A smooth combination of flavors from mild spices and a slight kiss of chili . Most people across the nation want to add there hot sauce or chili and most preferred Pico for their extra flavor.
    Stop pushing the over bearing bitterness and excessive hot Mexican Food of New Mexico; it is not the #1 pick of America . Get out run your own research with cooks from each of the southwest areas, and travel the US

    • Nancy

      This sounds like fun, we need to come find you next year!

  2. Josh

    Nowhere in the article did she push any particular variety of Mexican food she simply stated that New Mexican food was closest to actual Mexican food because of its location and people. I travel extensively from California to Texas and prefer the New Mexican variety due to its chili which I believe is at the heart of Mexican food. Many can’t handle the heat and therefore do not like the southern Texas or New Mexican variety.


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