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Photograph of a bowl of yellow nance with fresh epazote. Photograph courtesy of Michelle Cadoree Bradley, Feb. 2023
Photograph of a bowl of yellow nance with fresh epazote. Photograph courtesy of Michelle Cadoree Bradley, Feb. 2023

My Favorite Pre-Hispanic Indigenous Foods

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This guest post was written by Brian Jimenez, a 2022 Fall intern with the Library of Congress Science, Technology and Business Division. He is passionate about environmental and Indigenous issues. Back in November he wrote about Maya Foodways: Plant and Food Roles in Ancient Maya Society.

Working with the vast resources at Library of Congress, especially those concerning Indigenous foodways and cookbooks, many books stood out to me. One book that caught my interest was Presencia de la Comida Prehispanica (1986), translated as Presence of Pre-Hispanic Food. This cookbook contains a compilation of foods Indigenous peoples of Mexico ate prior to colonization. Reading the book brought back my favorite family food memories from my visits to El Salvador.

photograph of yellow nance in a bowl
A bowl of yellow nance with fresh epazote. Photograph courtesy of Michelle Cadoree Bradley, Feb. 2023

Yellow Nance, Nanche Amarillo, Nantzinxocotl

The nance is a small, yellow fruit, also known as a Nantzinxocotl or yellow cherry, which can be on the sweeter side. In El Salvador, I remember, they would sell small bags filled with yellow nance. They were a nice sweet snack to eat, but I haven’t seen them fresh in many American grocery stores (just frozen or jarred). In Indigenous communities, the more acidic nances are used in agave distillation or to cure liquors.

Tortillas, Tlaxacalli

The tortilla is a staple food in my diet. I eat it with almost every meal and distinctly remember the smell and taste of my mom’s freshly made tortillas. When my mom was making them, I would go into the kitchen, grab a tortilla, and take it back to my room to eat. In Mesoamerican Indigenous cultures, the tortilla is made from corn, specifically corn flour or masa harina. One kneads the corn flour with water until it reaches its right consistency. Afterward, the massive dough clump would be separated into smaller balls and hand-shaped into the preferred size. Then, the tortilla is cooked in a hot pan, and it’s ready to eat. While some prefer larger and thinner tortillas, I like smaller and thicker ones.

Tamal, Tamali

For my family in El Salvador, the tamal, or tamali, is a food cooked on special occasions, due to the expensive ingredients and long preparation time. In the United States, I have the opportunity to eat store bought tamales year-round, but nothing beats homemade tamales. For Christmas, my mom and aunt would prepare tamales, the making of which was a whole-day event. My cousins and I cleaned the plantain leaves used to wrap the tamale for cooking. It was a boring, yet easy task. My favorite tamales are the chicken ones (tamales de pollo) and those with refried beans (tamales de frijole). While I love meat, something about the bean tamales brings a sense of comfort and hominess. Because the dough for tamales is made from corn, the process starts the same as that used in preparing tortillas, but with less water. The dough is placed onto corn husks or plantain leaves; then other ingredients are placed inside such as potatoes, green beans, chicken pieces, or refried beans. From there, the leaf is wrapped up into a rectangular shape, ensuring nothing is leaking. Afterward, the tamales would be placed into a pot to boil. A Mesoamerican legend states that throughout the cooking process the cooks must have a good time, or the tamales will come out raw.

Plate of fresh epazote, yellow nance and tamales. Photograph courtesy of Michelle Cadoree Bradley, Feb. 2023

Catfish, Bagre, Axolomichin, Tentzonmichi

Throughout North, Central and South America, catfish come in diverse colors, shapes, and sizes, and are referred to by many different names. Indigenous communities of the Americas would enjoy catfish in vegetable soup.  On very rare occasions, my mom would make a seafood soup with catfish, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, zucchini, and tomatoes. This soup, and my mom’s seafood-related dishes, may have contributed to my love of seafood, especially catfish.

Iguana, Garrobo, Acuauhcuetzpalines

In El Salvador, I remember watching iguanas just chilling in their environments, ignoring my presence. They were large with a beautiful green color. Occasionally, my cousins and I were sent to hunt iguanas- we were given slingshots and told good luck. While I don’t remember if any of us bagged an iguana, I do remember coming home to find our family preparing a large iguana. Skinning the iguana is a tedious process, and it must be done carefully and properly. If the iguana is a female, one must avoid damaging the eggs/ovaries since they can be used in soups and stews. Once skinned, the meat is cleaned and boiled with salt and epazote (a traditional herb native to Central America and Southern Mexico). After the meat is cooked, it is typically eaten with soup.

Armadillo, Acorazadito, Ayotochtli, Huech-Luum

Once in my grandmother’s house in El Salvador, I opened the fridge to look for something to eat and I found a dead animal I had never seen before. I discovered it was an armadillo and I would end up eating it later that day. The process of preparing armadillos is extremely complex. In the initial stages, the fat is removed from the meat as much as possible. The meat gives off a strong odor, so it must be thoroughly cleaned and soaked before cooking. Once in a cooking pot, the meat stews until the remaining fat falls off and is served before it gets too mushy.

I enjoyed reading Presencia de la Comida Prehispanica (1986) and sharing some of my favorite Indigenous food memories with you! Even after years of cultural erasure, my family and I still eat many of the same foods Indigenous peoples ate thousands of years ago, showing their ways remain strong and resilient.

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