Mexican cuisine is elaborate and often tied to symbolism and festivals, which is one reason it was named as an example of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. Many of the foods of Mexico are complicated because of their relation to the social structure of the country. Food preparation, especially for family and social events, is considered to be an investment in order to maintain social relationships. Even the idea of flavor is considered to be social, with meals prepared for certain dinners and certain occasions when they are considered the most tasty.
The ability to cook well, called "sazón" (lit. seasoning) is considered to be a gift generally gained from experience and a sense of commitment to the diners. For the Day of the Dead festival, foods such as tamales and mole are set out on altars and it is believed that the visiting dead relatives eat the essence of the food. If eaten afterwards by the living it is considered to be tasteless. In central Mexico, the main festival foods are mole, barbacoa, carnitas and mixiotes. They are often prepared to feed hundreds of guests, requiring groups of cooks. The cooking is part of the social custom meant to bind families and communities.
Mexican regional home cooking is completely different from the food served in most Mexican restaurants outside Mexico, which is usually some variety of Tex-Mex. The original versions of Mexican dishes are vastly different from their Tex-Mex variation.
Some of Mexico's traditional foods involved complex or long cooking processes, including cooking underground (such as cochinita pibil). Before industrialization, traditional women spent several hours a day boiling dried corn then grinding it on a metate to make the dough for tortillas, cooking them one-by-one on a comal griddle. In some areas, tortillas are still made this way. Sauces and salsas were also ground in a mortar called a molcajete. Today, blenders are more often used, though the texture is a bit different. Most people in Mexico would say that those made with a molcajete taste better, but few do this now.
The most important food for festivals and other special occasions is mole, especially mole poblano in the center of the country. Mole is served at Christmas, Easter, Day of the Dead and at birthdays, baptisms, weddings and funerals, and tends to be eaten only for special occasions because it is such a complex and time-consuming dish. While still dominant in this way, other foods have become acceptable for these occasions, such as barbacoa, carnitas and mixiotes, especially since the 1980s. This may have been because of economic crises at that time, allowing for the substitution of these cheaper foods, or the fact that they can be bought ready-made or may already be made as part of the family business.
Another important festive food is the tamale, also known as tamal in Spanish. This is a filled cornmeal dumpling, steamed in a wrapping (usually a corn husk or banana leaf) and one of the basic staples in most regions of Mexico. It has its origins in the pre-Hispanic era and today is found in many varieties in all of Mexico. Like mole, it is complicated to prepare and best done in large amounts. Tamales are associated with certain celebrations such as Candlemas. They are wrapped in corn husks in the highlands and desert areas of Mexico and in banana leaves in the tropics.