The History of Mexican Chilaquiles

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Chilaquiles with salsa, cilantro and cheese.
Chilaquiles with salsa, cilantro and cheese. (Image: jstephenlee/iStock/Getty Images)

Chilaquiles have a storied history. Early American recipes defined this simple dish in a way that corrupted its flavors, its significance and its tradition. Today it is still a staple for many Mexican families, providing traditional fare with the most classic ingredients and transmitting historical clues with every bite.

All About Texture

Chilaquiles are, in their most basic form, a collection of tortilla pieces, usually fried, with a chili sauce poured over them. The crunchy fried tortillas begin to soften and absorb the liquid of whatever sauce they are immersed in. The prime time to eat chilaquiles is between textures, when they are no longer crunchy but have not yet turned completely soft.

Humble Beginnings

The word chilaquiles comes from the ancient Nahuatl word for "chilis and greens." The Nahuatl language was used by the Aztecs. It originated in Central Mexico and is still spoken today in select communities. Chilaquiles are a very common food in many Mexican families, owing to a traditional legacy that has existed for hundreds of years. They came to America via "The Spanish Cook" by Encarnación Pinedo in 1898. However, this recipe did not fully appreciate or replicate the simple beauty of real chilaquiles.

Pretty With Purpose

Part of the beauty of chilaquiles lies in the incredible versatility of the dish. Though the basic ingredients only required fried tortillas and a chile sauce, nearly every variation includes additional ingredients and garnishes. Chicken, onions, eggs, queso fresco and other additions are found in many chilaquiles recipes. Chilaquiles were made as a base, which could be added to as ingredients became available. Often these ingredients were identifying markers of a particular region or family.

Form Follows Function

Chilaquiles are created using ingredients that are widely available and cheap. Their function often has been to extend the use of expensive proteins in dishes. Small pieces of meat, cheese, or eggs could be added to a plate of chilaquiles, providing a large amount of calories while only using a fraction of the expensive ingredients. The dish was created as a budget conscious standby, and now it has become a home cooked classic.

Cultural Significance

Chilaquiles provide an important reminder of the history of Mexican cuisine. Tortillas are made from the corn that constitutes the majority of diet in Central America. Tortillas and corn are what rice is to southern China. Chilis grow widely in Central America and provide a much needed spice and flavor boost to the bland tastes of corn. These two ingredients combine to form the basic of chilaquiles. Their significance lies in their tradition, their function as a staple of budget conscious families and their incredible versatility.

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