Spices in Pre-Columbian Kitchen

Joined Jul 24, 2001
The thread about Nuevo Latino trend, brought up a very interesting subject that has to do with the History of Food.

The use of spices in Pre-Columbian kitchen.

Someone mentioned Mayas but they were not only Mayas but many other civilizations that contributed not only to sketch the "cultural landscape" of Pre-Columbian America, but influenced the kitchen of the States as well.

I have been studying this subject for two years now. And it turned out more complicated than I thought.

I think I could some help. I know some of the theory , you know the substance of cooking.So, I would very much appreciate if you add some informaton here.

I will mention some things but I will add information , since it's only a month I have started putting some ideas on the paper and I am not very confortable yet with expressing my thoughts.


As Marmalady mentioned in Nuevo Latino thread, the Mayan ( and not only) kitchen wasn't too spicy. I agree.
According to Michelle-Berriedale-Johnson in her book, The British Museum Kitchen, spices were introduced to this area by the Spaniards who have found them diring their travels in the Far East.

Spaniards brought apart from the spices the domestic animals and the fruits.
So soon the rich kitchen of Atzecs that were characterised by the use of chilly , walnuts and chocolate truned into the famous Latin Kitchen we all know and enjoy.

I will be back with more things I found today in the Library.

Shall I post an ancient recipe of Azdecs? ;) It has chocolate in it!!!

Joined Jul 31, 2000
Athenaeus, there is a lot ot ponder here I must say.

I have read that all but four books have perished in regards to the maya. and only recently has the hieroglyphics been able to be decoded.
First contact between the Mayas and spaniards were sometimes peaceful. This allowed the new comers to sample maya food, accounts of which survive. With the addition of archaeological and other evidence carefully put together by "Sophie Coe" (1994)

The diets of the maya were varied depending apone there location, you would have settlements on the limestone platoue just above sea level in the Yucatan and settlements in pine forest of Guatamala.
Maize was a staple food and also had great cultural significence. Maize was part of all rituals about birth and death

It was consumed in a number of different ways, in liqued form (posole or atole) as a gruel and in breads,tortillas and tamalis

as far as flesh foods the turky played a key role, both specieas were eaten, the domesticated turkey and the occilated turkey,

Armidillo meat was eaten as well and in a archaeological site were bones were found darkened suggest that the meat was roasted on a Barbacoa

beekeeping was also important to the mayas, the would sweeten maize drinks with the honey and ahh chocolate, one of the great gifts of the new world to the old is often thought as an Aztec thing. The Maya however were familar with this centereis earlier, ithe beans were used as currency and drinking.

also of interest is the word "EAT"

which we would suppose to have simple equivalents in other languges shows this is not the case in regards to the mayas languege, They divided all there foods into seperate groups and using a seperate verb to desribe the action of eating. In the tzeltzal languge the only time "eat"s used in a form of the question "what are you eatin?"otherwise the verb differs in regards to what is being eaten

Food that are chewed and spat out like sugercane and maize would have a differnt verb then things that would melt in you mouth.

Great thread Atheneaeus..

I would like to learn more also in regards to the Aztecs
Joined Dec 4, 2001
As soon as I can get some free time at work (Ha!) I will walk up to the Mayan restaurant (called Maya) and see if the chefs there are basing their menu on traditional Mayan cooking or do they just make it up as they go.
I will keep you posted.

Joined Jul 24, 2001
Cape Chef thank you very much! This was VERY interesting.
Most of all, the linguistic hint about the verbs that have to do with food.

Jock if you go to the restaurant, ask them on what wrtten sources have they based their mayan menus?
Do they have written saurces or just to the arcaeological findings?

Thanks a lot!

Joined Apr 19, 2001
Hi guys, I love this thread! I love Mexican cooking, got totally immersed in it a few years ago and was amazed at the differences in regional specialties! Had a chance to work with Rick Bayless, too, and was totally blown away by his knowledge and technique! (BTW,did you know that every year he closed his restaurants and takes his whole staff to Mexico to learn new technique and ingredients! - i may move to Chicago to work for him!)

Jock, I hope your visit to your Mayan restaurant is more fruitful than mine! We frequent a 'traditional Mayan' restaurant here in NJ - went back into the kitchen one night, and talked with the cooks and the manager; the manager is New Mexico, and most of his staff, FOH and BOH, is from Costa Rico!! So much for learning from them!

Cape chef, loved your info! Did you know that the chocolate drink that the Mayans and Aztecs made was not sweetened, but that they drank sometimes 10 to 20 cups a day of the stuff?! Tradition has it that it not only gave them energy, but increased virility and fertility!

I think my favorite area of Mexico is Oaxaca; Zarela Martinez has a wonderful book 'The Food and Life of Oaxaca', and has done a marvelous job of backgrounand history. Oaxaca is where all the 'moles' originated, and she does a whole chapter on the '7 moles of Oaxaca'. She also has a website, www.Zarela.com where she has discussions and has a recipe index. Ate at her first restaurant, Zarela's, in NYC, and swooned - it was soooo good!

Re the spiciness in general of Latino cooking, it's been my observation that hot spices are prevalant in Northern and Western Mexican cooking, but then when you get to the eastern seacoast, a la Vera Cruz, the food is not so hot-spicy, and you start to see more 'tropical' ingredients, coconut, plaintains, mango, etc. ; Oaxaca has some pretty mean chile dishes. Then when you start to go down into Central America, more tropical fruits and veggies pop up, the beans are more predominantly black beans instead of red or pinto beans (which are more northern, or Pueblo style), and the hotness of the dishes reduces considerably!

We've had a lot of helpers for my son from Central America (Costa Rico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Honduras), and they HATE hot food! They think the Mexicans are 'loco' for eating their food that hot! Then, when you start moving down into South America, you start finding more hot foods again, but not so much incorporated into the dishes, more like condiment - like chimichurri sauce, things like that.

I'd better stop here - I could go on forever! I think I just found my signature - The Chile Queen! If anyone needs sources, or definitions of the different chiles, let me know!:bounce:
Joined May 1, 2001
Marmalady, your observations on the non-spicy nature of much Latino cooking struck a familiar note. I have a bunch of Equadorian friends who have started up a family-style resturant in a lnearby town with a large Ecuadorian population.

Their food is well-seasoned, but not hot. They really don't like hot peppers in any form. A few years ago, I had a couple of my Ecuadorian friends to the house for a barbecue. Knowing that they like their steak seasoned with Adobo, I went out a bought a jar and used it to season the steak before cooking. They informed me that the steak was really too spicy, and that I must have bought the Adobo with pepper.

Their restaurant does serve Mexican dishes, which they tend to make spicier than most Mexican restaurants would. Go figure.

Joined Sep 21, 2001
When I was a teenager, I traveled around Mexico for three and a half months. One of my most interesting meals was when we had car trouble on a dirt road out in the Oaxacan mountains. While two members of our party found a ride to get transmission fluid, 45 miles away, the rest of us stayed with the car. We were in a tiny village with ne electricity, running water or amenities, the only store being a tiny tienda that sold warm pop and a few staples for the farmers. Most of the people didn,t even speak Spanish. They spoke a local native dialect. After waiting an hour or two, we ask the person at the tienda if anyone sells food. They directed us to a small hut down the street, and explained to the lady that we wanted to eat. She shooed the chickens off a table on her porch and motioned us to sit down. She went back inside and we could see her making tortillas and cooking them on a stone hearth in the middle of the floor. She appeared a few minutes with hot tortillas, rice and beans. The food might have been the best Mexican food I have ever tasted. The tortillas slightly charred where they got too close to the fire. The taste of smoke and wood and animals and dirt. The earthiness. Simplicity. She probably sold us her dinner. I think we paid 25 cents each. But to her, it seemed like a small fortune.
Joined Jul 24, 2001
All of you know so ,much!!!

I don't know where to start!
I will start from Mexico that excites you very much!

Andrew Dalby in his book " Dangerous Tastes" he mentions an ancient myth of Aztecs according to which their anchestors had been barnarians from far away in the north of Mexico, whose wonderings brought them to the valley of Mexico and the city of Tenochtitlan in the early fourteen ce, 200 years before the Spanish Imvasion.

One of their legends, told of an expedition to retrace their steps, at the end of which the powerful emiseries of the Aztecs were admonished by the aged goddess of their ancestral home : " You have become old, you have become tired because of the chocolate you drink and because of the food you eat. They have harmed and weakened you"

In spite of puritanical ipulses evidenced in this legent, the Aztecs did not cease to eat their universal condiment, chilli (though admitedly they ate no chilli on religious fast days); they did not stop smoking tobacco and they certainly did not stop drinking chocolate.

The description of Bernal Diaz and eyewitness of Cortes' conquest of Mexico in 1519-21 is a fascinating text!
There he describes his admiration and astonishment as he sees the pleasures of the Aztec court!

He describes the ritual of drinking chocolateand smoking cigars...
They were smking true tobacco blended with sweet gum.

Of the three sensual pleasures bequeathed by the Aztec Empire to the world at large, it's hard to know whether chocolate, tobacco or chill should have the first rank.

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