Back in the day, the Spanish arrived in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (present day Mexico City), and they noticed that the Aztecs’ dishes were mainly made with corns, chilies, tomatoes and beans, and sometimes herbs, fruits and nopales. They thought of introducing their very own diet of rice, pork, beef, garlic and onions to create a fusion of bursting flavors. It used to be that Mexico’s staple food was corn or maize but rice slowly gained popularity that it is now considered as a staple in the same rank as that of corn. A renowned food writer by the name Karen Hursh Graber once noted that in the early 16th century, there was a significant increase in the entry of rice products from Spain via the Veracruz port.
It all started when the Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes led his team to a conquest of Mexico which was then ruled by Montezuma and the region’s gold treasures. With him was his compatriot Bernal Diaz del Castillo who was in charge of the transcription of their travels and hunts for resources. Diaz recorded their team’s experiences including their food, their battles and the extreme conditions that they had to live in.
Cortes initially discovered that ancient Mexicans resorted to cannibalism and that human flesh was offered as a sacrifice to their gods. Cortes found this ritual repulsive that he persuaded the leader Montezuma to ban the practice. He figured he can convince the people of Montezuma to drop that habit by offering their very own diet of fowls, quail, ducks and rabbits among others, and served these treats on a daily basis as per Diaz’s records. Diaz further noted that cakes made from corn, eggs and other healthy ingredients were served on plates with neat napkins, together with chocolate that was very abundant in the region. The death of this ritual also led to the eventual downfall of the amaranth seed’s popularity that the Aztecs raised from their floating gardens. Amaranth seed was then popular as a basic ingredient of the dough that was fed to the human before being sacrificed to the gods.
Speaking of corn or maize, Diaz described the crop as being so plentiful in what they considered as the New Spain. There were so many of these crops that Diaz observed it became the focus of most rituals especially that the young women popped and utilized them as ornaments. Corn can also be turned into dough called masa that is the base of the famous tortilla and tamales. Diaz concluded that it was the basis of all Mexican food.
It was the Aztecs that the Spanish invaded yet when the conquistadors came, the Aztecs’ diet was not truly their own. Their cuisine was greatly established by the Mayans of the early Mexican civilization. Therefore, the developing, growing and utilizing of corn and other basics were also just passed on to them. It is just fit to credit the Mayans for the Mexican dishes and traditions that we know at present.
Mayans were skillful farmers and could cultivate most of their staple food such as corn (maize), beans, chilies, tomatoes and squash. Fruits and plants were plentiful. Diaz especially mentioned prickly pear in his travelogues. Even the not so popular plants, Mayans sowed like Spirulina, an algae growing on water and a major source of protein, and Maguey that produced a light alcoholic drink called Pulque.
As popular and vital as the corn were beans. Mayans actually used to plant beans and corn in the same plot so the bean could crawl around the corn stalk. Different beans are found in every region. The red variety, the scarlet runner bean, was grown in the central highlands of Guatemala and Mexico. The black variety is famous in the Yucatan and Veracruz region while the north takes pride of their pink beans.
Tomatoes were natives to Mexico yet there are varieties that made their way from South America. Chilies in a wide variety, meanwhile, are abundant in Mexico. These two remain as the most vital ingredient that give sweet tanginess and punch to any dish.
It was not the availability of staple crops that provided the Mayans with a healthy diet but the cooking procedures they utilized. They were not aware of the nutritional values of their resources but their methods of cooking released the innate nutrients of the food. For instance, the Mayans cooked corn with lime that has the capacity to release the vitamins and minerals of the corn.
A swift look at the Spanish contribution to Mexican cooking will show that the Mexican dishes as we know it today is a fusion of old and new world ingredients. The foundation of Mexican cuisine stayed on while the Spanish thought they made it better by making it richer.
Among the vital contributions was the introduction of domesticated animals which pigs reigned on, as these animals were self-fattening and easy to transport. These provided meat and lard which made the most sweeping change to the Indians’ diet. Mexicans never fried food until the introduction of pork. Chicken, sheep, goats and cattle were also brought in and were mainly grazed in the central and northern regions.
Wheat was also introduced to explain the common day availability of wheat tortilla. Sugarcane was brought in from the Caribbean since it was the route they took when Cortes and his men arrived in Mexico. It is safe to say then that the Mexican cuisine that we know today also has a tint of Indian culture courtesy of the Spanish who passed by the Indian’s territory. Examples of this Mexican-Spanish-Indian fusion are frijoles, quesadillas and mole. The foods remained the same after independence of Mexico and the regional cuisines developed.
With the invasion of the Aztecs by the Spanish, the Europeans dominated over the locals yet the indigenous foods survived this era. Many say that poverty was the key to keeping old traditions alive. The Spanish were too proud to share food with the lowly that a caste system was followed. Mexicans didn’t have a problem with that since their dishes were innately healthy. The Spanish preferred wheat bread while those in the lower caste fed on the staple corn and other native stuff which were generally cheaper and were cooked the healthy way, by grilling.
Illiteracy was also one of the reasons traditional Mexican dishes survived the invasion of the Spanish. Why? It’s because even if early cookbooks disregarded the native recipes, nobody were reading them simply because they could not. Housewives learned their cooking skills handed down from generation to generation, by word of mouth.
The Spanish colonization lasted hundreds of years but even so, when it ended in 1910, Mexico did not lose its glory in terms of its cooking. Mexican Cuisine is unique on its own and can be considered a true world-class heritage.