MEXICO CITY — Maligned as unhealthy and misunderstood in its complexity, Mexican cuisine is finally getting its due.
It's now considered an intangible cultural heritage of humanity, elevated along with French cuisine this week at a meeting of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
The designation elated culinary experts, who say that diners sometimes fail to appreciate the richness of a cuisine with vast regional variation and use of aromatic herbs and plants, nothing like the cheesy nachos and brittle tacos many Americans eat at restaurants.
Mexico's Secretariat of Foreign Affairs said on its website Wednesday that the designation provides "global recognition to our cuisine as one of the most important in the world."
An American who offers culinary tours of Mexico City, Lesley Tellez, said she hopes the recognition will change ideas about Mexican food.
"There's a misconception that it is food covered in cheese and that it's totally unhealthy. It's not true," said Tellez, adding that the U.N. designation "is an affirmation that Mexican cuisine has richness and complexity, and it deserves to be known."
Last year, several Mexican chefs appealed to UNESCO to honor a culinary tradition based on corn, beans and chili peppers that has roots in the distant past, has maintained continuity over centuries and uses original techniques. The Mexican government belatedly got behind the nomination.
The designation was made Tuesday at a meeting of the intangible cultural heritage committee of UNESCO in Nairobi, Kenya.
"Mexican cuisine is endless in variety," Fernando del Paso, a co-author of a Spanish-language Mexican cookbook, La Cocina Mexicana, told the newspaper La Jornada. "It is no exaggeration to say that, along with French and Chinese, it is one of the three major cuisines of the world."
But Mexicans themselves, guarded about their own indigenous roots, don't always hold their national culinary tradition in high esteem.
"It is subject to our affection at home, but meets with some rejection away," said Andres Juarez, academic coordinator at the Mexican Gastronomic School in the capital. High-end restaurants serving Mexican food are limited, he added.
"When we go to an elegant restaurant, we look for foreign dishes because we don't value our own food," Juarez said.
Outside a three-story cooking school in the capital, apprentice chef Jose Zelonka Vela said foreigners have a lot to learn about Mexican cooking, too.
"They think Mexican food is just burritos and tacos, and the tacos are made of fried tortillas. This has nothing to do with a Mexican taco," Zelonka said.
Many Mexican signature dishes use a variety of aromatic herbs and are labor intensive, requiring peeling, grinding, boiling and roasting. One national dish, chiles en nogada, little known outside of Mexico, is prepared with a creamy nut sauce, red pomegranate seeds and green cilantro — giving it the bright colors of the national flag.
"I love cochinita pibil," said cooking student Mara Guardarrama, referring to a slow-roasted dish of suckling pig. "It's the aroma of the orange and the adobo paste of herbs and chilies."
Ancient Mayan myth says a deity formed humans from corn, and Juarez noted that Mexico has 63 varieties of corn, hinting at the complexity of regional cooking.
Many recipes date from centuries back.
"We see dishes eaten these days that are quite similar to what chroniclers from pre-Hispanic times or the colonial era mentioned in their writings," Juarez said, noting the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagun, who wrote of stews with insects, chilies, flowers, seeds and other ingredients similar to rural dishes of today.