Mexican cuisine’s ingredients and flavors run deep. So deep, in fact, that the nation’s cuisine was declared a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2010. Indeed, traditional Mexican cooking is a celebration of the ingredients that trace their roots to Mexico’s own land.
Before Mexico was named, it formed part of long expanse of land called Mesoamerica, which encompasses what is now Central America. Mesoamerica is a natural Eden, where plant species of all varieties evolved and thrived. Eventually, the industrious people indigenous to Mesoamerica began consuming and then cultivating the land’s rare and delicious produce. Here are just a few of Mexico’s gifts to the rest of the world.
Also known as maize, corn’s exact birthplace is uncertain but it was likely in the Mesoamerican region of the Western Hemisphere. Most historians agree that corn was domesticated in Mexico’s own Tehuacan Valley after a serious of natural crossings, at one point with a grass called teosinte around 10,000 years ago. Like most highly domesticated grains, the original wild species has long been extinct.
Corn became such an important crop to ancient pre-Colombian civilizations that they referred to themselves as “People of the Corn.” Even today, corn is a part of the Mexican identity and a staple grain in the Mexican diet — the main ingredient in real, traditional tortillas!
Vanilla has become a favorite flavor worldwide, and the world has Mexico to thank for it. Seductively exotic, vanilla is actually part of the orchid plant family. While it’s unclear where the plant first appeared, the Totonacs of Mexico’s east coast were decidedly the first people to have cultivated it.
Vanilla’s beginnings are the stuff of romantic legend. In Totonac mythology, wild vanilla first appeared when a princess named Xanat escaped into the jungle with her lover. They fled because her father forbade her from marrying a mortal. Tragically, they were both captured and slain. Where their blood mingled with the ground, the plant of the first tropical vanilla orchid first sprouted.
Avocados are a mainstay of Mexican cuisine, so it should come as no surprise that they trace their origin to Mexico. Avocados have been a creamy, tasty treat from the earth for thousands of years. The first human consumption of avocados probably took place as far back as 8000-7000 B.C. Where were the first avocados ever tasted? None other than in the region of Tehuacán, in Mexico’s south-central state of Puebla.
Squash was one of the first plants cultivated in the Western hemisphere, tracing back to around 10,000 years ago. At that time, humans were crossing an important bridge from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists, and squash helped them get there. Squash, combined with maize and beans, made up the very first harvests of the early inhabitants of Mesoamerica. Today, pumpkins, squash, and gourds are all relatives in the deliciously diverse Cucurbitaceae family.
Several countries in Central and South America claim to be the birthplace of chocolate, the food of the gods. But where did its main ingredient, cocoa, actually originate? The truth is, scientists aren’t quite sure. While there’s no consensus, one study names the source of cacao as Chiapas’ Lacandon forest and the Usumacinta River that borders Guatemala.
Regardless of where cocoa first appeared in its wild form, one thing is for certain — ancient Mexicans were the first to unlock its culinary secrets and master the art of its consumption. The Olmecs crushed the bean into a drink as early as 1500 BC. So heavenly was its taste that it soon became a part of religious practices. The worship of chocolate, it seems, is as old as the food itself.