(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)
Before the introduction of agriculture, the diets of the indigenous people of Mexico consisted mainly of various animals caught by hunters, as well as fish. They gathered several wild plants to supplement their meat. For example, mesquite trees and shrubs produced bean-like pods rich in sugar. Nopal was a fruit from cactus plants. Maguey plants contained a sweet liquid known as agua miel, or honey water. Also, maize grew wild in many parts. By about 7000 BCE, most large mammals in Mexico were extinct, and plant food became an increasingly important part of the diet.
Agriculture introduced new food types into people’s diets. They grew maize, beans, tomatoes, squash, chillies, amaranth and cactus, as well as fruit such as guava and avocado. Reptiles and small mammals continued to be hunted. In many areas, insects, larvae and grubs were common foods. Maize soon became the main food throughout the highlands and was supplemented with beans. This combination provided indigenous people with a nutritious diet as these foods together produce amino acids. The maize kernels were soaked in lime, which releases niacin and provides calcium.
As maize was a staple, it was prepared for consumption in many ways, adding variety to what was eaten. Before agriculture, wild maize was eaten raw or roasted on a fire. Later it was grounded and added to water, making a gruel called atole, pinole or pozole. Maize was also made into a dough, or masa, which was then used to make various foods. For example, maize could be made into thin cakes, or tortillas, and dumplings, or tamales. Other maize meals included pellizcadas, peneques, sopes and tostadas. They also made popcorn from maize.
Other common foods at this time were pumpkin, squash and zucchini. The whole plant was consumed. The vegetable itself was boiled, while the stems went into a soup, and the flowers also went into soups as well as in stews and quesadillas. An algae called tecuitatl was obtained from lakes in the valleys. Animal foods continued to supplement maize and other plant food. The indigenous people domesticated turkeys, rabbits and hairless dogs for consumption. They still hunted small game, including reptiles and amphibians as well as birds, fish and insects.
The food of the Mayan people was quite diverse. Plants including chaya and ramon were eaten with maize. The ramon tree produced seeds with high protein content. A number of root crops were consumed, such as camotes, jicamas, malanga and yuca. In coastal and river areas, people also ate large amounts of fish and shellfish. The Mexicans were the first people to make chocolate. A chocolate drink was produced from the seeds of the cacao tree as early as 1100 BCE, and was popular across Mexico with the Maya and later the Aztecs. They called it xocolatl, meaning bitter water. A study estimated that the people in the central Mexico area consumed somewhere between 1,400 and 2,600 calories a day, comparable to modern times.
It is thought that the Aztecs too had an adequate diet with plenty of protein. They used terracing, irrigation and fertilizer, and created artificial islands, or chinampas, which gave them up to four harvests each year. They learned to plant certain crops together, such as maize and beans, increasing yields. A high protein meal was maize made as a masa, with beans. They ate chillies and tomatoes, both rich in vitamin C, and wild herbs, or quelites, full of vitamin A. Sauces were made using chillies. They fermented the juice of the maguey plant to make pulque and corn to produce pozol, both alcoholic drinks.
Food eaten in Mexico underwent considerable change with the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century. They brought their own food supplies with them and quickly introduced wheat, which was suited to the soil and climate, and was soon grown in vast quantities across the plains and valleys. By the 18th century, 40 million pounds of bread a year were consumed in Mexico City. Other grains such as rice as well as barley, rye and sugarcane were planted in various regions. Indigenous people were eating large amounts of rice by the 17th century, along with their maize, and sometimes instead of maize.
The Spaniards also introduced their animals into Mexico. Pigs were popular, as were sheep. At the end of the 16th century, an estimated one million sheep were grazing throughout the country. Cattle also took over vast regions. Meat from introduced animals became a staple of both the newcomers and the indigenous population. Other foods were introduced by the Spaniards and these too were eaten by the Indians. These included vegetables such as carrots, eggplant, garlic, lentils, onions and turnips, and fruit such as cherries, figs, grapefruit, lemons, limes, melons, oranges and peaches.
Local people often had no choice but to eat the new foods as land and resources previously used to produce their traditional foods were now used for the new foods, both animal and crop. This situation varied between regions. In the more remote areas, traditional foods remained more abundant. Some native Mexicans were still eating an almost exclusive vegetarian diet. However, virtually all of them were eating at least some introduced foods by the late 16th century. For a large number of people, the new foods virtually replaced their traditional foods.
The Conquest resulted in combinations of foods from the Old and New Worlds in the one dish. Mole poblano is a traditional chocolate-based sauce with chillies and nuts. The Spaniards added onion, garlic, cinnamon and nutmeg to it. The Mexicans had it with turkey while the Europeans ate it with chicken. Chiles en nogada is a dish that uses chillies and walnuts from Mexico with meat and fruit from either Europe or Mexico. Indigenous people became used to the fat of introduced animals and soon invented dishes using this fat. These included frijoles, gorditas, quesadillas and refritos. Mesoamerican foods such as carnitas, tacos, tamales and tortas were soon made from European foods, including bread, animal fat, cheese, onion and garlic.
This mixture of cuisines continued after Mexico’s independence in the early 19th century. There were plenty of regional variations in what people ate, which depended on availability and prices. The price of foods such as maize, beans and rice rose sharply in the late 19th century in many areas. Consumption of these foods declined, especially among the poor. Commercialization and industrialization of food production was increasingly impacting on what foods people ate. Commercial decisions, for example, meant more cattle, sugar and coffee. When maize flour was made in a mill, consumption of tortillas increased substantially as people no longer had to spent hours making them by hand and because they became cheaper.
In recent times, traditional foods such as beans, squash, avocadoes and chillies have been combined with introduced foods such as beef, pork, rice and lettuce. Morisqueta, or boiled rice with sea salt, was introduced into the diets of rural Mexicans in the late 1940s by Japanese refugees from World War II. A dish that is often considered to be Mexico’s national dish is mole de guajolote, or turkey with one of several sauces generically called mole. It is often served at traditional weddings. Mexican chocolate, which consists of cacao, sugar, cinnamon and sometimes nuts, is a favorite.
Fast foods have increasingly appeared in Mexico. Hamburger and hot dog stands, pizza parlors and Chinese restaurants are everywhere. These foods often become “Mexicanized”. For example, chillies and traditional sauces are available in hamburger eateries, while pizzas can include mole and green chilli. The Taco Bell chain operates in a number of countries, offering a menu that is based on New World food but with the Old World additions such as beef and cheese. Cola drinks too are now consumed throughout the country.
Mexican food has gone through many changes over the millennia. Meat dominated before the introduction of agriculture. Maize then became the main food, supplemented by small game and certain vegetables. The Mayans and the Aztecs ate a varied diet but mainly plant food rather than animal food. The coming of the Spaniards resulted in a mixture of traditional and European foods, something that has continued to the present day. Industrialization and commercialization have had a large impact on the food eaten. More recently, fast food has been a major influence.