Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day. But here's how to celebrate anyway

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Do you want a great party, complete with music, dancing, piñatas and incredible food? Go to a Cinco de Mayo fiesta -- or throw one yourself. Pati Jinich, an expert in all things Mexican and host of Pati's Mexican Table, gives some guidance and inspiration.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Cinco de Mayo is a big party day for Mexicans. What's the story behind it?

Pati Jinich: It's a big party for Mexicans, but mostly abroad, which is very funny because in Mexico it's celebrated mostly in the state of Puebla. Last year they had the 150th anniversary of the Cinco de Mayo celebration.

LRK: I always thought it was Mexican Independence Day.

PJ: That's what most people think, because we Mexicans have made it such a big deal outside of Mexico. But it is not Mexican Independence Day. Mexican Independence Day is September 16.

Cinco de Mayo commemorates the very unlikely victory of a small Mexican militia in the year of 1862, when they won against the huge French army. It was very unprecedented and it was short-lived, sadly, because a year later the French came back and took over. But they ruled only for 3 years and then Mexico became independent again.

What we celebrate -- and what's been translated abroad -- is Mexicans’ resilience, courageous nature and perseverance, and our positive and hardworking attitude. We just celebrate anything and everything that's Mexican on this day.

LRK: How do Mexicans celebrate Cinco de Mayo?

PJ: We celebrate from the moment the day starts. It starts with food and it ends with food. There are also some fabulous dishes that come from Puebla that are typically made on the day, such as chicken tinga. It's just a catchy name and it’s a catchy thing to make because it's super versatile. It's chicken that is cooked in a tomato base that's seasoned with onion, garlic and incredible-tasting chipotles in adobo.

Of course there are variations: Some people use tomatillos (I am one to mix it with the tomatoes because it gives it a nice punch) and some people also add crumbled, crispy chorizo in the mix. As you're seasoning the onion and the garlic, you add that layer of chorizo. You just make the chicken tinga a little bit more hefty, so you end up with a mix that's sort of like a sloppy joe.

You can make it ahead of time; then, on the day, you can make tostadas. You just grab those crispy tortillas, spread them with refried beans, and then people add as much chicken tinga and healthy stuff like lettuce, tomatoes and cheese as they want. Or you can also go with chicken tinga quesadillas, or chicken tinga tacos. It's like a chicken tinga craze; you can put it on top of everything.

Chicken Tinga
Chicken Tinga

LRK: So you could just have that out on a table like a big buffet and everybody can do with it what they want?

PJ: Exactly.

Then you have aguas frescas. We put them in big glass barrels or big pitchers. Typically you have a lime water, a hibiscus-flavored water or a tamarind water. When people think about Mexicans’ drinks, it's not only the Corona beer or the tequila. It's all of these freshly flavored waters, different kinds of drink mixes and cafe de olla in the morning to start.

Then, of course, there are the piñatas and the sweets: the flan, the cookies and the candied fruits.

Usually for a Cinco de Mayo celebration, there will be something in a neighborhood that has music and the Mexican folkloric dancing. You will see people dressed in the traditional way, with the hats and the full-blown thing. It's just a full day's celebration.

What I find funny is that my American friends now get more excited about the Cinco de Mayo celebrations than even we do.

LRK: It's a great party. Why not?

PJ: It is contagious.

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