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Most Americans (including myself) have grown up on Tex-Mex thinking it was traditional Mexican cooking. I was able to eat traditional Mexican (I thought) at a small cafe in downtown Denver. It was delicious and savory.

My question is what is traditional and what is Tex-Mex? What spices are used, etc?

I see sour cream, cheese, etc., in Tex-Mex but the traditional was a taco platter, stewed meat or meat in a sauce, a bit of garnish but absolutely delicious! Simple but great flavor. Thanks!

(To clarify my statement to avoid confusion, I like Tex-Mex but the "traditional" Mexican I believe I experienced was delicious, simple and different. I was seeking spices used to differentiate, ingredients used in traditional and not used, and example dishes)

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The existing answer seemed confusing to me, so I thought I'd do some research and post an answer.

Distinguishing paragraphs of the article for me are:

The cuisine we now call Tex-Mex is rooted in the state's Tejano culture (Texans of Spanish or Mexican heritage who lived in Texas before it became a republic) and also Mexican immigrants who hailed largely from Northern Mexico. Until the 1970s, though, most people referred to it simply as Mexican food.

and

If you're looking to identify the distinguishing characteristics of Tex-Mex, enchiladas are a good case study. In the classic Tex-Mex version of cheese enchiladas, grated yellow cheese is wrapped in tortillas, and then covered in a dark red chili sauce mixed with ground beef. You'll also find other typical Tex-Mex ingredients like pinto beans and rice served on the side.

and

But Iliana de la Vega, the chef and owner of the Mexican restaurant El Naranjo in Austin, never ate cheese enchiladas while growing up in Mexico City. She recalls eating foods like chiles rellenos and salads composed of chayote or nopales. Beef was a bit of a rarity. "In traditional Mexican cooking, we eat a lot of chicken and a lot of pork," she explained. If they had enchiladas, they were usually smothered in a green tomatillo sauce or mole, and sprinkled with a white cheese. "My mother was from Oaxaca, so we had mole maybe twice or three times a month," she said.

and

Another difference is the abundant use of cumin in Tex-Mex cuisine. "We use it a lot in the north, but it's not a spice we use much in the southern part of Mexico," says de la Vega. Robb Walsh links the heavy use of cumin to the first wave of Canary Islanders who emigrated to San Antonio in the 1700s. Today it's still a key ingredient in chili con carne, along with chili powder, which, according to Walsh, is a uniquely Texan invention developed by a German immigrant in New Braunfels in the late 1890s. In the late 1800's, chili con carne was regularly ladled out at bargain prices in the streets of San Antonio at its famed chili stands. "Tex-Mex was never the cuisine of the upper echelon of society," Bayless observes. "It's a peasant, working class cuisine."

but Tex-Mex has been evolving too:

The Tex-Mex that most of us think of, full of Velveeta cheese and pre-made taco shells, was shaped by the development of convenience foods in the 1950s. That time period left Tex-Mex, and even Mexican food in general, with a reputation as "just a cheap cuisine, full of sour cream and processed cheese, and that everything is greasy," says de la Vega.

[Source: http://www.seriouseats.com/2014/05/draft-tex-mex-and-mexican.html]

Summing up: Cheese enchiladas, chilli con carne, use of beef, and use of cumin, etc separate Tex-Mex from traditional Mexican.

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I'm not an expert by any means, but here's my understanding of the situation:

  • There are many different regional cooking styles in Mexico, not all similar to the northern Mexican food upon which Tex-Mex is based.
  • Overall, relative to Tex-Mex cooking, there tends to be less focus on heat, cheese, and beef.
  • Cheddar cheese is a more recent addition in some northern Mexican cuisines (eg, Sonoran).
  • Although wheat is used (for rolls, empenadas, etc.), flour tortillas are typically only in northern Mexican cuisine.

Common "Mexican" dishes that were created in the United States : fajitas (Tex-Mex, inspired by arracheras), mission-style burritos (San Francisco), chimichangas (Arizona).

  • I think this hits the most important point. There are very different traditional regional cuisines in Mexico, some as different from each other as they are from Tex-Mex. – SourDoh Nov 13 '14 at 16:41
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I've found that most authentic Mexican food is much milder than people realize. Some regions do have a lot of spice (heat) in their foods (like Oaxaca where they are known for moles), but these spicy regions aren't the norm. Usually authentic Mexican food uses a lot of flavorful but not hot spices. Mexicans do use cheese, but not cheddar like us and not as often. Their cheese usually comes from specific regions. I always think of Tex-Mex as good food (depending on the chef of course) but not Mexican.

This is from Wikipedia:

"Tex-Mex" (portmanteau of Texan and Mexican) is a term describing a regional American cuisine that blends food products available in the United States and the culinary creations of Tejanos influenced by Mexican cuisine. The cuisine has spread from border states such as Texas and those in the Southwestern United States to the rest of the country as well as Canada. Tex-Mex is most popular in the state of Texas. Tex-Mex is very different from the Southwest cuisine found in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. In some places, particularly outside of Texas, "Tex-Mex" is used to describe a localized version of Mexican cuisine. It is common for all of these foods to be referred to as "Mexican food" in Texas, other parts of the United States, and some other countries. In other ways, it is Southern cooking using the commodities from Mexican culture. In many parts of the U.S. outside of Texas the term is synonymous with Southwestern cuisine. Common dishes: Some ingredients are common in Mexican cuisine, but other ingredients not typically used in Mexico are often added. Tex-Mex cuisine is characterized by its heavy use of shredded cheese, meat (particularly beef and pork), beans, and spices, in addition to Mexican-style tortillas. Dishes such as Texas-style chili con carne and fajitas are all Tex-Mex inventions.[citation needed] Moreover, Tex-Mex has imported flavors from other spicy cuisines, such as the use of cumin (common in Indian cuisine, but used in only a few central Mexican recipes).

  • I'm not debating your answer, but there's a few things that I'm not clear about from reading your answer. You've used the word "spice" in at least 3 different ways in the first few lines of your answer, in terms of heat, as in actual spices (like cumin) as well as for Cilantro, which is technically a herb. Also, it appears you're suggesting Mexican food is blander than Tex-Mex, but in your third sentence you suggest they use "a lot of flavorful, but not hot spices". It seems those contradict a bit? – talon8 Nov 6 '14 at 20:32
  • When I said blander, I was actually thinking milder (more mild?). I've edited to say milder. I also removed the cilantro sentence. They do use it a lot, but you're right, it's not a spice. – Brooke Nov 7 '14 at 13:18

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