Enchilada History: Do You Understand my Enchilada?

Enchilada History: Do You Understand my Enchilada?

An enchilada feast marked special occasions in our home.  To understand the enchilada is to understand our community.   This classic Texas Mexican dish is made with Chile Ancho and Chile Pasilla, blended with oregano and other spices.

Bottled “chili” powder is a new invention, a commercial variation marketed for convenience.  Bottlers of the stuff use different ingredients, different combinations of dried cumin, garlic and other spices, and there are many brands from which to choose.

I don’t use chili powder, nor did my mom.  Some homes do use bottled “chili powder,” because it’s so convenient.  To learn about how bottled chili powder tries to imitate the original chile of the enchilada, you’ll enjoy this insightful and fun podcast from Southern Foodways Alliance about the history of chili powder and how it is different from the original Texas Mexican blend of chiles and spices.  The podcast is titled, “The Chili Powder Cheat: A Tex-Mex Story.”  Produced by Ryan Katz, the story has an amusing surprise ending.

Cheese enchilada made with two chiles: Ancho and Pasilla
Cheese enchilada made with two chiles: Ancho and Pasilla

I’m glad to share this recipe because its history makes it quintessentially Texas Mexican.   In two ways.

1.  It grounds us in our region.  The discriminating blending of different types of chiles links us to the other communities in our geographic region who also combined chiles in different variations to make different dishes.  Think Guanajuato, Puebla, Oaxaca, etc.

2. It integrates Texas Indian with European ingredients.   Actually its success as a fine dining culinary dish results exactly from the successful integration of native with foreign ingredients: a beautiful culinary marriage.  In this case, chiles with flour; and Mexican oregano with cumin.  The same happened in Oaxaca with mole using wheat bread as a thickener for chiles.  Thankfully, today more scholars like my friend, Dr. Mario Montano, are documenting histories of  people and cultures who live along the Rio Grande river and these will give us a more accurate history of the origins and evolution of  such ingredient combinations.

OK, I call these Enchiladas a fine-dining dish because we savor them with sensory pleasure but also with intellectual enjoyment.  This will become clear (I hope) in the recipe.

Enchilada Recipe: 

Adapted from the book, “Truly Texas Mexican: A Culinary Heritage In Recipes”

Ingredients (serves 6)

4 Chile Ancho

1 Chile Pasilla

1/4 tsp cumin

2 garlic cloves

1/8 tsp black peppercorns

1/4 tsp salt

enchilada is made with Texas Mexican oregano, instead of Mexican oregano
enchilada is made with Texas Mexican oregano, instead of Mexican oregano

2″ sprig of Mexican oregano  (This is actually Texas Mexican oregano,  pictured on the right, because it is cultivated in Texas around San Antonio,  Austin, then also a little farther west, and then all the way south to the Mexican states of Coahuila and Nuevo Leon.  It is very different from the common European oregano.  More aromatic, with a brighter flavor.  You can grow it easily in your back yard as a perrenial.)

1/4 cup all purpose wheat flour

8 cups water

18 corn tortillas

1 white onion

2 cups shredded or crumbled cheese  (We used queso fresco but over time processed yellow cheese has gained favor.  The industrial revolution spawned Kraft’s processed Velveeta cheese in 1928.  Industrially processed yellow cheeses entered the Texas Mexican kitchen and changed the flavors.  Be that as it may, just make sure that the cheese you use has a mild, unobtrusive flavor and has the least possible fat.  Remember it is the chiles that play the “Prima Donna” role in this dish, which is why it’s called Enchiladas.)

Diced onions are small, to create an acidic contrast to the chile of the enchilada
Diced onions are small, to create an acidic contrast to the chile of the enchilada


1.  Wipe clean and remove the seeds and veins from the chiles.

2.  In a molcajete make a paste of the chiles, cumin, garlic cloves, black peppercorns and oregano.  Alternately you can use a blender and one cup of the water to make a very fine purée.  Just make sure there are no chunks nor granules.  This chile-spice combination is the focal point.  It is what you want to taste first and throughout.  All the other elements of the dish play  supporting and contrasting roles.

3. Finely dice the onion.  The picture shows how small the dice are.  My sister, Nieves Ortega, reminded me yesterday about how important this fine dice is.  Onions, for some reason, are a naturally delicious combination with chile.  You want your mouth to easily taste chile-onion as a principal…”yum!”  .

4.  In a saucepan or large skillet, add the water,  flour and salt and stir until the flour is dissolved.

5. Use some of the flour-water to dissolve and remove all the paste from the molcajete and add this to the saucepan, whisking all the while to dissolve lumps.  If you have used a blender, add the purée to the saucepan.

Enchilada is a fresh tortilla saturated with chiles and spices
Enchilada is a fresh tortilla saturated with chiles and spices

6. Bring to a boil, then simmer rapidly, for about 25 minutes until the flavors are blended and all the raw flour taste is gone.  The chile will thicken and reduce.  You should have about 3 cups.  Taste and adjust the salt

7.  While keeping the chile hot over medium heat,  use tongs or a spatula to place a corn tortilla in the hot chile for about 8-12 seconds until it is heated through and soft but holding its structure.  If too long, it’ll fall apart.  If too short a time it will not soften properly.  You’ll get the feel of it.

8.  Place the tortilla flat on a warm platter and add 2 Tbsp cheese and 1/2 Tbsp diced onions

9.  Roll them and arrange seam down on six warm plates. Repeat with all the tortillas, three per plate.

10.  Spoon about 1/3 cup of the very hot (temperature) chile in each plate and garnish with additional diced onions.

Taste these with enjoyment, knowing that each ingredient is there for a reason: to make your mouth feel complex, deep pleasure. The chile carries the dish.  Let your mind notice the differences in mouthfeel and textures.  To understand the layers of flavors, the aromas – individually and also together.   Isn’t it great to enjoy food and understand the link to its people!

¡Buen Provecho!


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1 thought on “Enchilada History: Do You Understand my Enchilada?”

  • In my home, using yellow cheese was sacrileges – Queso fresco was the only way to go—I love finely chopped raw onion all over them—I’ve never used the oregano-I’m adding that to my moms version!!! Thank you Adan!!
    PS I have your venison, Adan!!!❤️❤️

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