NATIVE TONGUESPhotography by Alastair Casey
You're welcome humanity! Pre-Colombian Mexicans were the first people to cultivate many of the most beloved ingredients that grace dining tables across the world. Here, a brief primer on five staples of Mexican origin.
The undomesticated variety of this dark green fruit—which derives its name, owing to its shape, from the Nahuatl word for “testicle”—dates back to 10,000 B.C in Puebla. The Aztecs used it as a sex stimulant, and their Spanish conquerors, finding it flavorless, extracted a reddish-brown milky liquid from its seed, which they used as writing ink. Ultimately, it was the English (not typically known for having adventurous palates) who proselytized on behalf of its tasty properties.
We know—it’s originally from the Peruvian highlands. But Mexicans were the first to cultivate tomatoes, as early as 500 B.C. The Aztecs used them regularly in their cooking (they were yellow and tiny, the size of cherry tomatoes) and the Spaniards spread its sweet, plump love throughout the Caribbean, the Philippines, and Europe, where it has served as a foundation for some of the world’s most esteemed cuisines ever since. Italy, you owe Mexico big-time.
Fun fact: The thick and leathery “little pods” (hence the name) containing these aromatic beans belong to the orchid family. Historically, conquerors love vanilla, which was originally cultivated by the Totonac people in present-day Veracruz—the Aztecs subjugated the Totonacs; the Spanish, of course, did the same thing to the Aztecs; and cooks the world over have been experimenting with vanilla’s versatile, bewitching flavor ever since.
The Olmecs were the first to cultivate this fully fermented fatty seed, which serves as the basis of chocolate and many delicious moles. Conquistador Hernán Cortés recorded its popularity in the court of Moctezuma (who drank a molten cup of chocolatl every night) and started his own cocoa plantation in order to “grow money.”
According to the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Maya, all of humankind derives from this kernel-producing stalk. Early Mesoamericans ate corn in the form of tortillas, tamales, and other tasty morsels processed via nixtamalization, as the yellowy plant provides little nourishment if untreated by an alkaline solution. Modern Americans are not so clever, preferring to reduce corn to syrups and other blood-sugar-spiking fillers. Still, it continues to feed billions of people happy to eat this wondrous and versatile crop.