Today I’m dissecting a modern San Francisco burrito to reveal a little bit about the origin and history of the ingredients. Europe and Asia contributed wheat, cheese, onions, beef, pork, chicken, and rice; the Americas contributed the tortilla, beans, salsa making techniques, chiles, tomatoes, and avocados.
Flour tortilla: The corn tortilla is an ancient food, but wheat flour did not arrive in Mexico until the Spanish conquest of the 16th century. Wheat-flour tortillas are most popular in Northern Mexico (and Texas). I have not yet seen a good explanation for this, but imagine that the agricultural conditions are an important reason. Corn tortillas are delicious but make lousy burritos because they have little strength or flexibility. Wheat-flour tortillas, on the other hand, are rich with gluten and can be stretched, stressed and folded to hold more filling that you would expect.
Beans: Part of the critical trinity of the pre-Columbian Mexican diet, the other two being corn and squash.
Meat: Most of today’s meat fillings (Chile Colorado, Carne Asada, grilled chicken) were imported by the Spanish. Sokolov (see below for full citation) writes that the Aztecs and Maya only domesticated a few animals: the turkey, the Muscovy duck, the dog, the bee and the cochineal insect (used for making a red dye). In the Andes the list also included the guinea pig and various camelids (like the llama). Wild-caught animals, like game birds, fish, and other seafood were certainly an important part of the diet.
Cheese: Dairy cows, sheep and goats were unknown to the pre-Columbian Americans. The tropical Mexican climate is not conducive to cheese making, so the cheeses of Mexico are generally simple and fresh, or simple and well-aged. The cheese that typically goes into burritos is a mild melting cheese like Monterey Jack.
Tomatoes: They originated in South America and were carried north over time to Mexico. The Aztec word tomatl meant “plump fruit,” and they called the tomato xitomatl. The tomatillo (Physalis ixocarpa, tomate verde, husk tomato) was called miltomatl. The Spaniards called both fruits tomate. This page at the Texas A & M Aggie Horticulture Network has an interesting story about how the tomato was introduced to the United States via Europe.
Chiles: Chiles (genus Capsicum) are native to the Americas, and evidence indicates that Native Americans were cultivating them over 5,500 years ago. The credit (or blame) for naming this vegetable the “chile pepper” is usally given to Columbus, who was reminded of black pepper (Piper nigrum) by the New World chiles’ heat. This means, of course, that until the Spanish voyages of the 15th and 16th century, cuisines that are today associated with fire (Thai) did not receive the chile until relatively recently. Visit Center for New Crops & Plant Products at Purdue University for plenty more about chiles.
Cilantro: Also known as coriander (Latin name: Coriandrum sativum), this pungent herb is indigenous to Southern Europe and has been cultivated around the Mediterranean Sea for thousands of years.
Onions: Onions most likely originated in Central Asia and were first cultivated over 5000 years ago. Pictures of onions have been found on ancient Egyptian tomb paintings. Onions came to Mexico as part of the Columbian Exchange. (Source: National Onion Association)
Garlic: Today, garlic grows wild only in Central Asia, but earlier its range might have been from Eastern Europe to China. Garlic is one of the earliest crops cultivated by humans: 5000 years ago in India and Egypt, 4000 years ago in China. Visit a USDA’s post on “The origins and distribution of garlic” for more details.
Avocado: The Food timeline website says that the avocado is from southern Mexico and was first cultivated around about 1,000 B.C. See also the California Avocado Commission and the Accidental Hedonist’s recent post.