Magazine article Geographical

Food with a Bite

Magazine article Geographical

Food with a Bite

Article excerpt

Grasshoppers, flies and beetles are still tempting Mexican diners. Oriana de Castello shows us what's cooking

THE POP TARTS AND reconstituted ham we have available to us in the shops today are very different to the kind of food that people were eating some 500 years ago. In Mexico, however, this is not the case, as many pre-Hispanic delicacies are still regarded as gastronomic treats fit to be served to visiting dignitaries, and popular enough for there to be a number of restaurants specialising in this type of traditional cooking.

In terms of ancient civilisations food experts tend to divide the world into three parts. Asia with a rice-based culinary history, Europe for wheat and the Americas for corn. Ancient Mexican codices state that the first human beings were moulded of corn, so important was it to their day-to-day survival.

Life in a hunter-gatherer society cannot have been easy in a country like Mexico. Nature is not user-friendly; insects and bugs are large, often poisonous and numerous. The native cacti and plants are covered with protective spines, and snakes and other reptiles are abundant. So, in order to survive, a great deal of time and effort had to be put into collecting and cultivating foodstuffs. People needed to know exactly where to look to find the choicest ant's eggs, under which trees non-hallucinogenic mushrooms grew, at which time of year flies would be laying their eggs, and the best way to catch and cook animals as diverse as squirrels, parrots or rattlesnakes.

TABLE MANNERS

Corn was first cultivated in Meso America around 7,000BC. And soon after, with the discovery of pumpkins, beans and chillies, the table was set with the staples of local diet for the next 9,000 years. Fray Bernardino de Sahagun, one of the most famous chroniclers of early New Spain wrote: "The people like spicy and hot foods and know how to season all sorts of dishes with chillies, such as turkey stew with bermejo chilli, tomatoes and ground pumpkin seeds." As there was no onion in pre-Hispanic Mexico the seasoning of any dish was important. Chillies and other herbs were used extensively, including hierba de conejo [Indian paintbrush] and epazote [worm-seed] which are still widely used today. Epazote is a natural carminative which may explain why Mexican beans do not cause digestive problems -- they are always cooked with a sprig of the herb.

Given the inherent difficulties of agriculture in the tropics and lack of domesticated animals, it was essential for survival that people took advantage of every available edible thing. This evidently caused great surprise among the first Spanish explorers who made comments on native traditions in their memoirs. Francisco Hernandez was sent to New Spain in 1570 to catalogue this part of the empire. Writing about atetepitz, or shiny beetles he commented, "There is hardly anything that the indigenous people do not eat." With the large variety of fruit and flesh vegetables, meals were certainly colourful. There was black huitlacoche (a fungus that grow on ears of corn, known today as the `black gold' of Mexican cuisine), orange papaya, pink mamey, and every kind of chilli pepper ranging in colour from yellow to red, green and black.

A DOG'S LIFE

The only truly domesticated animals at the time of the Conquest were dogs and turkeys. Other animals were sometimes kept in captivity, but never with much breeding success. The hairless dog, known as xoloizcuintli, was noted by Hernan Cortes in 1520 who mentions, "hairless castrated dogs which they breed for eating". The xoloizcuintli almost became extract, but great efforts have been made in the last century to breed this extraordinary animal. It is the only type of dog that is able to sweat, and today it is a most prized pet, rather than a rare delicacy. Most animals hunted in pre-Hispanic times were part of the diet, and there are traditional recipes available for squirrel, badger, monkey, rabbit, armadillo, tuza (an underground rodent) and wildcats. …

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