The World Needs To Thank Indigenous Communities For These Delicious Foods
Can you imagine Italian food without tomatoes? Or France without chocolate? Or spicy Sichuan hotpot without chiles? Well, if it wasn’t for the hard work of Indigenous people across the Americas, that’s exactly what we would face.
Many of today’s most commonly used and most popular ingredients originated in the Americas and were domesticated by Indigenous people. It wasn’t until the Spanish arrived and began exporting them to all corners of the globe, usually exploiting Indigenous labor in the process, that many of the modern world’s favorite cuisines began to take shape.
As we look to celebrate all things Latino, it’s time we undo centuries of bad PR and reclaim what originated in our tierra. Here are some of the world’s most popular ingredients that have deep roots in Indigenous culture.
When much of the world thinks of chocolate, their mind often goes to Switzerland or France thanks to centuries of bad PR campaigns. But its history actually dates back to around 350 B.C. when cacao (the crop that becomes chocolate) was domesticated by the Olmecs in Mexico. In fact, Smithsonian Magazine reports that the very word stems from the Aztec “xocolatl,” which referred to the bitter drink brewed from cacao trees that was often mixed with chiles, herbs, honey and flowers.
Back then, the seeds were a luxury item among Indigenous civilizations such as the Maya and Aztecs. They were considered as valuable as gold and sometimes even used as currency.
Today, corn (or maize) is one of the world’s most important and common crops – it serves a giant swath of both the human and domesticated animal populations. It originated in the state of Oaxaca, where today there are still more than 50 different varieties. Plus, it’s so versatile it can be turned into food, energy, sweeteners, oils, bourbon and even into the perfect movie theater snack.
Vanilla is another Indigenous crop from the Americas that now is most often associated with Madagascar or Tahiti – since they’re some of the world’s largest producers today. But it actually originated from a Mexican species of orchid in the state of Veracruz.
Beans are another global staple that are widely grown today. But they too have their origins to central Mexico – in particular, the states of Jalisco and Durango. It’s believed they were domesticated and grown alongside maize and squash to help maximize the soil potential.
Another ingredient common to cuisines from around the world is the tomato, which comes from the Nahuatl word tomatl and has its origins in Mesoamerica. In Nahuatl, tomatl has a few recorded meanings, including “swelling fruit” and “fat water.”
Spanish conquistadors who returned home to Europe introduced tomatoes to the world, which they believed were poisonous and instead grown for ornamental reasons before gaining edible popularity
Although they’re used to lend heat to dishes created around the world, especially in Asia, chiles are also native to Mesoamerica, from Central Mexico through Central America to parts of Costa Rica. The word chili is a Nahuatl (Aztec) word that belongs to the Aztec language.
If it wasn’t for Indigenous communities in the Americas, the American holiday of Thanksgiving would look very different: the table wouldn’t likely have a turkey. The famous big bird was domesticated in Mexico for cultural and symbolic significance, specifically from what are now the states of Jalisco, Guerrero and Veracruz where it’s called guajolote.
I couldn’t tell you why so many think of Ireland when they think of the humble potato, but it too has its actual roots in the Americas, where it was first domesticated in present-day Peru and Northern Bolivia nearly 8,000 years ago, according to the BBC.
Since then, the BBC says, the potato has become the world’s fourth-most important crop after rice, wheat and maize, and the first among non-grains.
If it wasn’t for wise-thinking Indigenous communities going back thousands of years, you wouldn’t be able to enjoy that avocado toast. That’s because it’s these communities from central Mexico (likely around modern-day Puebla) that help domesticate the plant and fruit.
In fact, the word avocado comes from the Nahuatl word “ahuácatl” meaning testicle. It’s debated if the reference is due to the fruit’s shape or that it was considered an aphrodisiac.
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