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Many of us travel to eat and if you’re skipping out on a trip to Mexico because of your familiarity with Tex-Mex, you’ll never be able to appreciate how distinct those two cuisines really are. Although they’re cousins, they aren’t interchangeable, and a lot of that has to do with the Tex part of the name.

The Name Says It (Almost) All

Tex-Mex is an increasingly popular type of food, spreading across the United States, Canada, and many parts of Europe. Perhaps because many people around the world like to dismiss America as not having its own cuisine, everyone seems to forget the “Tex” next to the Mex. Tex-Mex is an “American regional cuisine,” according to Robb Walsh, author of the book, The Tex-Mex Cookbook: A History in Photos and Recipes. A cuisine evolving over the past 300 years, combining north Mexican food fundamentals with Texan meat, bean, and cheeses.

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This mutation of cheese, tomatoes, and spice was the result of Mexican immigrants to Texas, native Texans, Spaniards, and local indigenous groups naturally mixing their traditions in the best place possible – on a plate.

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Mexico is a large country, the world’s 13th in terms of area and 11th by population, so it’s not surprising that their food is hardly uniform. The Mexico-Texas border region isn’t particularly fertile agricultural land and why you find Tex-Mex is heavy on ground beef, flour (not corn) tortillas, and dairy. Tex-Mex dishes are also much larger than those you find in Mexico, remember, everything is bigger in Texas.

As the Mexican immigrants stayed in Texas, over generations, their culture diverged from that of their ancestors. Tex-Mex has become something more Texan, and ultimately, American over time. This is what happens to foods all over the world – from Moldova’s boozy Germanic mix to Georgia’s Persian-Baltic blend – and our appetites are better off for it.

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Common Tex-Mex Foods That Aren’t Mexican

I had always known that Tex-Mex was related but not a replacement for Mexican food, yet for some reason it never occurred to me that some dishes I was familiar with were completely Tex-Mex in origin. These are just a few dishes that weren’t born in Mexico.

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  • Burrito – In Spanish, burrito means little donkey. In Texas, it means re-fried beans, cheese, and sour cream wrapped in a warm tortilla. It’s exact origins are not known but it was likely created in the early 1900s.
  • Fajita – A make your own soft-taco, they’re likely not older than the 1960s and may have been invented by Sonny Falcon in Kyle, Texas.
  • Chile Con Carne – Often spicy and literally translated “chili with meat,” it was created during the late 1800s in San Antonio and is Texas’ official dish. Jalapenos, the Texas official pepper, is an optional ingrediant.
  • Tortilla Chips And Salsa – This Texas official snack was invented in Los Angeles sometime in the 1940s by the practical Rebecca Webb Carranza. That was around the time that conveyor belts spit out tortillas one by one, with misshaped ones usually thrown out. Carranza, instead of wasting the food, cut the deformed tortillas into triangles and then fried them.
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Carranza’s story is symbolic of the Tex-Mex’s mixed background. She was born in Durango, Mexico, to an American father and Mexican mother. They later moved to El Paso, Texas and then Los Angeles. Many other common Tex-Mex inventions like chimichanges have similar multicultural tales.

The Differences Don’t Have Clear Borders

Although you can point a finger at some Mexican foods like quesadillas in Tex-Mex, almost all aren’t the same on both sides of the border. Despite the similarities, Tex-Mex doesn’t represent Mexican food or all American food for that matter. After visiting Mexico, you’ll have appreciation – plus an appetite – for the differences.