Mexico’s Pre-Hispanic Cuisine
By Virginia Miller
Meso-American cuisine is one of the oldest in the world. Carbon 14 samplings establish its beginning in Mexico 6,000 years ago. Elaborate pottery, cooking utensils and obsidian knives and spoons attest to its importance.
The Mexican cuisine evolved around corn. Being simple in its raw materials, developed its arts in the direction of flavor, given by the great, imaginative use of herbs and condiments tempting the sense of smell. Moctezuma’s cooks knew about thirty different ways of preparing his main dishes. These were placed over small charcoal braziers to keep them warm. Food was served on dishes of fine quality and drinking vessels and pitchers were made of the finest materials. It was not unusual for him to have three hundred guests to dine.
Cuisines are based on tradition. Many people would be horrified to eat the flesh of the iguana, the lizard found in most of tropical America, where it is still a principal dish. It is served roasted, or baked with peanut or chile sauce in tamales, in stews and every other imaginable form. The meat tastes somewhat like frog’s legs and is greatly esteemed. The creature is a tree dweller and feeds on leaves and fruits. Its ferocious dragon-like appearance is more than offset by its soft, tender tasty meat.
Some tasty dishes of special interest are: Red Snapper, Totomztle, stuffed with oysters and shrimp and baked in corn leaves. Frog’s Legs Tenochtitlan, prepared with ground peanuts and dried red pepper. Ajolotes Tlahuac, that are newt or mud puppies dressed with aromatic epazote cooked over charcoal in corn dough. Acociles, small fresh water shrimp in an omelette. Ahuacle, briquette of eggs from water beetles or flies. Charales, tiny sardine-like fish (we know them well in Chapala) dried in the sun and served with wild peas. Conejo Entrampado rabbit marinated in pulque cooked with spices and balls of corn dough. Puercoespín tequilero, wild boar roasted in a tequila sauce.
Most dishes are composed of a bewildering number of ingredients and delicately balanced flavors, like the Puebla Mole. Mole comes from the word “moler” to ground. Often, well over twenty ingredients are ground in a molcajete, the black stone mortars we all know. Some of these are cloves, sesame seeds, peanuts, cinnamon, nutmeg, almonds, aniseed, slivers of bitter chocolate and several different kinds of chiles. The base is a stock. Into the pot are thrown tomatoes, garlic and onions, bananas and orange peel grated. The sauce thickens and is later reduced to consistency. An ambrosial sauce. Mole is served with turkey meat and sprinkled lightly with toasted sesame seeds.
Atole was a popular drink served in Pre-Hispanic times. (Nowadays one can buy instant atole.) Made from the juice of young maize, confected with spices, musk and sugar, could be consumed hot or cold.
The markets of Tenochtitlan must have been a miracle of varied products. Snakes, eels, flowers, cream cheeses, nopal cacti, dogs, pigs and all manner of baskets containing frogs, ants, grass hoppers, birds. The gorgeous feathers of exotic birds and textiles were available. As a medium of exchange, quills of the goose were filled with gold dust. The less affluent used cocoa beans.
To top off a sumptuous meal, there was nothing like a pipe or a thick cigar.