As with many other things that have been Americanized, Cinco de Mayo, north of Mexico, loses quite a bit of its original backstory. When it comes to the local Tex-Mex restaurant or cantina, most people are used to super margarita deals or BOGO tacos when, in reality, Cinco de Mayo involves neither of those things. In fact, nary a taco is in sight when this holiday rolls around!
Contrary to popular belief, Cinco de Mayo isn't even a celebration of Mexican independence. It's a celebration of a victory, yes - but not the one many people associate the day with. The association of tacos and margaritas with the fifth of May is very similar to the association of corned beef and cabbage with St. Patrick's Day on March 17th. Just as the holiday was once a somber day of worship in Ireland, Cinco de Mayo has a very special and unique meaning in Mexico. If you're looking to celebrate the authenticity of this day, along with its true purpose, there are some dishes - and histories - to know about.
What Does Cinco de Mayo Celebrate?
The victory that Cinco de Mayo celebrates came during the Franco-Mexican War when Mexico won the Battle of Puebla. This war followed the country's independence from Spain which is often when confusion occurs between the two wars. The holiday is most commonly celebrated in the city of Puebla, despite the fact that it has moved its way north into the U.S., as well. During this holiday, you won't find anyone eating tacos, ordering nachos, or mixing up fruity margaritas.
The food eaten on Cinco de Mayo is authentic, traditional Mexican food, that has roots much further back than that of America's Tex-Mex. In fact, ground beef seasoning with taco seasoning, nacho-style tacos, and canned refried beans would almost be laughable in Mexico, let alone nowhere to be found.
Traditional Cinco de Mayo Dishes
To muddy the holiday up with homemade tacos would be to disregard the culinary capital that Puebla is. According to Smithsonian, the town of Cholula was home to pre-Colombian street food, and it was here that vendors would set their carts and tables up outside of the pyramid in order to serve hungry customers. Not far from this ancient city sits the town of Puebla, which is also where many of the most traditional dishes made for Cinco de Mayo come from. These dishes have a long history with the area and continue to be rooted in Puebla's culture, with families making them the same way generation after generation.
Chalupas are quite a simple dish but one that has an authentic street food reputation. To start, fresh tortillas are fried and then topped with shredded meat, chopped onions, and fresh salsa. Occasionally, queso fresco is crumbled over the top for a slightly salty, refreshing bite. While chalupas seem fairly modern, they're actually an ancient food that is said to have spanned all the way back to Colonial times. Chalupas have also been said to have been named after the Aztec name for 'boat.'
The most popular dish made for Cinco de Mayo is undoubtedly mole poblano, according to Smithsonian, and it also has deep roots in the ancient city. According to Puebla history, mole sauce was first made in the 17th century by Sor Andrea de la Asunción at the Santa Rosa convent. The sauce itself is a beautiful blending (no pun intended) of traditional ingredients and new flavors, bringing them together to create something altogether delicious. What's so amazing about mole sauce are the layers of flavor that can be tasted within it - by means of roasting certain things to bring out their robust undertones, the sauce becomes thick, savory, and slightly sweet. It coats whatever it's poured over entirely, sitting like an inviting blanket of flavors and warmth just waiting to be dived into.
Chiles en Nogada
The origin of chiles en nogada is said to go back to the convent of Santa Monica, where it was made for Agustin de Iturbide upon a visit in 1821. As Mexico's first emperor following the country's independence from Spain, the dish was symbolic of its freedom. Therefore, the colors of Mexico's flag can be seen throughout the dish. Red from the pomegranate seeds that adorn the top, white from a delicious walnut sauce, and green from the picadillo-stuffed poblano pepper. This dish is also made on Mexico's independence day but it can be found during Cinco de Mayo, as well.