How Regional Influences Help to Define Food

Visit Taqueria27, a place that might very well sell the best tacos in Salt Lake City, and you’ll get a quesadilla with cheese in it. The restaurant’s quesadilla is described on the menu as a “cheese blend melted inside flour tortillas served with chipotle sour cream dip.” Perhaps that description sounds familiar to you. But what if you attempted to buy quesadillas in Mexico City from a street vendor?

Mexico City quesadillas come loaded with things like mushrooms, corn fungus, and chicken. They do not come with cheese. That’s right, a quesadilla in Mexico City will not have cheese in it unless you specifically ask for it. It is a quesadilla without the quesa. To understand why, you need to understand that regional influences help to define food.

Cheese Everywhere Else

The interesting thing about quesadillas in Mexico is that they do have cheese everywhere else but Mexico City. And according to the BBC’s Naomi Tomky, it’s just a Mexico City thing. Not including cheese in a quesadilla is just something they do. It’s something they have always done.

Tomky notes there are some other peculiarities with street food in Mexico City. Local residents, known as Chilangos, prefer their quesadillas to be made from corn flour tortillas folded in half and in elongated shape. That makes them more like tacos, but it gives room for more filling. That’s not how they do things in other parts of the country.

We can take things one step further and talk about the empanada. You and I might understand the empanada to be a meat-filled pie that has been either baked or fried. But an empanada in the Oaxaca region of Mexico is nothing more than a quesadilla without cheese.

Regional Differences in the U.S.

Lest you think regional food differences are limited to countries outside of the United States, think again. We have our own regional differences here. Let’s talk about some of them, beginning with something as simple as iced tea.

In just about every town south of the Mason Dixon line and east of the Mississippi River, iced tea is called ‘sweet tea’. The name comes from the fact that it is heavily laden with real cane sugar. In fairness however, more health-conscious restaurateurs now substitute that cane sugar with artificial sweeteners. But the fact is that iced tea is served sweet. To ask for unsweetened tea in the deep South is almost anathema.

In the Northeast, iced tea is brewed in the sun and served with a slice of lemon but no sugar. If you do add sugar, you are the odd one out. Northerners prefer their iced tea with as few additives is possible.

Then There’s Pizza

Pizza is another food that knows quite a few variations around the country. In New York City, pizza is almost paper-thin. It is topped only with mozzarella in most cases. Upstate New York pizza sports a thicker crust and tends to include a bevy of toppings ranging from pepperoni to mushrooms and hot peppers.

Pizza in Chicago is a deep-dish affair. It is more like an Italian shepherd’s pie than anything else. And on the West Coast, pizza is anything but what you’d find in Chicago or New York. West Coast pizza makers have dispensed with things like sausage and onions and replaced them with avocado and kale.

It turns out that Mexico City’s peculiarities when it comes to street food isn’t all that abnormal. Regional differences influence food greatly, no matter where you live. That is one of the reasons people love to travel.