The Mexican state of Veracruz stretches along the Gulf Coast like the graceful tentacle of a sea creature. Within the boundaries formed by the warm coastal waters to the east and the Sierra Madre Oriental to the west is an enticing pot-pourri of cultures.
Long before Europeans arrived in Mexico through what is now the port city of Veracruz, the area occupied by the modern-day state of Veracruz was populated by the Olmecs, as well as Huastecs and Totonacs. The latter were famous for their cultivation of vanilla and curing the pods for culinary use, adding a unique flavor to many of their dishes. The use of acuyo, a herb also known as hoja santa, also characterized the indigenous cooking of the area.
The staple food triumvirate of corn, beans and squash was further supplemented by a variety of tropical fruits, thanks to the area's temperate-to-tropical climate. In addition to the chiles, tomatoes and avocadoes so important in the Mexican cooking, papaya, mamey and zapote were cultivated. These are very popular today in the licuados and helados - milk shakes and ice cream - so dear to the hearts of jarochos.
This variety and abundance was given a further culinary boost with the arrival of the Spaniards, who introduced herbs such as parsley, thyme, marjoram, bay laurel and cilantro, as well as many of the spices that would later characterize Veracruz cooking. A combination of saffron, cloves, cinnamon and black pepper was pre-mixed and sold to flavor fish empanadas. The Spaniards also brought wheat, rice, almonds, olives and olive oil, garlic and capers. The latter three are essential ingredients in what is perhaps the most famous specialty of the region, Huachinango a la Veracruzana, red snapper in a spicy tomato sauce.