Exploring a region’s cuisine with your students gives them a window into its culture, traditions, and social and agricultural history. For example, what do tamales, guacamole, and champurrado — dishes often associated with Mexican cuisine — have in common? Their signature ingredients are crops native to the Americas: corn, beans/tomatoes, avocados, cacao, and squash. The history of these crops goes back thousands of years to the region’s indigenous peoples. Corn, for example, was domesticated about 10,000 years ago by Olmec and Mayan peoples in the region we now know as Mexico.
September is National Hispanic Heritage Month, a time to celebrate the histories and contributions of a diverse group of people who have ties to Spanish-speaking cultures. Many of these cultures can be found in Latin America — Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean Islands — and one of the ways we can celebrate and honor various cultures is through their traditional foods.
Experts suggest that up to 3/5 of the crops regarded as dietary staples worldwide originated in what is today Latin America. These include corn, potatoes, tomatoes, many types of beans, chili and bell peppers, wild rice, squash and pumpkins, sweet potatoes, sunflower seeds, avocados, peanuts, and pineapples, as well as cacao and vanilla. Let’s look deeper into the histories of a few of these.
One of the oldest domesticated crops, corn (Zea mays) is a member of the grass family. The name “corn” was given to the crop by English settlers. The word is likely derived from an ancient word that referred to any type of grain, and the name stuck, at least in the English-speaking parts of the United States, Canada, and Australia. Elsewhere, it goes by the name maize, which is derived from the Spanish pronunciation of the word mahiz, the name used by the Taino, an indigenous people of the Caribbean.
Today, many people think of corn as plump yellow kernels lined up in neat rows on large ears. However, corn didn’t start out looking like this. The ancient plant produced small ears with just a few rows of widely spaced seeds. It was only through the agricultural expertise of the Aztec and Mayan peoples — who for generations saved and replanted seeds to produce plants with larger, fuller ears — that corn was transformed into the crop we now know.
Not only did these indigenous cultures modify the plant to be more productive, but they also developed a process that improved the kernels themselves. In a process called nixtamalization, dried corn is boiled and then soaked in an alkaline solution containing calcium hydroxide, also known as slaked lime or pickling lime. The resulting kernels are tastier, more nutritious, and easier to transform into forms that are easily stored and transported like tortillas or arepas. The process remains essentially unchanged to this day.
Now a productive and nutritious crop, corn became a staple food for these ancient cultures. It’s easy to see how subsequent cultures in Latin America readily adopted this versatile ingredient and transformed it into dishes: tacos, tostadas, pozole, sopes, pupusas, tamales, and elotes to name a few.
Dry beans, such as pinto beans, navy beans, kidney beans, and black beans, were first domesticated thousands of years ago by the indigenous peoples of Latin America. An important source of protein, beans are familiar in many cuisines of these regions.
The dry beans mentioned are varieties of the species Phaseolus vulgaris (in contrast to garbanzo beans, soybeans, and green beans, which are different species). There is a vast assortment of varieties, many with colorful names such as calypso, appaloosa, tongues of fire, and orca.
Beans are a type of legume, indicating that, unlike most plants, they’re able to “fix” nitrogen. The roots of the plants, in association with certain soil bacteria, can convert nitrogen in the air into a form usable by the plant. Beans are high in protein but lack one important amino acid, methionine. Corn, on the other hand, is rich in methionine but lacks other amino acids. Combined, the two provide all the essential amino acids, making them a “complete” protein. Although this fact makes beans and corn ideal nutritional partners, their complementary textures and flavors — along with creative cooks — have made them culinary staples in many dishes.
Charro beans, feijoada, frijoles de la olla, baleadas, habichuelas guisadas, frijoles negros, and gallo pinto are a few traditional Hispanic dishes containing beans.
The familiar fruits we know as peppers, (variously called chilies, chiles, bell peppers, etc.) are members of the Solanaceae family, a family that also includes tomato, potato, eggplant, tomatillo, tobacco, and deadly nightshade. Many of these plants contain bitter-tasting chemicals called alkaloids that may function as a deterrent to pests. Capsaicin is a fiery-tasting alkaloid found primarily in the fruit of peppers (Capsicum genus) and that is likely an adaptation to deter mammals from eating the plants.
Found in Central and South America, the earliest ancestor of peppers produced small, red berries. Birds, which don’t have taste receptors for capsaicin, readily ate the berries and spread the seeds and plants throughout the region. The relationship between peppers and humans dates back thousands of years. Indigenous peoples in what is now Mexico used them as far back as 5000 BC as food and medicines, as well as in rituals and ceremonies. The word “chili” derives from the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs.
What this culinary staple is called varies around the world. In the U.S., large, mild-flavored peppers are usually called bell peppers, while varieties with hot/spicy flavors are called chili peppers or hot peppers. In Mexico, the term chile is used for hot peppers, in contrast to heatless varieties, called pimientos.
The name “pepper” was given to the plant by Christopher Columbus, who perhaps likened its heat to that of the highly valued black pepper (Piper nigrum). Peppers (Capsicum genus) and black pepper are unrelated, a misnomer that has lasted to this day.
Over many generations of cultivation and selection, a great diversity of pepper varieties has emerged, with widely varying degrees of heat. In addition to providing plants with some protection from pests, capsaicin has antibacterial properties. The ability of capsaicin to help rid foods of pathogens could explain, at least in part, why spicy fare became so popular in regions with hot climates where food would otherwise quickly spoil.
Chiles (to use the Spanish name) are an important part of Hispanic culture, featuring prominently in food and art. Vibrant, decorative ristras — chile fruits that have been strung together and hung outdoors to dry — adorn porches and entryways, where the fruits can be plucked as needed for use in the kitchen.
Recipes featuring chiles abound: chiles rellenos, chiles toreados, and chiles en nogada, to name a few. Mole sauce, the national dish of Mexico, always contains chiles — though there are countless regional variations and family recipes that may include a dozen or more additional ingredients, see below to learn more.
The avocado tree (Persea americana) is a medium-sized, evergreen tree native to South Central Mexico, where indigenous peoples of the region began consuming its delicious fruit up to 10,000 years ago. In addition to providing an important source of nutrients and calories, the avocado was believed to possess mythological powers. People began cultivating the crop about 7,000 years ago and it became a staple of their diet.
Avocados’ popularity continued throughout the ages, and it still plays a role in cuisines of the region. The beloved, avocado-rich dish called guacamole likely has roots as far back as the Aztec culture, because the name comes from the Nahuatl/Aztec word ahuacamolli. It’s a must-have accompaniment to many dishes.
Nutritionists recommend avocadoes for their wealth of essential nutrients and important phytochemicals, including potassium; magnesium; vitamins A, C, E, K1, and B6; lutein/zeaxanthin; and monounsaturated fats.
Mole: One Sauce, Hundreds of Variations
A traditional sauce used throughout Mexico and Central America, mole (MOH-lay) commonly contains chiles, fruits, nuts, and spices. However, the variations are endless, with each region — and sometimes, each household! — boasting its own unique recipe. Some recipes contain up to 30 ingredients (the term mole is an ancient word for mix). Researching these variations and their unique ingredients offers insights into a region’s history. Mole recipes usually include a variety of ingredients native to the Americas. Some, however, also include non-native ingredients, indicating they were developed after those ingredients were introduced to the region via trade.
Just like our communities are strengthened when diverse cultures are represented, traditional cuisines have benefited from the addition of new flavors from other locales. Plants native to other parts of the world made their way into Latin American cuisine, such as cumin (the seed of a plant native to the East Mediterranean and South Asia) and cinnamon (derived from the bark of a tree from Sri Lanka). Thus, foods we think of as distinctive of a cuisine are almost always a product of many cultures coming together, exchanging ingredients, and adopting new cooking techniques.