The “American Melting Pot” is far older, larger, and even more diverse than most people imagine.
After Columbus reconnected Eurasia and Africa with the Americas, the world began to change in ways it never had before. Europeans, Africans, Asians, and American Indians began migrating out of their landmasses of origin. Some movement was voluntary, much was not. . . . but people of all origins soon found themselves flung around the globe, forced to interact and work with each other, mixing their cultures and genetics together to form hybrid societies.
With hybrid societies come hybrid cuisine. The world’s first fusion food is born as people and their culinary traditions converge.
Did I mention we’ll also cover the origin of hard liquor and mixed cocktails? Don’t miss this episode.
To further explore Episode 20, the Columbian Exchange, we’ll be making some classic recipes that were only possible once Eurasia and the Americas began mixing their ingredients.
To start, I can’t think of a better example than Mexican mole sauce. Mesoamerican chocolate and chili peppers bring the strongest and most unique flavors to this dish, but they’re used with Old World bread, sugar, spices, nuts, and seeds, and of course pork. Pork is ubiquitous in Mexican cuisine today but wasn’t around until Spanish colonists brought their pigs en masse to the New World, shaping a new cuisine in the process.
Mole has a reputation for being complicated, but it’s really not. It just has a lot of ingredients. Basically though, you just need to cover five bases for a good mole sauce: spiciness (from chilis), acidity (from chocolate, tomatoes, and citrus), sweetness (from dried fruit and cane sugar), spices, and thickeners (nuts, seeds, and bread).
To be extra authentic, pick up a cone of pilonciillo sugar from a Latin grocery store. Also, a more classic chili for this recipe would be pasilla negro chilis, but I am using the varieties I grew in my garden and dried this past summer. I’ve got chipotle, ancho, and cayenne.
Unlike many ancient foods we recreate here, tortillas survive as a popular staple to this day, beyond their birth place and all around the world. Sure, there are other foods of the ancient world that are still part of modern diets, unspecific generalities like”soup” or “bread”. But corn tortillas, made of nothing but nixtamalified maíz, salt and water and cooked in seconds on a hot griddle, come down to us as is.
Tortillas were of course a staple of all the famous societies of Ancient Mexico, including the Olmec, the Maya, and the Aztecs. Both wealthy and poor people ate them regularly across history. Only tamales surpass them as the aboriginal food of Mesoamerica.
Then, as is still the case now, you don’t need more than a little salsa to top it off. This was usually some kind of pure chili paste, but avocados could be involved as well. For generations, Mesoamericans rightly associated tomatoes with nightshade but wrongly believed that tomatoes were poisonous. Eventually though, they caught on, and must have incorporated them into their “tacos”.
There’s nothing quite like a hot, spicy spoonful of posole. This tamalified corn and chili pepper soup, a classic Mexican comfort food, has deeply ancient origins, maybe even as far back as the invention of agriculture in Mesoamerica, when the barely edible grass teosinte was miraculously domesticated into maíz.
The original posole was more like a corn porridge than the modern soup. Grains of maíz were soaked in a lime solution, then cooked into hominy. The mash was then left to ferment into a kind of sourdough, to make a tangy gruel that was filling and had a long shelf life. Nutritionally sound, flavored with anything (but most often chilis), this was the standard breakfast in many ancient Mesoamerican cultures, for both rich and poor.
This recipe is a sort of combination of that ancient sourdough porridge, and a modern posole. Tamalified corn is left to ferment just a bit before being cooked through and turned into soup. While your average Mesoamerican commoner had to make do with corn and chilis alone for the base flavor, wealthy elites would have had access to some wild meats like deer or turkey, so we’re using the latter to make this rich man’s posole. Continue reading “Red Posole with Turkey”
It may have been the Olmec or one of the other mother cultures of Mesoamerica who first learned to ferment cacao beans into chocolate and turn it into a drink. It was the Maya who took a particular love to it, and it was the Triple Alliance, or Aztec Empire, which carried on the tradition.
Ancient Mesoamericans didn’t add sugar to their chocolate. They loved the bitter taste, though they did like to flavor it with other things, like vanilla and most famously chili peppers. This frothing draught was a blast of intense flavors.
Modern Mexican hot chocolate, or champurrado, is made by combining sweetened chocolate with tamalified corn, or masa. This recipe is a combination of the ancient drink and the modern treat, made from pure raw ingredients: corn, cacao beans, and chili pepper. Continue reading “Mayan Hot Chocolate”
Of all the food discoveries made across the ancient world, few are more impressive than the domestication and then nixtamlization of maize (corn) in the lands that would one day be called Mexico and Central America.
Mesoamerica is one of just three places where urban civilization evolved from scratch. Come listen, and be amazed how it happened.
To accompany the Mesoamerican section of episode 3 of the History of Food, we’re making authentic ancient tamales in the earth oven, just like would have been done in pre-urban Mexico and Guatemala.
These tamales are a little plain, and lack the fat and leavening agents that help make modern tamales so delicious. We’re making ours with only the ingredients the ancient Mesoamericans had, that is with corn, lime, and water.
But that’s okay, we’ve got some other authentic ingredients to help the flavor along. Black beans for filling, and chili sauce for garnish, and roasted squash as a side are going to give us flavor and depth, even if the tamale itself is bare bones.
Sweetcorn or Popcorn won’t work. You need plain field corn for this, which in some areas can be hard to come by. You can find it in many Mexican markets, almost any tortilleria, or if you’re truly lucky, a farmer.
For the tamales:
400g Plain Field corn (NOT sweet or popcorn)
6g Cal (pickling lime)
5 cups water
Dried corn husks for wrapping the tamales
For the Black bean filling:
3/4 cup dry black beans 5 cups water 1 fresh chile 1 medium onion
For the Chili sauce: 6-7 fresh chiles Seeds from 1 squash or pumpkin water