Aztecs and the Roots of Mexican Cooking

Before venturing into the modern era, you will learn about Mexico at the time of the Aztecs, immediately before the encounter with Europeans after 1492. The Aztecs were not, of course, the fi rst great New World civilization; there were many earlier peoples living in what is today Mexico—including the Olmec, Toltec, Maya, and Teotihuacán— before the Aztecs arrived.

However, this lecture will focus on the Aztecs because they absorbed and ruled over most of these peoples or their descendants. As a result, they adopted many cultural and culinary traits from these peoples.

Agriculture before the Aztecs

Before the development of agriculture, the early peoples of Mexico lived mostly by hunting, fishing, and gathering as elsewhere. In contrast to the general pattern on the Eurasian continent, most of the large animals were extinct before 7000 B.C. The native peoples came to rely increasingly on plants like mesquite, nopal cactus, maguey, and wild teosinte—the ancestor of corn—which fi rst began to be domesticated about 4000 B.C., though recent evidence suggests it was long before this.

They supplemented this with hunting smaller animals and fishing, but they didn’t have any large domesticated cattle. They ate mostly small mammals, lizards, insects, and grubs. This seems to have provided them with a decent diet, because there were several regions of fairly dense population.

Ingredients of World Importance

In early Mexican societies, maize was a staple that took on a deeply religious significance. The Maya word for it is kana, which means “our mother.” On its own, it is very nutritious, but it lacks some essential amino acids like lysine, isoleucine, and tryptophan. However, in combination with beans, it provides a more complete protein package that you can live on.

Processed maize was typically ground on a saddle-shaped metate and made into a dough now called a masa, flattened into disks, and cooked on a comal. Masa could also be popped, steamed in a corn husk to make tamales, or made into a drink called atole.

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Aztec Cuisine

Aztec cuisine was quite complex, featuring all sorts of extremely spicy stews. Chili peppers were a main ingredient in Aztec cuisine, and they were also used to make smoke bombs. Chilies (Capsicum annum) are native to Mexico, and the Aztecs apparently ate nothing without them. Chilies would be soaked, ground up, and used as the base of sauces—exactly as they are today.

Just as in Europe, there is evidence that the Aztecs had a kind of middle class that was trying to imitate the customs of the nobles and emperor. What is striking, though, is that in accounts of Aztec meals, the observers noted that the participants ate moderately. They didn’t indulge themselves, and balance and moderation are apparently running themes through all Aztec thought.

Cooking a Pre-Columbian Recipe

Just as it is fun to imagine what Italian food, for example, would have been like before the introduction of tomatoes, peppers, or corn, imagining pre Columbian cooking is equally instructive for food history.

Last word

Continue cooking until the beans are soft. Then, add chopped nopalitos, or cactus paddles. They are best fresh. Cut off the spines along the edge, and then cut off the other spines along the fl at sides of the paddle, being careful not to get pricked. Then, slice them into long, thin strips; rinse well; and put into the pot with the beans and corn.

It will thicken it up and create a slightly mucilaginous texture, which is delightful. You can also use jarred nopalitos if you like. This is a complete vegetarian meal, offering a balanced package of proteins.

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