The “DF”: Mexico’s Beating Heart
Short for Distrito Federal, the DF is Mexico’s beating heart. It is there that the country’s culinary, cultural, and economic engines converge. With more than 24 million inhabitants, Mexico City is one of the largest cities in the world. It is also a diverse cultural crossroads and mecca for all things culinary; a place where 1,000-year-old pre-Columbian traditions exist alongside the haute cuisine and cutting edge trends of a sophisticated modern city. Known throughout the world for this juxtaposition of old and new, Mexico City is as complex as it is large. No other place in Mexico provides more insight into the ingredients, regional foods, and cultures—a mixture of indigenous, Spanish, French, and Arabic—than this exciting city.
The Valley of Mexico: A Cultural and Culinary Crossroads
Surrounded by a ring of active snow-capped volcanoes, the Valley of Mexico is where advanced civilizations like Teotihuacan flourished and the powerful Aztec empire ruled over Mesoamerica. One of the most sophisticated pre-Columbian cities, it boasted a series of raised agricultural beds called chinampas transformed shallow lake beds into fertile gardens and extensive trade networks connected the Valley of Mexico to distant lands.
Precious goods like gold, turquoise, silver, cacao, vanilla, and chiles were brought from far and wide in tribute to the Aztec emperor. These products ultimately made their way to the city’s great markets. Chronicles written by Spanish Conquistadors described enormous markets teeming with foods from every corner of Mesoamerica—like fish and seafood harvested from the Pacific and Gulf coasts, wild game, edible insects, fruits, vegetables, and even prepared foods.
Mexico’s Tradition of Antojitos
The Spanish were also amazed to see the sale of prepared “street foods” when they arrived in Mexico, as this custom was uncommon in contemporary Medieval Europe. Today, walking down the streets of Mexico City, you can still find many of the same prepared foods that Hernán Cortés and others described more than 500 years ago. Food from every region of Mexico, including tortas, sopes, tamales, chalupas, tostadas, and quesadillas, can be found there.
These antojitos are more than just food; they are part of the cultural fabric. Neither the verb “antojar” or the noun “antojito” have equivalent translations in the English language. These words describe an intangible concept and state of being—the art of eating and relishing something simply for the sake of pure enjoyment, a purely Mexican phenomenon.
Whether on an empty or full stomach, the aromas of antojitos like succulent adobo seasoned tacos al pastor, moist tacos de canasta made with chicharrón prensado, mouthwatering pork carnitas—are all captivating. In Mexico, street foods tantalize all the senses, not just the taste buds. Take the vendors of roasted sweet camotes who sound a high-pitched whistle as they roll their carbon-fired carts through the streets; the sizzling, concave comales utilized as street side fryers for every imaginable masa-based antojito; or the aluminum tamaleras letting billows of steam into the air as nourishing atole is served alongside Mexico’s ancient tradition of tamales. Attempting to capture or describe Mexico’s unique and complex gastronomic tradition of antojitos is as difficult as trying to understand Mexico itself.
Perhaps there is no better place to illustrate the element of contrast than Mexico City’s fine-dining scene, where common street foods are transformed and reinterpreted. Many of Latin America’s top chefs impart their own cocina de autor as they redefine textures, flavor profiles, and presentation associated with classic antojitos.