Photograph by AJ Wilhelm, Nat Geo Image Collection
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Tex-Mex is a popular choice for Cinco de Mayo.
Photograph by AJ Wilhelm, Nat Geo Image Collection
The Plate

Eating With the Aztecs on Cinco de Mayo

When a smallish army of ragged Mexicans defeated a much larger and better-equipped contingent of Napoleon III’s French troops on this day in 1862, few people imagined that Cinco de Mayo would be celebrated so widely with music, parades, parties, piñatas, beer, and of course, food.

Traditional Mexican cuisine is so scrumptious and unique that it has been added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. There, it’s in good company, along with the Mongolian camel-coaxing ritual, Slovakian bagpipe culture, Balinese dance, and Korean kimchi-making.

But while Americans have embraced Cinco de Mayo as a day to celebrate Mexican culture, the U.S. versions of the country’s food often fall short, according to purists. Beef tacos, chicken enchiladas, nachos, and margaritas (sorry!) just don’t make the grade.

The real stuff has its roots in ancient cookery, the foods of early Central American civilizations. Take, for example, the corn tortilla. Corn (maize) was the staple crop of the Aztec empire. It 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 flavored with honey. Aztec diners also chowed down on tomatoes, beans, and chili peppers—culinary combos that are still with us. Favorite spices included Central American versions of cilantro and oregano (similar to the Old World herbs, but stronger in flavor), as well as vanilla and allspice.

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Guacamole, or “poor man’s butter,” if you were a 16th century Spaniard. Photograph by Rebecca Hale, National Geographic

Some of our best descriptions of what the Aztecs ate we owe to Bernardino de Sahagun, author of The General History of the Things of New Spain (also known as the Florentine Codex), published in 1569. Fray Bernardino, who lived to the age of 90, spent over 60 years in Aztec Mexico, during which he learned to speak fluent Nahuatl and penned a 12-volume study of Aztec society, often touted as the first work of modern ethnography. In it, he had a lot to say about food.

For example, he describes 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.” He also lists dozens of tomatoes in all sizes and colors, including red, yellow, orange, and pink. He tells us 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.” (The ungrateful Spaniards, encountering it, dubbed it “poor man’s butter”.) They also ate cactus paddles, jicama, manioc, sweet potatoes, amaranth, and over 700 different kinds of squash.

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Mole Poblano. Photograph by Dina Rudick, The Boston Globe via Getty

Meat wasn’t high on the Aztec food list. Available meat animals were dogs, ducks, and turkeys. (Sheep, goats, pigs, cows, and horses only arrived in the Americas with the Spanish.) According to Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, eight thousand turkeys passed through the markets of Tenochtitlan every five days. Five hundred were needed daily just to feed the animals in Montezuma’s zoo.

The Aztecs also ate 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. The Spaniards, Sahagun records, didn’t think much of it. Neither did they care for chocolate, which, at least among the nobility, was the grand finale of every Aztec meal. Chocolate, Aztec-style, was akin to black coffee, a bitter drink flavored with chili peppers or vanilla, dyed red with annatto, and whipped into a froth with a stirrer made from tortoise shell. It was touted as an aphrodisiac; Montezuma was said to have downed many servings of it before visiting his harem.

Given all this, it’s clear that, while north-of-the-border Tex-Mex cuisine is a step away from tradition, classic Cinco de Mayo fare is similarly a cultural mix, part ancient Aztec inventiveness, part Spanish adaptation. Mole poblano, for example, a rich sauce of chocolate, peppers, and spices served over chicken or turkey, is now perhaps the most popular dish at Mexican Cinco de Mayo celebrations. And it’s a hybrid: while it has Aztec roots, it was the Spaniards who came up with the idea of turning chocolate into sauce. The Aztecs, writes Sophie Coe in The True History of Chocolate, would have been horrified at the thought of cooking with chocolate, just as devout Christians would blanch at dousing coq au vin with Communion wine.

Chalupas—fried corn tortillas topped with salsa and shredded chicken—would have been recognizable to the average Aztec, though he or she wouldn’t have been familiar with frying. Steaming, boiling, and baking were all familiar Aztec food preparation techniques, but frying requires butter or lard or oil, which early Central American civilizations lacked. Similarly, the Aztecs didn’t raise chickens, which were brought to the New World by the Spanish, though evidence now indicates that chickens were already present in South America (the Incas had them), probably first transported to Chile from Polynesia.

Cinco de Mayo food today, in other words, is a blend of the old and new, together producing something altogether delicious from the best of both worlds. Tradition takes us just so far. Grateful as I am to the creative Aztec cooks, I don’t mind losing the tadpoles.