It has been slightly over a week since I arrived to Mexico, yet, there are already many experiences, lessons, and stories to be shared.
Likewise, I now have found a route to get to and from school, an amazing team of culinary adventurers with whom I get to cook and learn from day in and out, and a greater understanding of what makes Mexican food so unique: it’s ritualidad (the technique, symbolism, and purpose with which it is prepared – always constant and passed down from generation to generation!).
And it is in that intersection where rituals and food converge that we being with pre-hispanic food.
You Say Corn, I Say Maiz
What is pre-hispanic food? In brief, it was the food that was consumed in Mexico before the arrival of the Spaniards, grown not only for nourishment, but also as tools for cooking (think of hollow gourds to extract aguamiel/syrup from agave plants) and as means to honor deities, mark important dates and perform rituals.
Maiz was, by far, one of the more nutritious foods during pre-hispanic times and, while being an organically grown crop was valuable, it was the process of nixtamalizacion that made it the center of pre-hispanic diet.
Nixtamalizacion involves soaking and cooking dry white corn kernels in a bath of hot water and slaked lime and grinding it in a metate for the corn to break down into a protein.
For a (literally) hands-on experience, my first kitchen endeavor was to prepare corn following the nixtamalizacion process and then make 4 different vessels for the frijoles chinos and four different salsas we had already made, for a tasty and nutritious meal.
This was exciting for I had never used a metate and metlapil, the grinding stone and “mortar”
used by Aztecs, Mayas and other Mesoamerican civilizations to grind corn. It took me a couple of hours before my maiz turned into masa, but one it did, I got to make the most delicious tortillas, sopes and gorditas I’ve ever had (or maybe I was too hungry).
Crickets for Dinner!
Another characteristic of pre-hispanic food, was that it was found everywhere in nature, and there was no animal too big or small to be enjoyed, including crickets.
However, cooking chapulines in true pre-hispanic fashion would mean they’d be simply toasted and ready to munch on. So, this time I was introduced to a new concept known as “food pre-hispanic presence,” meaning the main ingredient remains pre-hispanic yet, it is enhanced by post-colonial flavors and techniques such as onion and sautéing (much as most Mexican food today).
With manos a la obra, my team and I quickly sautéed the chapulines with some chile and onion, as to preserve their crunchy nature. Once they were warm, we scooped them into our fresh-made tortillas, topped them with some fresh salsa, and… defense les digo: this is by far the tastiest dish I’ve cooked and eaten so far! Not to mention, they didn’t take hours to prepare 🙂
What I found out later on, was that their easy preparation was a little break for what was to come: making Mexican chocolate from scratch. Oh, tricky chapulines!
Ritualidad, the purpose, symbolism and technique with which Mexican food is prepared, is what makes it unique. Nowadays, we enjoy a cup of hot chocolate along with a slice of pan de muerto on Day of the Dead, and on Three Kings Day with our rosca de reyes.
This tradition is celebrated year after year and, like any other ritual, it brings a sense of belonging and community. Hence, it is in that same manner, that hot chocolate tablets have been prepared since pre-hispanic times.
Cacao beans’ value was such, that they were used as currency, and when you’ve gone trough the process of turning these beautiful seeds into the glossy and flavorful paste that will warm you up on a cold day, you can see why it continues to be such a priced gift from nature.
After a wonderful day of cooking chapulines (yum!), escamoles, and other delights, we were warned that making chocolate would be the hardest task we’d embark on, but also the most wonderful one…and I couldn’t agree more.
My classmates and I got about 100 gr each of cacao beans to turn into a tablet. The first step was to toast the cacao beans in a beautiful clay pot until they began to “pop,” and as I stirred the beans on that stovetop, my heart was beating to the rhymes of their popping sounds.
Next, was removing the shells from the beans, which – if well toasted – should come off rather easy…or so I thought. Personally, this was such a soothing part of the process, seating among my classmates, each with a bowl on our laps to put the toasted beans and a bowl on the table to set asides the shell to later make aqua de chaqueta ( a super refreshing agua fresca).
Once all the shells were removed, it was time to move to the metate. At first, I thought: “Awesome, I got this,” because when you’ve made masa on it two days earlier, you feel like a professional!
But here is the thing: this time around, there was fire under the metate so that as one grinds the beans, the warmth from the friction and the fire underneath will force the beans to release their butter, and by then end will be a glossy, smooth and soft paste to shape into tablets. I mean, I can do this!
I knew this was not going to be an easy task, but I felt confident and emocionada to make this magic happen. So I kneeled on my straw mat, grabbed the metlapil and placed a handful of beans on the metate. As I rolled the metlapil down the metate, I could hear the beans coming apart to give way to something new…I just didn’t know how long it would take.
And it took a LONG time, as in three and half hours…sort of. It was warm and my knees were going numb, but being in comunidad, surrounded by new friends working together and cheering each other up, I experienced a special sense of belonging. My roots felt stronger or maybe it was that my knees were stuck on a kneeling position, but – either way – I knew right then that embarking on this journey was the right call.
And yes, you can watch me grinding those cacao beans on the meatate right HERE!