You know both are delicious. Though how do you know the actual difference between the two when presented with your meal? Tex-Mex is an amazing cuisine! Though is actually a different cuisine from authentic traditional Mexican food. Both are glorious, now you’ll impress your foodie friends with your Tex-Mex knowledge.
We are going to first jump right into the differences and then go into a bit of history. It all comes down to ingredients! Back in the 1800’s it was only normal for people to incorporate the ingredients they had most available.
Ingredients that Signify Tex-Mex
Cumin & Chili Powder: This tasty spice came to North America by people of the Canary Islands. This spice is quite prevalent in Tex-Mex and is even considered iconic to Tex-Mex flavor. You may find it fascinating that it was a German immigrant that introduced chili powder. It was a quick hit for making chili con carne. Then it made its way into most other Tex-Mex dishes.
Sweet Corn: Provides an excellent counter to the heat of many dishes. Sweet corn finds itself added to many Tex-Mex favorites. In traditional Mexican cuisine though corn is used as a grain for flours or left whole on the cob.
Sour Cream: Another cooling agent allowing us to pile in more heat. The sour notes of this aptly named ingredient top everything Tex-Mex. South of the border though, they instead use a less sour, thinner version known as crema.
Yellow Cheese (Or lots of cheese): Do you love cheese? I know that I do! For me, there is never enough of it. Traditional Mexican does not use the oodles of cheese that we do. They use white cheeses as well, instead of the yellow cheeses so popular here. If it has cheddar, American slices, velveeta, or colby (a milder form of cheddar actually) then it is Tex-Mex. This does not mean though that you cannot use any of the tasty white cheeses on your Tex-Mex. Cheese in general is used in moderation traditional Mexican. They have no such thing as our beloved queso dip!
Flour Tortillas: Able to reach massive sizes and making for epic burritos. Flour tortillas are a staple of Tex-Mex cuisine. If there is a flour tortilla at all, it is a sure sign of being a Tex-Mex accompaniment. In Mexico all tortillas were traditionally corn. They also tended to be roughly the size of your hand or smaller because they are a lot of work to make by hand. Though more than worth it for the tasty results.
Crispy Taco Shells: Traditional Mexican corn tortillas are the basis. They are then baked or deep fried to make tacos into the stellar street food they are today. While a brilliant take on the traditional, this is definitely not true to Mexican cuisine of old. You may be interested to know that the founder of Taco Bell made this tasty tidbit a global love. Thank you, Mr. Bell.
Beef: In the South we have massive ranches making beef plentiful. This was incorporated into the flavors the Americans encountered. Beef is everywhere in Tex-Mex. Now in recent years, we have been branching off into other meats and even seafood. Beef is still a signature ingredient! Traditional Mexican tends towards seafood in coastal areas. Pork, chicken, and goat prevail in the more inland regions.
Black Beans: Fresh beans were used in traditional Mexican. Anything with canned beans, baked beans, or black beans has a Tex-Mex flair. In Tex-Mex, black beans go in everything from quesadillas and burritos to nachos and tacos.
Canned Vegetables: Likely due to the warmer weather of much of Mexico. They do not seem to have the drive for ingredient preservation that we do in America. Or perhaps it is because they prefer their food as fresh from the source as possible. Lots of canned veggies are used in Tex-Mex. Most notable would be canned tomatoes, such as in chili and canned corn in just about everything.
Now these are not the only indicators. There are other things like preferences in toppings. Tex-Mex tops a lot of things with a pinch of shredded lettuce, red gravies, or cheese. Traditional Mexican tops things with fresh cilantro, lime juice/wedges, and oregano. The ingredients of your dish give immediate clues to the heavier influences of your dish.
The History of Tex-Mex
There is a lot of conflicting evidence, so we will go with the most generally accepted facts here. For Tex-Mex it all started in about the eighteen hundreds! This made official with the chili carts available in many cities in Texas. Where Texans had been inspired by our neighbors tasty meals. Thus they made the delectable creation known as chili con carne. Though we usually refer to it as chili these days. The humble chili is actually the mother of all Tex-Mex in most people’s eyes, would you have guessed that?
As Americans moved into the region they picked up the vivid, fresh, bold flavors of the Mexicans. Those of Northern Mexican and those living in what is now Texas. Keep in mind, traditional Mexican cuisine is difficult to define. This is because it covers such a vast area and is subject to local ingredients. As well as is constantly evolving. The same as Tex-Mex itself or any cuisine is evolving. So as time has gone on, the lines have become fuzzier. This has been sped-up by the ease ingredients are now transported long distances. So many of the things we denoted as not traditional Mexican are now making their way into the cuisine.
We owe a huge thanks to Diana Kennedy. She defined the line between traditional Mexican and Tex-Mex. The word Tex-Mex has been in use since the 1940’s it really encompasses all Americanized Mexican food. And as previously mentioned, we owe thanks to Willie Gebhardt. A German immigrant, for creating chili seasoning by mixing several ground spices together. He popularized the spice which has led to much of our now iconic Tex-Mex seasoning. The influence of this tiny thing has been massive on the Tex-Mex cuisine as a whole.
While we are giving thanks, we also need to thank the creator of Taco Bell. One Mr. Glen Bell for popularizing the crunchy taco shell. He took it nation wide, making it the daily food it now is. Though there are countless other people along the way who need thanked. Such as the person who thought to take their chili con carne to a cart in the city to sell.
Every cuisine is complex and varied across regions. Being a relatively new cuisine lets us trace Tex-Mex well. Though with any history there are many versions to wade through. You will find no matter which way, every version to wade through is tasty!