The food of the ancient Mayan, Mixtec, Olmec, Toltec, Inca, and Aztec, although separated by time and distance, all existed within a common agricultural universe cross-fertilized by centuries of conquest and commerce that formed Mexican cuisine as we know it today. The Aztec civilization is the last one of those pre-Columbian empires that shaped the Mexican cuisine before the arrival of the Spaniards. It is remarkable how they absorbed the cuisine from every town that felt under their control. They even adopted ingredients coming from as far away as the Inca empire in South America, such as the Sweet Potato (camohtli), that was domesticated in Peru around the year 8000 BC.
The base of their food was corn, previously domesticated by the neighbouring tribes living in Coxcatlán Puebla.
The Aztecs were the last of the mythic seven “nahuatlaca” (1) tribes arriving to the lakeshores beside the great volcanoes Itztalcihuatl and Popocatepetl. They followed a long pilgrimage, starting from their former home of Aztlán. This journey ended when they found the sign of their god (a Mexican golden eagle perched on a prickly pear cactus devouring a snake- which is the current coat of arms of México).
The site designated was a small islet, and the surrounding areas were already claimed by the warring tribes. The Aztecs didn´t have an option and so built their city in the lake, using a new method called “chinampa” (artificial islands), created by staking out the shallow lake bed and then fencing in the rectangle with wattle, layered with mud, lake sediment, and decaying vegetation, eventually bringing it above the level of the lake.
The three sisters
The chinampa is a method that produced very fertile land where it was possible to harvest their almost sacred maize three times per year. Labor and yield define maize’s role in Mexican food history and culture. Little work was required with no sophisticated equipment and the high yield obtained in return makes it one of the most generous plants. Someone, somewhere at some time discovered the amazing process of nixtamalization and its benefits in the process of grinding or cooking the corn but an even better advantage is that the process also allows the human metabolism to completely absorb the nutrients that are unavailable with the pericarp intact.
The corn was always grown accompanied by its little but not less important sisters; the pumpkin and the bean. This technology meant that the same crops could be planted over and over without depleting the soils nutrients because the joint plantings enriched the soil in a symbiotic way and reduced herbivore infestations. These same “milpas” (2) assumed a huge role in Mexican gastronomic history, when their sides were fashioned into berms and then used as shallow ponds to culture fish or insects.
The two most common type of staple was the bean that included varieties like wax, pinto black and scores of others that were cooked with epazote (3) and chilies and the squashes and their seeds, added to masa or other constructs to flavor and thicken.
The leaves of the squash were, and still are, used to wrap other vegetables or protein in masa and then steamed or fire roasted. Often they were cooked in maguey syrup and the blossoms when stuffed were wrapped in masa and steamed. Dried gourds were used as storage containers or vessels.
The three sisters (corn, beans and squash) were in almost every meal, accompanied by an extensive use of vegetables, such as amaranth and chia, both considered the perfect seeds by modern food science thanks for their nutritional composition. The chia is the same pet plant found sprouting in homes around America.
Another of the products that we inherited from the Aztec civilization were, avocado, guava, nance, pineapple, sapodilla, sweet potatoes, yucca, chocolate, zapote, huitlacoche, squash blossoms, quintoniles, huauhzontles and cherimoya.
Meat, was a rare treat for most and usually confined to the Mexican nobility, wealthy merchant or warrior class in any frequency. A big list of wild game was available and all kind of fishes and seafood were caught in the lake which also had fresh water algae, known today as spirulina, harvested.
The only domesticated protein sources were turkeys, doves, Muscovy ducks that nested in trees, several Chihuahua like and hairless Xoloitzcuintli dogs. In those times, the Aztec food was either boiled, fire roasted or steamed on a rack, very much like the Chinese, in an earthenware pot called olla while stews or moles were cooked in a casserole called a cazuela, which was placed in or suspended over an open fire.
An estimated 200 plus insects’ varieties were and, in many cases, still are consumed by both ancient and current day Mexicans.
This wealth of insects, with protein levels ranging from 10 to 80%, includes the raw or cooked adult, eggs, pupae and larvae of hundreds of regional types.
This entomophagic menu lists a handful of maguey/agave cactus grubs and other delicatessen such as wasps, grasshoppers, dragon-fly larva, bees, flies, lice, months, butterflies and caterpillars, worms, water bugs, cicadas and beetles. Cactus flowers, leaves, fruits, paddles and trunks were eaten in profusion and a mild alcoholic beverage, something like mezcal or pulque, was obtained by fermenting various parts of the cultivar.
Mexican food is succumbing to the onslaughts of the great North American Alimentary influence, there is not more Quetzalcoatl returning to take revenge for not obeying the rules, but instead there is a Pepsicoatl snake who is devoring the health with their processed foods from Wal-Mart, Bimbo, and KFC. The descendants of the Aztecs now consume more Coca Cola then their North American cousins and many younger Mexicans don’t like chili inspired dishes, they prefer the triple whopper with the Chinese toy included, accompanied with their coke.
The hand-held masa dishes of the past are being replaced by the pepperoni super-sized pizzas huge portions ollywood style. But many of these historic Mexican food cultivars, although unknown to us in our world, are still eaten in rural areas surrounding Mexico city, where subsistence farming is the norm and will never disappear since they are far too perishable to transport more than a few miles, giving us reason to travel to those places, back in time by touring through the historic towns.
Glossary of Terms
Tribes originating near the current state of Nayarit, the mythical place known as Aztlán, which they left for a long pilgrimage ordained by their god. They were the Xochimilcas, Chalas, Tepanecas, Coolhaus, Tlahuicas, Tlaxcaltecas, and Mexicas or Aztecas who founded “La Gran Tenochtítlan”, today known as Mexico City.
Milpa is a crop-growing system used throughout Mesoamerica. The word milpa is derived from the Nahuatl word phrase mil-pa “to the field” (Nahuatl mil-li”field” + -pa “towards”).
typically refers to a process for the preparation of maize (corn), or other grain, in which the grain is soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution, usually limewater, and hulled.
The term can also refer to the removal via an alkali process of the pericarp from other grains such as sorghum.