Mesoamerican Cuisine

What we know as Mesoamerican cuisine -in particular, Mexican cuisine-, is the traditional diet of the majority of the population, with its homemade traditional recipes, the use of local ingredients and, later, those imported from Spain, as well as certain cooking techniques and specific cookware.  

The first cuisine from a specific country to be accepted by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity was Mexican cuisine, which entered the list in 2010.

Many of the ingredients of prehispanic Mesoamerican cuisine are still available and in use nowadays.  The basic ones are corn -an essential part of Mexico’s identity and gastronomy-, beans and chile.  Tomato and squash are also widely used.

The nutritional contribution of these three basics to the world is very relevant.  

Corn is the most important source of energy of the Mesoamerican diet, while beans are the main source of protein.  The combination of nutrients from both of these foods is enough to stay healthy even without eating animal protein.

The more than 60 varieties of corn can be prepared in many ways, such as nixtamal –a dough made from milled corn, water and lime-, that can be mixed with other ingredients or filled with meat and other stews.  Tortillas -the “bread” of Mexican cuisine to this day- are made from nixtamal, as well as tamales and more than 700 variations of them, typical of each region.  Bread and beverages are also made from corn.

Around 50 varieties of beans in Mexico provide protein. They are also an important source of complex carbohydrates, fiber and minerals (such as iron, which is more easily and efficiently absorbed when eaten with chile.  Beans can be eaten as broth or made into a paste, as a filling for tamales and tacos, seasoned with chile and other herbs.

The triad of corn, beans and squash has also been essential to the health of indigenous populations, and still is to this day.  Scientific studies have shown that eating them together is more beneficial than separately, since their nutrients complement each other very well.

Another important ingredient is tomato, which can be eaten raw or cooked.  There is also chile, used as a condiment to almost any meal, especially foul, meat and fish.  Chile, in all its varieties and degrees of spiciness, can be used fresh or dried, raw or cooked, whole or ground.

Every region has different varieties of plants to complement the diet of the locals.  They use their seeds (amaranth, cacao, chia seed), their flowers (zucchini, maguey, yucca) and their roots (yam, potato, yucca), as well as their fruits (cherimoya, guanabana, avocado, zapotes, papaya, guava, coconut, strawberries, cactus fruit, among many others).  Some of the most commonly used vegetables are zucchini, chayote squash, green beans, cactus and quelites.  

Also widely consumed are insects such as grasshoppers, escamoles, maguey worms, and many other varieties.  These accounted for 80% of their protein intake.

The inhabitants of the prehispanic mesoamerican cultures were also fresh water fishermen and hunters.  Among the varieties of game was duck and chachalacas, as well as armadillo, hare, deer, wild boar and others.  They also domesticated some animals for food, like guajolote, bees and a certain kind of duck.

The most commonly used condiments were the many varieties of chile, as well as epazote, avocado leaf, hoja santa, spring onions, and well-known vanilla (o xonácatl).  

Elaboration methods include techniques and tools available since archaic times.  

Some of the techniques used were sun drying, roasting,toasting, baking, grinding, milling, squeezing, fermenting and soaking.  Their tools consisted of a three-stone stove, toasters, juicers and grinders made of stone, stone pits and three kinds of underground ovens.

Scientists claim that biological adaptation of the mexican inhabitants to native foods comes from prehistoric times.  Thus, the quick and drastic changes brought by current industrialized foods -abounding in empty carbohydrates and processed fats-, cause health problems that did not exist when the people lived on native ingredients and procedures.

The United Nations Organization suggests that the best way to feed the world is with lower scale organic crops.  That is, the ideal would be going back to basics -to the food of our ancestors and home garden keeping for food.

Interesting facts:

Corn is the only grain that requires the human hand for its reproduction.  Before corn seeds can be sowed, the corncob has be allowed to dry and its grains removed by hand.

There is currently no cuisine in the world that is not influenced by something that existed in that prehispanic Mexico.

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