Embrace Your Holiday Spirit With This Cinco de Mayo Menu

Let me know if this sounds familiar: it’s early May, and Cinco de Mayo is just around the corner. You’ve been invited to some events by your friends or family to partake in the celebration. However, in recent years, you’ve wondered if there’s more to this holiday than ground beef tacos and endless margaritas. Here you can explore the Cinco de Mayo menu with delicious recipes, each catering to different people and needs. After selecting your food plan, hang around as we  look at  the different ways this day is celebrated and the meaning behind its traditions. We end, of course,  with a bang: how did it all start in the first place?

Fruits, Vegetables, and Herbs, Oh My!

red chili pepper, spices and various herbs sit on a wooden surface
How many of these flavors do you recognize? Below are some of the absolutely essential ingredients used extensively in classic Mexican dining:
Coriander
Known as Mexican parsley, its seeds have been used for over half a millennia in Mexican dining, and the US is its largest importer. They are often crushed into Mexican soups and stews.
Oregano
The subtle earthy taste of this herb balances out spicy dishes in particular. It can go on beans, rice dishes and in stews.
Cumin
I know you’ve heard this at least once in your life. This seed is often powdered and used extensively in grilled meats, and is said to have a warm smell.
Annatto
While this dark-colored condiment contributes a smoky flavor, it is mainly used to color different types of foods, from stews to meat rubs.
Cinnamon
This robust spice finds its home in more than cookies and sweet rolls. In fact, its perfect blend of spice and sweetness earns it a spot in mole sauce, which you will soon learn is a beloved culinary addi(c)tion.
Avocados
The ideal companion for all manner of dishes and sauces, composed of healthy fats and delicious goodness.
Chili Peppers
Enjoy a little heat? These peppers, originally from Bolivia, come in an astounding variety of flavors, colors, sizes and heat levels.
Limes
Limes are versatile, accompanying  anything from tacos and alcoholic drinks to salads and tasty treats.
Mango
Mango is another definite staple, finding its way into refreshing drinks such as aqua fresca, or enjoyed with a bit of lime juice and chili powder.
So, you may now be wondering what the combination of some of these fantastic flavors looks like in Mexican cuisine. Here are some appetizers, main courses, drinks, and desserts, all separated into 3 categories:

Traditional Recipes

These dish ideas come straight from the city of Puebla, some tweaked lovingly with health-conscious substitutes. But believe us, you won’t notice the difference.

To begin with  you can check out the deceptively simple recipe for Elotes, an infamous corn-on-the-cob street fair go-to. Top it off with either Zucchini and Corn Tamales, Rocio Carvajal’s Tinga Tostadas, or creamy Mole Poblano. All of these dishes scream history and tradition. On one hand, the tamales are a bit labor-intensive and time-consuming. So they are actually terrific for bringing family together, fostering a spirit of community and building anticipation. On the other, Mole Poblano is hands down the most iconic and popularly consumed dish on Cinco de Mayo. Additionally,  its sauce is richly packed with vitamins and minerals. Wash everything down with a real classic: authentic Mexican horchata. Finally, for dessert, the coconut tres leches is a decadently sweet dairy-free and gluten-free cake that still stays true to tradition!

Easy Recipes

smiling festive woman wearing sombrero holds out colorful margarita glass
 If you’re a bit pressed for time but still want the full experience of authentic Mexican flavors, consider these quicker options.

If you are a huevos fan, look no further than guacamole deviled eggs as a snack, or easy chilaquiles with eggs. Also, consider hydrating it up with one of these 3 virgin margarita ideas. Now for the real kicker: experiment with some dessert nachos with fruit salsa!

Vegan Recipes

If you are on a vegan diet or are feeling experimental with your cooking, look no further. These dishes are still teeming with flavorful ingredients!

Fried mushroom and cheesy tacos with a killer dipping sauce and a whole host of fresh veggies? Yes please! Feast your eyes on vegan birria tacos! Need to wash it down? Behold the almighty agua fresca, a simple concoction of herbs and fruits in chilled water. Next, treat yourself and try some gluten-free dessert quesadillas topped off with pistachios and cranberries. You can also pair  any of these with  Cook & Culture’s very own guacamole. Here is our main recipe, used over 100 times for burritos and chips, with some minor tweaks to fit the Cinco de Mayo mood!

Cook & Culture’s Chunky Guacamole

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Time: 40 minutes
Serves: 6-8 people
Level: Easy
Seasonality: Avocados grown in the US are in season May-August
close up of fresh creamy guacamole with red onions and cilantro in ceramic bowl.

Ingredients

Instructions

  • 1 teaspoon Red Chili flakes
  • 1 small Red onion, finely diced
  • Juice of small lime
  • 14.5 oz can diced tomatoes
  • 4 Hass avocados (preferably organic)
  • 2 handfuls or 1 cup cilantro, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 Serrano or Jalapeño pepper, finely diced (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon cumin (optional)
  1. Start with the avocados, using a large metal spoon to scoop out all the flesh into a large ceramic bowl. Watch carefully for the stems.
  2. Next, slice half an inch of onion off the top, then slice in half. Finely dice the onion, and next the Serrano, if you are using. I find breathing through the mouth, and wearing gloves and tight fitting glasses to be absolute lifesavers in this step as it cuts back on the heat and tears. Add to the bowl and stir.
  3. Separate and cut as much of the cilantro leaves from the stems as possible. Chop the cilantro loosely and add to the bowl.
  4. Roll the lime between the tip of your middle finger and your wrist to loosen it. Slice in half and squeeze into a small bowl, removing the seeds, then adding to the large bowl.
  5. Finally, add the diced tomatoes, chili flakes, salt, and cumin (if you are using) and stir well.

If you’d like to preserve the guacamole a couple more days, you can either keep the avocado pits in or add extra lime juice.

The Meaning of Cinco de Mayo

People who celebrate in the States appreciate Cinco de Mayo for raising awareness that their multicultural heritage is deserving of attention. That their unique Mexican American identity is beautiful and can actually be celebrated with a multitude of artistic and cultural activities. There are many cities in the United States without as strong of Mexican-American culture than you would see closer to the border. So, with the Cinco de Mayo holiday, people  are given the gift of communing with others of a similar background as they engage in vibrant displays of Mexican culture.

 

Of course, others love Cinco de Mayo as it’s an opportunity to experiment with and share an incredible variety of new and funky, or more traditional meals. As mentioned earlier, food examples include Agua Fresca, Mole Poblano, Elotes, and Pastel de Tres Leches (translation: three milk cake). But, possibly the most meaningful dish consumed is Chiles en Nogada, a stuffed Poblano pepper with walnut sauce and colorful toppings. The confluence of red, white, and green colors represents those of the Mexican flag, symbolizing freedom.

Celebration can still mean something else to others, as well. There are those who love being reminded of the history of the battle that took place over one and a half centuries ago, and of its cultural impact. This made sense to me, as there’s actually a widespread misconception that Cinco de Mayo is Mexico’s day of independence from Spain. That happened earlier in 1810 when what is known as the Cry of Dolores began a decade long ordeal for Mexico to officially be recognized as its own country.

Cinco de Mayo Traditions

celebratory Cinco de Mayo lights on brick wall during night time

When we heard how Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in Mexico, we were instantly drawn to how all the senses are being stimulated. From the beautiful strums and shakes of the flamenco guitar and maracas, to the symbolic display of Mexican flag colors on dancer’s dresses, and to, of course, the mouthwatering assortment of dining options, Mexican Cinco de Mayo events know how to do things right. It really nurtures one’s appreciation for what the day represents. However, at least in places such as Mexico City, most folks don’t take time off work to celebrate, but when they are free, they love to eat.

In the city of Puebla, celebration takes on many additional forms. Local flavors are brought to life and displayed prominently at festivals, complete with artwork exhibits, parades, mariachi bands, and even battle re-enactments. The re-enactments of the Cinco de Mayo victory involve both men and women onstage. Smoky cannon fire fills the air, while the crowd gazes intently at the colorful fabrics on all the uniforms. In the background, audience members can faintly make out the characteristic tune of mariachi band music, letting the atmosphere sink in while they sip on frozen drinks (margaritas) and feast on Elote and chalupas. Mole Poblano also finds a special place in the hearts of many Puebla residents.

Elotes, homemade spicy Mexican street corn, on ceramic dish.

In America, there are often more alcoholic beverages such as beer purchased to celebrate this day than other important celebrations, like the Super Bowl. Since 2005, school districts across the states partake in specialized events that show youth how this day came to be, and the cultural impact it continues to bring. You may also have heard of the Fiesta Broadway taking place in downtown Los Angeles every late April. Once well-regarded as the world’s largest celebration of Cinco de Mayo, in recent years the festivities have witnessed fewer attendees (1/10 of the numbers in the 1990’s) and less space. These changes are noted as being a consequence of the festival’s excessive corporate sponsorships, gentrification of the surrounding neighborhoods, and issues with overcrowding. Nonetheless, the display of varied musical artists and traditional food vendors, it mirrors much of what makes Mexican celebrations memorable.

History of Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo has hit the mainstream. Everyone thinks it involves certain traditions like maracas and mariachi bands, with foods like tacos, but there’s also a lot hidden underneath the surface. In fact, the holiday brings up the deep history of the Mexican community. 

Puebla is an ancient city that once served as a hub of culinary experimentation and educational prosperity. It remains one of the most influential Mexican territories, with its coast-to-coast region allowing for easy control of staples and luxury products alike. Long ago, vendors were available seemingly everywhere, offering tasty morsels that in modern times give the resemblance of street fair food. Many of today’s popular dishes were invented by Spanish nuns that inhabited the city soon after its Spanish conquest. These days, many are considered prized relics of the past. In fact, UNESCO recognizes them as “cultural treasures worth preserving [to] protect their ancestral way of life”. Now, Puebla is Mexico’s fourth largest city, attracting tourists with its bright architectural triumphs and an assortment of time-tested homestyle dishes.

In 1862, a historic battle took place in the city of Puebla, so it stands as the main hub of activity surrounding the holiday. The battle was against French forces in the Battle of Puebla, and against all odds (there were 3 French troops for every Mexican combatant), the Mexican Army managed to defeat their enemy. This is considered no easy feat, as French forces had a track record of victories spanning half a century. Over the course of the gruesome, day-long battle, the number of French to Mexican soldiers that lost their lives was 5:1. This is the reason this special day is so widely cherished; the victory stood as a testament to the endless ambition of the country of Mexico, with its visionary liberal president Benito Juarez commanding a tactful and honor-bound army of men.

As a side note, the victory was not actually considered Mexico’s most significant over the course of the Franco-Mexican War. Many other accomplishments deserving of celebration would be seen in the months and years that followed. Nonetheless, the Mexican government harnessed the momentum the Battle of Puebla generated to symbolize their resistance movement at the time.

Introducing Mexican culture and gastronomy educator – Rocio Carvajal!

In my research for this article, I had the opportunity to connect with native-born Mexican culture enthusiast, recipe developer, and podcast host Rocio Carvajal. Her knowledge of the history and traditions of cities like Puebla, as well as Mexico in general, is simply astounding. Peruse our conversation below, and if you are interested, you can find more of her content on Instagram @rocio.carvajalc or on the Pass the Chipotle podcast, where you will find a new episode on Cinco de Mayo.

self-portrait of Mexican culture and gastronomy educator, Rocio Carvajal.

Carvajal, Rocio. 1 May 2021.

In my article, I cover the most essential flavors of modern Mexican cuisine, like avocados, limes, chili peppers and oregano. But what do you find are the most important ingredients in Mexican cooking?

The breadth and depth of Mexican food is rooted in the dawn of the civilizations that rose in the cultural region known to us as “Mesoamerica” which expands from central-west Mexico all the way to central America. It was precisely in the area between the states of Puebla and Oaxaca called Mixteca, where corn was first domesticated around 12,000 years ago and it became the cornerstone of the food systems that enabled the transition to a sedentary life and made it possible for the 64+ different indigenous cultures to flourish. The sophisticated multi-crop system known as milpa combines corn, beans, squashes, chilis, tomatoes and many wild and semi-domesticated herbs that make the core of a largely plant-based diet.

What we know today as “Mexican food” is the result of many historical events and transformations, prompted by the Spanish colonization in 1592. For the next three centuries, the viceroyalty of New Spain (later Mexico) was the most important trade centre of the world as it was at the core of the maritime routes of the so-called “Columbian exchange” that brought together the far east, Africa, Europe and South America. And the  province of Puebla had control over the most important merchant ports in the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico. The cuisine of Puebla reflects the cross-cultural pollination of flavors, ingredients and culinary techniques form ancient Mexico, Spanish heritage and by extent Muslim and Jewish. The slave trade meant that many women from Asia and Africa ended up as part of affluent households and that meant that colonial kitchens became the centers of culinary exchange, fusion and innovation. Just as Mexico obtained foreign crops and spices like wheat, rice, limes, coriander, cumin, onions, garlic, cinnamon, oils and literally dozens more, we also exported life-changing ingredients that shaped and revolutionized cuisines worldwide. Among such items we can count chilies, pimienta gorda (allspice), vanilla, tomatoes, corn, beans and another famous export is of course huaxlotl which you might otherwise know as turkey.

The city of Puebla has been recognized by UNESCO in 1987 as Cultural Heritage of Mankind for its impressive colonial architecture, it is also part of the international networks “Learning cities” and Creatives cities network”. Puebla’s cuisine is recognised worldwide for its complexity, creativity and rich cultural heritage.

What traditions, celebrated in the city of Puebla, have stood out to you over the years? Are there any you have witnessed for yourself, like battle re-enactments? Please share your experiences.

As one of the oldest and most culturally important cities of Mexico, Puebla has been at the core of many defining historical events. The big religious presence of nunneries and monasteries built a legacy of religious expressions and therefore are a key part of the lives of local communities. The celebration of patron saints with processions and street fairs, easter altars and the many events and practices around Day of the Dead are some of the grand occasions that bring people together in many different ways, and often reflect the mixed cultural heritage of European and indigenous origins.
 
The commemoration of the Battle of Puebla is a solemn event that is best defined as an act of mourning and remembrance. By nature it is not meant to be “cheerful” or “fun”, it is a day in which we honor the bravery and lives of the thousands of Republican army members and indigenous farmers who gave their lives defending the sovereignty of the nation in spite of the treason committed by royalists that supported the invading French forces of Napoleon III on that eventful day in 1862. 
 
For the second time in 159 years the traditional 5 de Mayo parade was cancelled due to the pandemic. This event is described by social anthropologists as the single most important secular ritual of identity and remembrance in Puebla. The parade’s route starts at the beginning of the 5 de Mayo avenue and continues north of the city ending at the historical site of the Acueyametepec hills where the Loreto and Guadalupe forts are located, which is where the battle was fought. We always have the presence of the President, the the secretary of Defense, the state’s governor, mayor, ambassadors and dozens of key political and cultural figures.
 
The parade is always lead by the descendants of the indigenous farmers who fought during the battle, they are dressed with the traditional costumes form the towns of Zacapoaxtla, Xochiapulco and Tetela, followed by the army and after them, dozens of contingents from unions, schools, and universities that always prepare themed dances around the theme of the battle, highlighting passages of Puebla’s history. The costumes and music are a true spectacle and over the years they have grown in complexity and are a true delight to see. The truth is that once the parade is over and formal ceremonies are done, unlike other events, in this occasion we don’t follow with parties or communal feasts but instead find comfort in a renewed sense of belonging and pride. 

What do you wish would change about the worldwide conception of Cinco de Mayo as a day of celebration? Are there any misconceptions you find urgently need to be addressed, such as the confusing of 5 de Mayo with Mexico’s day of independence?

All born and raised Poblanos know that the remembrance of 4 de Mayo is a local event. Outside of the state of Puebla there are no celebrations and it’s not even marked as a bank holiday. This gives it a certain air of intimacy and ownership; it happened on our soil, and even when not all those who lost their lives defending the city were born here, we mourn them as our own. The proof of that is how we adopted the name of General Ignacio Zaragoza, the Texas-born general who lead the battle and ultimately died soon after the victory. Our city bares the name “Heroic Puebla of Zaragoza” in his honor. Growing up, I didn’t understand why Americans celebrated 5 de Mayo as a party and why they would they use cultural cliches and misrepresentations of Mexican culture like hats, maracas an donkey piñatas (which by the way are totally not an actual Mexican thing).
 
At the core of my work as a culture and gastronomy educator is precisely to build bridges of understanding and that’s why my podcast reflects this and brings together cultural and culinary history to build an intercultural dialogue. My episode on the 5 de Mayo provides a rich and multi-layered approach to the history of an event that instead of dividing, brought together Mexicans on both sides of the border, and is a story worth listening to, knowing and sharing.

Rocio Carvajal has also delighted us with one of her all-time favorite recipes that would be a superb addition to any Cinco de Mayo food lineup. Find below her thoughts on this dish, along with a thorough recipe for this simple but delectable meal!

One of my all time favorite poblano dishes is of course “Tinga Poblana” and the actual traditional recipe will surprise many of you because unlike many other interpretations of this delicious tomato stew, Tinga Poblana is completely meat-free!

We enjoy Tinga in quesadillas, molotes (a crisp pan-fried sort of quesadilla) and my favorite: tostadas.

Rocio Carvajal’s Tinga Tostadas

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Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 35 minutes
Total Time: 45 minutes

Makes 10 tostadas

Level: Intermediate

Seasonality: tomatoes are great especially in Spring and Summer, while lettuce is best harvested in either Spring or Fall.
Serving of vegetarian Tinga Tostadas on plate, authentic Mexican cuisine.

Carvajal, Rocio. From “Mexican street food. Stories and recipes from Mexico’s loved street dishes”. Gumroad, 1 May 2021. https://gumroad.com/rociocarvajal.

Ingredients

Instructions

• 10 tostadas*
• 200g – 7 oz refried beans**
• 1/4 medium julienne iceberg lettuce
•80ml – 3.4 fl oz fresh cream
• 200g – 7 oz Quesillo cheese or mozzarella
• 1 ripe avocado
• 10 very ripe tomatoes
• 1 big French onion
• 1 clove of garlic
• 60g – 4 tbsp chipotle adobo
• 4 twigs of fresh thyme
• 2 tbsp fresh oregano, you can use dried too
• 2 bay leaves
• 2 tbsp hard molasses or the same amount of hard packed brown sugar
• 150 ml – 5 fl oz olive oil
• 2 tsp salt
  1. Dice the tomatoes, and place in a bowl. Slice the whole onion in rings, as thinly as possible. Set aside.
  2. Peel and mince, or press the garlic. Set aside.
  3. In a deep pan, heat the olive oil, then add the onion first, stirring every now and then.
  4. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes to soften them, then add the garlic. Continue cooking for another 3 minutes.
  5. Next add the tomatoes, thyme, oregano, molasses, chipotle adobo and a pinch of salt. Mix all the ingredients thoroughly and cover. Reduce the heat to a medium flame and cook for 30-35 minutes, stirring every now and then to make sure it cooks evenly. The aim is to reduce the liquids and develop a sweet and spicy flavors as it turns into an almost dry paste.
  6. With a table knife, spread a layer of beans on the tostadas. You should build the next layers of toppings in the following order: a generous portion of tinga, some cheese, lettuce and cream. Finish with slices of avocado.
* Tostadas are crisp tortillas that have been baked or fried to become crisp. If you can’t find them ready made, you can make your own. A good alternative is using natural poppadoms, just bear in mind they are much thinner than an actual corn tostada and they might break.
** If you can’t purchase ready-made refried beans, you can use tinned black beans. Discard the water and grind into a puree, fry with olive oil and cook until obtaining a thick paste. Season with salt if needed.

A couple of months ago, I would’ve certainly believed that Cinco de Mayo as a holiday is a fun, lively event that is recognized all throughout Mexico, especially as it is celebrated in the USA. But doing a little digging, anyone will uncover that the famous Battle of Puebla is only officially acknowledged in that city, and as an act of mourning and remembrance. The day even acquired a dual purpose, with US immigrants of Mexican heritage using the celebration as a means of connection with others of the same background. What I learned, from Rocio and others, is that the memorizing of the powerful history of Mexico’s past military victories, along with the multi-faceted means of remembrance such as food and attractions, show the world how cherished this day really is for residents of Puebla.

We hope you uncovered a bit more of the wonderful variety of traditions and reasons for celebration surrounding this special day. For more fresh content on everything to do with Mexican culture, head over to our guest Rocio’s Instagram @rosio.carvajalc, as well as her very own podcast.

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Written by Case van der Burg