Aztec influences on Mexican cuisine

From their magnificent capital city, Tenochtitlan, Aztec culture flourished in central Mexico in the post-classic period from 1300 to 1521 and emerged as the dominant force, developing an intricate social, political, religious and commercial organization, just after the fall of the previously dominant Mesoamerican civilization, the Toltecs.

They began as a northern tribe of hunter-gatherers whose name came from their homeland Aztlan, or “White Land” in the Aztec language. Were also known as the Tenochca – for their capital city, Tenochtitlan – or the Mexica -the origin of the name of the city that would replace Tenochtitlan, as well as the name for the entire country-.

The Aztec language, Nahuatl, was the dominant language in central Mexico by the mid-1350s. Numerous Nahuatl words borrowed by the Spanish were later absorbed into English as well, including chile or chilli, avocado, chocolate, coyote, peyote, guacamole, ocelot and mezcal.

Aztecs introduced many of the ingredients that we now think of as classically Mexican.

Several foods and ingredients that were invented and cultivated by the Mayans remained popular during the Aztec Empire. However, they added salt, peppers, and domesticated turkey and duck to their diet.

In fact, salt and chilli peppers were so central to Aztec cuisine that it was considered fasting if one abstained from eating these two ingredients.

Bernardino de Sahagun, who spent over 60 years in Aztec Mexico, describes in his study of Aztec society over 20 different varieties of peppers and their culinary uses, which variously included “frog with green pepper, newt with yellow pepper, tadpoles with small peppers, maguey grubs with a sauce of small chillis…lobster with red chilli, tomatoes, and ground squash seeds”.

The meat wasn’t high on the Aztec food list. Since it was easier to grow crops than hunt, the Aztec diet was primarily plant-based and focused on a few substancial foods.

Corn was eaten at almost every meal, either in the form of flat, thin, round cakes -tortillas- or as tamales, both dunked in sauce; or as atolli, a cornmeal porridge or mush, sometimes flavoured with honey. Aztec diners also chowed down on tomatoes, beans, and chilli peppers -culinary combos that are still with us-. 

In fact, Bernardino de Sahagun also listed dozens of tomatoes in all sizes and colours, including red, yellow, orange, and pink. He described in his study, that the Aztecs ate avocados, often in the form of guacamole – which word comes from the Nahuatl ahuaca-mulli, a combo of “avocado” and “sauce.”

They also ate cactus paddles, jicama, manioc, sweet potatoes, amaranth, and over 700 different kinds of squash, gophers, iguanas, grasshoppers, ants, and worms; and harvested Spirulina, the blue-green algae now sold as a health food, which was made into dried cakes.

Invaders led by the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés overthrew the Aztec Empire by force and captured Tenochtitlan in 1521, bringing an end to Mesoamerica’s last great native civilization.


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