Aztecs and the Roots of Mexican Cooking

Food: A Cultural Culinary History—Episode 16

Hello, Great Courses fans. This audio-podcast has been cooked, removed from the oven, and is being lovingly delivered to a new audio-platform. In its absence, please enjoy the video series that it was based off, streaming now Wondrium. Click here to watch it now.

The following episode transcript and images will remain for posterity. Enjoy!

At the exact same time as the European Renaissance, the Aztec culture produced a unique food tradition that survives to this very day in Mexican cuisine. In this podcast, we’re going to learn about Aztec society, its indigenous foodstuffs, and it’s very distinctive diet. We’ll examine descriptions of lavish Aztec banquets; identify “signature” Aztec foods; and we’re going to discuss the Aztec philosophy of balance and moderation in eating.

Images for this Episode:

Culinary Activities for this Episode:

• 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. There could be no wheat, beef, pork, or even chicken. Herbs and seasonings would be restricted to native plants—so no oregano or cumin—and a whole range of vegetables would be missing. On the other hand, there are so many ingredients you can use. This is a simple corn-and-bean dish, and of course, versions are still made today, but it captures the spirit of Aztec cooking rather nicely.

Start by soaking a pot of beans overnight. Use any Phaseolus species, such as pinto, navy, kidney, or even black beans; these are all from the New World. The next day, pour off the water and add fresh water just to cover by an inch or two. Use a clay pot if you can; it does improve the flavor. Add a pinch of epazote, which is said to reduce flatulence. It tastes good, too. Add to the pot a good handful of pozole , which consists of corn kernels soaked in lime and swollen. You can use dried or canned hominy. Keep on a very low simmer without boiling vigorously. Once the beans are nearly tender, add salt. 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 flat 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.

Suggested Reading:

Coe, America’s First Cuisines.

Coe, The True History of Chocolate.

McNeil, Chocolate in Mesoamerica.

Norton, Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World.

Ortiz de Montellano, Aztec Medicine, Health, and Nutrition.

Images courtesy of:

• Map of Mexico Basin: By Lago_de_Texcoco-posclásico.png: Yavidaxiu Valley_of_Mexico_c.1519-fr.svg: historicair 13:51, 11 September 2007 (UTC) derivative work: Sémhur. CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
• Wild teosinte, maize: By John Doebley ( CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
• Amaranth: Shutterstock
• Cactus: Shutterstock
• Avocado: Nsaum75 at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
• Aztecs: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
• Tenochtitlán: By CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

• Nixtamalized corn: By Ll1324 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
• Women making tortillas: Carl Nebel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Metate: Shutterstock
• Comal: Shutterstock
• Tamale: Shutterstock
• Atole: By Sxmuelfernandez (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
• Jicama: Shutterstock
• Yucca: Shutterstock
• Malanga: Shutterstock
• Sweet Potato: Shutterstock
• Amaranth: Shutterstock
• Cassava: Shutterstock
• Tapioca: Shutterstock
• Chia seeds : Shutterstock
• Squash: Shutterstock
• Spirulina: Shutterstock
• Spirulina powder: Shutterstock
• Chinampa codex: By Gary Francisco Keller, artwork created under supervision of Bernardino de Sahagún between 1540 and 1585. (The Digital Edition of the Florentine Codex) CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
• Chinampas in 1912: By Karl Weule, 1926 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Capybara: Shutterstock
tlacatlaolli : Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
• Aztec Sacrifice: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons 
Capsicum annum: Shutterstock
• Montezuma: By Antonio de Solís (author), artist unidentified [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Bernardino Sahagun : By The original uploader was JunK at German Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Guacamole: Shutterstock
• Tomatl: Shutterstock
• Epazote: Shutterstock
• Pulque: Shutterstock
• Pozol: By AlejandroLinaresGarcia (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
• Woman pouring Chocolatl: By Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Vanilla: Shutterstock