What would our culinary world be like without the introduction of foods cultivated by the Native Americans of Mexico, Central and South America? The introduction of the potato and corn helped to put an end to famine and contributed to the population boom of the nineteenth century industrial age in Europe. Nowadays over sixty percent of the world’s food supply originates from pre-Columbian Native American agriculture.
The avocado a green pear-shaped fruit native to Mexico and Central America. Grown in Central America as far back as 5,000 BC., the Mayans considered the avocado an aphrodisiac and thought the fruit had magical powers. The name avocado comes from the Aztec word ahuacat which means testicle. The avocado has a smooth velvety texture and was used like butter by sailors who called them butter pears. One of the most popular avocado dishes is guacamole, a well-loved dip and condiment and salad ingredient that was created by Aztecs in Mexico. Avocados are frequently added to salads and sandwiches for an infusion of nutrition.
Chili peppers both sweet and hot have been consumed by the people of the Americas since at least 7500 B.C. Archaeologists found 6000 year old evidence of the cultivation of chili peppers in Mexico, Central and parts of South America. The ancient Aztec and Mayan people thought of chili peppers as another aphrodisiac. Hot peppers have an antioxidant called capsaicin which trigger the pleasure hormone in humans. The more capsaicin in a pepper the hotter it is and the more antioxidant benefits are derived. The habanero has the most capsaicin whereas the bell pepper has none. Capsaicin can be beneficial for weight loss as well. The capsaicin has a mild appetite suppressant effect and it raises body temperature which in turn burns calories. Celebrate the chili pepper with a nice bowl of chili!
Probably the most exquisite product of Latin America to be exported to the Old World is Chocolate. The cacao tree has grown in Central America and Mexico for at least 3,000 years. The pulp of the fruit was fermented into an alcoholic beverage and used in sacred rituals by the Mayan and Aztec societies. They thought cacao had divine properties and treasured the beans often using them as currency. Modern day chocolate is made from roasted, ground cacao beans and still is treasured today for its amazing flavor.
Maize now called corn has been farmed in Mexico for over 5,000 years. Archeologists found 80,000 year old corn pollen grain in drill cores 200 feet beneath Mexico City. Corn was the most essential crop in ancient times for the Aztec, Incan, Mayan and many Pueblo peoples and took precedence over all other activities. Corn was critically significant in the survival of the first European settlers, as it yielded more grain than any other crop, and could be dried and stored for long periods. Corn is very versatile as a food. We have tortillas, corn pudding, corn bread and best of all, corn on-the cob.
Popcorn, one of the oldest forms of corn, was cultivated in Mexico 9,000 years ago. It eventually expanded into Central and South America. People in the area of northern Peru have been eating popcorn at least as long ago as 3,700 BC. Introduced to European explorers of the New World, popcorn became a breakfast cereal popped and served with sugar and milk. The first version of Cracker Jack was created by Louis Ruckheim by combining popcorn, peanuts and molasses. Popcorn became hugely popular world-wide thanks to movie theatres.
Please see the second part of this article for the rest of the major culinary contributions from Latin America.