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What are Tex-Mex Enchiladas?

In this post, I want to share my recipe to make quick vegetarian Tex-Mex enchiladas and a side of guacamole. Scroll down for the recipe. I also want to tell you the history of enchiladas and their place in Mexican and Mexican-American cultures.

But first, I want to tell you that traditional Mexican enchiladas are very different from Tex-Mex enchiladas...and that many of you, like me may have really never tried the former.

Lets begin.

With origins in Texas, the term Tex-Mex refers to Texas influenced Mexican food.

Thrillist suggests that historically, when Anglo-American settlers marched Westward into what is now Texas, they encountered Mexican cultures and cuisines. Over time, given the popularity of the cuisine, they started to cook versions of that cuisine in their own kitchens. They used classic Texan ingredients like beef, flour and cheese that are not that common in authentic Mexican cuisine. And this cuisine started to be called Tex-Mex.

When you order enchiladas at a Mexican restaurant, you are likely to get a baked dish of flour tortillas, a beef filling and lots of cheese. I know now that this is Americanized Mexican food.

My Mexican friends will tell you that an authentic enchilada tortilla is made from corn or maize, and never flour. Their enchiladas typically never use cumin, but often use chili peppers so the spice level is higher.

Laurie Wilson (2018) who writes in the Chowhound suggests that while Tex Mex enchiladas have lots of Cheddar-looking cheese on the top of the dish, traditional enchiladas have a white cheese like Cotija which is 'tucked into the tortilla.'

She says the cooking methods are different too:

"Tex-Mex enchiladas involve rolling or folding the flour tortillas around the filling and then smothering it in a gravy/sauce and cooking. The Mexican enchilada is first dipped in a spicy chile sauce (made from dried chiles and tomatillos), and then fried or grilled in oil slightly. It is then filled."

This was definitely new information for me and as an anthropologist, it got me curious.

So, wow. Many Mexican enchilada varieties are not baked in the oven!

I learned something else. Food is always and will always be a very strong part of one's cultural identity, and even in the diaspora, it is really the last thing to go. It is not surprising then that across generations of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, the enchilada has been central to their identity. Ruben Hernandez from Latino Perspectives Magazine states "Enchiladas are tightly interwoven with Mexico’s sense of identity, and even more so for Mexico’s expatriates in the United States, who claim enchiladas as a symbol of ethnic heritage, cultural pride and family unity."

So, that's some history behind the enchilada - the authentic one and the Tex-Mex one. I have never eaten a traditional enchilada so I am going to try and find a restaurant here in Los Angeles that can introduce me to one that is almost authentic - you, know - vegetarian and all.

Meanwhile, last night, I made easy vegetarian enchiladas for my family. I did not make anything from scratch - I used bottled red enchilada sauce, ready-to-go wheat tortillas and shredded Mexican cheese, probably not cojita. The only thing that was fresh was home-cooked rice, pressure-cooked black beans, fresh and sauteed corn, broccoli and carrots.

Now that I know what a Tex-Mex enchilada is, I think that's clearly what I made. I need to up my game with going authentic and cooking from scratch - Yes, I know. But this was practical, cost-effective and slightly healthier than a restaurant meal on a busy week day.