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18 May 2016

Ask a Mexican: Why Do Mexicans Use Cilantro and Onion So Much, When They're Not Indigenous to Mexico?

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Dear Mexican: I read an article you linked to about how it could be hard to order a lime in Spanish-speaking South American countries. The bottom line was that, depending on where you are, un limón could mean a lemon or a lime; it was all a matter of local dialect.

Curiously, limes originated in Europe, and lemons in Asia. Growing up in Encinitas, Calif., there was never a question of la palabra correcta for which was which.

This realization, logically, led me to ask you: How did the combination of onion and cilantro—both basically Mediterranean in origin, and brought to the New World by the Spanish—become such intrinsic ingredients in the culinary traditions seemingly everywhere south of the border?

Devorador de Nopal

Dear Cactus Eater: Wait … how did you go from an etymological question about lemons and limes to asking about onions and cilantro? That’s a non-sequitur on the lines of talking about democracy, and then mentioning Trump. But the Mexican will use any opportunity to plug the works of his pals, so I forwarded your question to Lesley Tellez, author of the fabulous Eat Mexico: Recipes From Mexico City’s Streets, Markets and Fondas, and creator of great restaurant tours through la mera capirucha.

“Mexicans have a rich history of using aromatic herbs in their cooking,” says Tellez. “Pápaloquelite, epazote, hierbas de olor (just to name a few)—they’re used abundantly to flavor everything from quesadillas to stews. Cilantro came from Asia, but its herbal punch fits right in.

“As for onion, there’s evidence that a type of wild onion existed before the Spaniards arrived, so indigenous Mexicans might’ve already had a palate for it. The combo that’s popular at Mexican taquerías today—raw, diced white onion, mixed with chopped cilantro—is all about texture and balance. The taco needs that necessary crunch and brightness, just as much as it needs salsa.”

Everyone: Buy Lesley’s book. And Devorador: Linear arguments, cabrón!

Dear Mexican: Why do us Mexicans use the word confleis—or “corn flakes” for the gabas—when talking about any type of cereal?

Tepito Timoteo

Dear Pocho: The same reason gabachos say “Xerox” as a verb when they want to photocopy anything, call cotton swabs “Q-Tips” and call all steroidal creams “Quadriderm.”

The bigger question is how Mexican Spanish seemingly mangles a straightforward term like “corn flakes” into confleis. The answer, como siempre, is elision, the linguistic concept of combining vowels and consonants to create new words that confound gabachos and fancy-ass Mexicans alike. Try this head scratcher: How does “Pues, está para allá, hermano” (“Well, he’s over there, brother”) turn into “Pos, ’ta’ pa’lla, ’mano”?

WATCH BORDERTOWN!

Folks, the Fox cartoon on which I serve as a consulting producer was just cancelled, but we’re holding out hopes of some sort of last-minute revival, or perhaps a look by another network or a streaming service, so por favor watch THIS SUNDAY at 7 p.m., or stream it any time on Hulu or FOX Now.

You have more of a mandate to watch this week’s episode, as it’s the season finale, and your humble Mexican wrote the episode. Gracias, and don’t forget to tweet #renewbordertown!

Ask the Mexican at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; be his fan on Facebook; follow him on Twitter @gustavoarellano; or follow him on Instagram @gustavo_arellano!

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