Enchiladas: A Culinary Monument to Colonialism

While finding its origins in royal Aztec feasts, the history of the enchilada is more a product of colonialism and prejudice than authentic heritage.

young Mexican agricultural worker eats a tortilla in a field near Santa Monica, Texas, 1939. New York Public Library. Public Domain.

When the Spanish conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo first entered the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán on 8 November 1519, he was amazed – not so much by the temples and palaces which dominated the city as by the food. He had never seen anything so rich, nor so unusual. The meals eaten by King Moctezuma II were especially dazzling. As Díaz recalled in his Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (1576), 300 dishes were cooked for the monarch alone, while a further 1,000 were prepared for his guests. Served on platters of ‘red and black Cholula pottery’, these were of every imaginable variety. As well as ‘two thousand pots of chocolate’ and no end of fruit, there were ‘fowls, turkeys, pheasants, partridges, domestic and wild ducks, deer, peccary, reed birds, doves, hares, rabbits, and so many other birds and beasts that [Díaz] could never finish naming them’. There were even plates of human flesh – or so he had heard. But most striking of all was a little dish served between courses. Midway through the meal, Díaz wrote:

Two … young women of great beauty brought the monarch tortillas, as white as snow, cooked with eggs and other nourishing ingredients, on plates covered with clean napkins.

Though rather short on detail, this is thought to be the earliest description of enchiladas in European literature. It was a turning point in their history. For no sooner had Díaz clapped eyes on them than they were launched on a voyage of transformation, which would see them become not only the deliciously meaty confections we know today, but also a culinary monument to centuries of colonialism, poverty and prejudice.


By the time Díaz arrived in Tenochtitlán, enchiladas were already of great antiquity. Corn tortillas – or tlaxcalli in Nahuatl – had been made in southern Mexico for several thousand years and had been a staple of Mesoamerican cuisine for centuries before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the New World. At first, they were probably used as nothing more than an edible plate or spoon; but in time they came to be eaten as a wrap – often with a sauce or flavourings. As early as the preclassical period (c.2000-250 BC), the Maya of the Yucatán Peninsula are known to have dipped corn tortillas in pumpkin seeds, rolled them around a chopped, hard-boiled egg and then covered them in a rich tomato sauce. But the Aztecs were the first to develop the first ‘true’ enchilada. As its Nahuatl name, chīllapīzzali (literally ‘chilli-flute’), suggests, its most distinctive ingredient was the chilli pepper. This was ground up to produce a spicy paste, into which tortillas were dipped, then filled with beans, squash, fish, game, or eggs.

As Díaz’s account suggests, these early enchiladas – like tamales – were highly prized by the Aztec nobility. But they were also enjoyed by the common people and could be bought in markets throughout the Empire. Writing only a few years after Díaz, Bernardino de Sahagún gave a vivid description of a typical stall in his Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España (1575-86). Laid out on the ground, Bernardino found chilli-dipped tortillas filled ‘with shelled beans, cooked shelled beans, uncooked shelled beans; with mashed shelled beans; [with] chili and maize … with meat and grains of maize’ – and any number of other ingredients. All of these could be eaten with a range of sauces, some of them terrifyingly hot.

From Aztec to ‘Mexican’

Yet enchiladas were already beginning to change – and not for the better. Two years after Díaz had visited Tenochtitlán for the first time, Spanish forces under Hernán Cortés had seized the city and – amid scenes of almost unimaginable horror – brought the once proud Aztec Empire to its knees. What remained of its culture was systematically destroyed. Temples were sacked and palaces and records burnt. But the conquistadors were content to appropriate much of its cuisine – including enchiladas. From the Spaniards’ perspective, they were unusually appealing. Not only were they tasty, but they were also simple to cook – and could even be eaten on the march. They could also be adapted to Spanish tastes relatively easily. New ingredients were added, including cheese, pork and chicken; and spicy sauces came to be used in preference to the chilli paste which had previously been the sine qua non of the Aztec version.

When Mexico became a fully-fledged colony – as the Viceroyalty of New Spain – this hybrid enchilada became an integral part of its culinary culture. At first, of course, it was merely a curiosity which the colonists ate while looking for gold and dreaming of home. But in time, socio-economic shifts had turned it into a more potent object of pride, which testified to the gulf opening between New Spain and the Old. To those common folk whom intermarriage had bonded to the land, it seemed to encapsulate their new, half-Spanish, half-Aztec identity; while to those members of the colonial elites, whose ties to Iberia had been weakened by distance and wealth, it symbolised both their sense of ethnic superiority and their growing desire for autonomy.

So pronounced did this self-identification with enchiladas become that, when the yoke of colonial rule began to chaff in the mid-18th century, it started to shed its former associations altogether. Now seen as neither Spanish nor Aztec, it gradually took on the air of a distinctively ‘Mexican’ food – and, by the time independence was eventually declared in 1821, it had become the closest thing the new country had to a ‘national’ dish. Indeed, when the first Mexican cookbook was published in 1831, the author, Cristina Barros, was so proud of it that she included not one, but two separate recipes.

An American Odyssey

But enchiladas were not to remain purely ‘Mexican’ for long. When the US annexed Texas (1845), California and the South-West (1846-8), Mexican dishes began to find their way into American culture – laying the foundations for what would eventually become known as ‘Tex-Mex’ cuisine. Enchiladas were at the forefront of this process. Cooked on makeshift stoves, or bought from roadside stalls, they quickly became a favourite lunch food among hard-up farm hands and factory workers. To accommodate different tastes and budgets, they were also given a distinctive twist. Meat became less common; inexpensive, locally grown ingredients, such as lettuce and onion, were added; and the importance of chilli was somewhat reduced.

By the mid-1870s, enchiladas had begun to feature in regional recipe books. The earliest appears in the Centennial Buckeye Cook Book (1876), a rather curious volume aimed at poor families. Contributed by Anson Safford, the territorial governor of Arizona, this was a model of homely goodness:

Put four pounds of corn in a vessel with four ounces lime, or in a preparation of lye; boil with water till the hull comes off, then wash the corn … bake the meal in small cakes called ‘tortillas’, then fry in lard; take some red pepper ground, called ‘chili colorad’, mix it with sweet oil and vinegar, and boil together. This makes a sauce into which dip the tortillas, then break into small pieces cheese and onions, and sprinkle on top the tortillas, and you have what is called ‘enchiladas’.

Such recipes were, however, the exception rather than the rule. Though Mexicans lived and worked alongside Americans of all stripes on the frontier, they continued to be regarded with hostility by European settlers and coastal elites. This found expression not only in crude racial slurs, but also in disparaging attitudes towards Mexican cuisine – especially enchiladas. Typical was the description offered by a visitor in 1883. Enchiladas, the traveller explained, are:

greasy tortilla sandwich[es], containing chilies and a number of other uninviting looking compounds and other nasty messes, [which] are sold everywhere, filling the air with a pungent, nauseous smell.

Not until the early 20th century did enchiladas gain wider acceptance. Although anti-Mexican sentiments continued to run high in some areas, increased migration to northern states coupled with greater prosperity and the growing importance of cities with particularly large Mexican populations – such as San Antonio – had conspired to mitigate the disdain felt for Mexican foods by the end of the First World War. In the early 1920s, enchiladas were being served in a growing number of restaurants, especially in southern states, and – heaped with a more lavish selection of ingredients – had at last become the object of culinary desire.

Soon, people were clamouring for a taste. Among them was Louise Lloyd Lowber, a budding food writer. In 1921, she admiringly described how enchiladas were prepared at the ‘famous Enchilada House in Old Albuquerque’ for well-heeled readers. A tortilla, she recounted, was first placed in the middle of a large plate,

then a flood of rich, red chile and more cheese, sprinkled between in layer-cake fashion, and the whole topped off with a high crown of chopped onions in which nestles an egg, which has been broken a minute into the hot lard. An artistic and cooling garnish of lettuce – and behold an enchilada.

Since then, the popularity of enchiladas in the US has only grown – so much so that, today, there is hardly a town where they cannot be found.

Mexican Again?

The ‘Americanisation’ of enchiladas has, however, not always met with the approval of Mexicans – least of all in Mexico itself. Motivated in part by a resurgence of nationalism, they have often denigrated the hugely calorific versions favoured by modern estadounidenses as inauthentic aberrations and called for a reversion to the simpler recipes of the past.

This is no doubt well intentioned; but I can’t help feeling that such appeals to ‘authenticity’ and national identity ring hollow when applied to enchiladas. Given how often they have been appropriated by different peoples, and how greatly they have been changed in the process, it is misleading to suggest that they truly ‘belong’ to any one culture, or that a particular recipe is any more ‘authentic’ than another. Surely, to perpetuate such myths is to revive the prejudice and chauvinism which drove the evolution of enchiladas in the first place. Indeed, if the history of this dish shows anything, it is that such sorrows should be overcome not by hiding recipes behind high walls, but by sharing them – with an open mind, a warm heart and a friendly smile.

Alexander Lee is a fellow in the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance at the University of Warwick. His latest book is Humanism and Empire: The Imperial Ideal in Fourteenth-Century Italy (Oxford, 2018).