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The most important staple was corn, a crop that was so important to Aztec society that it played a central part in their mythology. Just like wheat in Europe or rice in most of East Asia, it was the food without which a meal was not a meal. It came in an inestimable number of varieties varying in color, texture, size and prestige and was eaten as corn tortillas, tamales or ātōlli, maize gruel. The other constants of Aztec food were salt and chili peppers and the basic definition of Aztec fasting was to abstain from these two flavours. The other major foods were beans and New World varieties of the grains amaranth (or pigweed), and chia. The combination of maize and these basic foods would have provided the average Aztec with a very well-rounded diet without any significant deficiencies in vitamins or minerals. And the cooking of maize grains in alkaline solutions, a process called nixtamalization, significantly raised the nutritional value of the common staple.
Water, maize gruels and pulque, the fermented juice of the century plant, were the most common drinks, and there were many different fermented alcoholic beverages made from honey, cacti and various fruits. The elite took pride in not drinking pulque, a drink of commoners, and preferred drinks made from cacao. It was one of the most prestigious luxuries available; it was the drink of rulers, warriors and nobles and was flavored with chili peppers, honey and a seemingly endless list of spices and herbs.
The Aztec diet included a variety of fish and wild game; various fowl, pocket gophers, Green iguanas, axolotls (a type of water salamander), a type of crayfish called an acocil, fish, and a great variety of insects, larvae and insect eggs. They also domesticated turkeys, duck and dogs as food and at times ate meat from larger wild animals such as deer, but none of these were a major part of their diet. They ate various mushrooms and fungi, including the parasitic corn smut, which grows on ears of corn. Squash was very popular and came in many different varieties. Squash seed, fresh, dried or roasted, were especially popular. Tomatoes, though different from the varieties common today, was often mixed with chili in sauces or as filling for tamales.
Most sources describe two meals per day, though there is an account of laborers getting three meals, one at dawn, another one at around 9 in the morning and one at around 3 in the afternoon. This is similar to the custom in contemporary Europe, but it is unclear if intake of ātōlli, maize gruel, was considered a meal or not. Drinking a good amount of the thicker kinds of ātōlli could equal the calories in several corn tortillas, and ātōlli was consumed on a daily basis by most of the population.
Many accounts exist of Aztec feasts and banquets and the ceremony that surrounded them. Before a meal, servants presented fragrant tobacco tubes and sometimes also flowers with which the guests could rub their head, hands and neck. Before the meal would start each guest would drop a little food on the ground as an offering to the god Tlaltecuhtli. As military prowess was highly praised among the Aztecs, table manners imitated the movement of warriors. The smoking tubes and flowers went from the left hand of the servant to the right hand of the guest and the plate accompanying the smoking tube went from the right hand to the left hand. This was an imitation of how a warrior received his atlatl darts and shield. The flowers passed out bore different names depending on how they were handed out; "sword flowers" went from left hand to right and "shield flowers" went from right hand to left. When eating, guests would hold their individual bowls filled with dipping sauce in the center of the right hand and then dip corn tortillas or tamales (which were served from baskets) with the left. The meal was concluded by serving chocolate, often served in a calabash cup along with a stirring stick.
Men and women were separated at banquets and, though it is not entirely clear from the sources, it seems as if only men drank chocolate. The women would more likely have drunk pozolli (maize gruel from finely ground maize) or some type of pulque. Rich hosts could often receive guests sitting in rooms around an open courtyard similar to Middle Eastern caravanserai (or han in Turkish) and senior military men would perform dances. Festivities would begin at midnight and some would drink chocolate and eat hallucinogenic mushrooms so that they could tell about their experiences and visions to the other guests. Right before dawn, singing commenced and offerings were burned and buried in the courtyard to ensure the fortune of the children of the hosts. At dawn the remaining flowers, smoking tubes and food were given to the old and poor that had been invited, or to the servants. As with all other aspects of life, the Aztecs stressed the dual nature of all things, and toward the end of the banquet the host would be sternly reminded by his elders of his own mortality and that he should not be overcome with pride.
The main method of preparation was boiling or steaming in two-handled clay pots or jars called xoctli in Nahuatl and translated into Spanish as olla ("pot"). The olla was filled with food and heated over a fire. It could also be used to steam food by pouring a little water into the olla and then placing tamales wrapped in maize husks on a light structure of twigs in the middle of the pot. There are several references to frying in the accounts of Spanish chroniclers, but the only specification of the Aztec type of frying appears to be some kind of cooking that was done with syrup, not cooking fat. This is corroborated by the fact that no evidence for large-scale extraction of vegetable oils exist and that no cooking vessels suited for frying have been found by archeologists.
Tortillas, tamales, casseroles and the sauces that went with them were the most common dishes. Chili and salt were both ubiquitous and the most basic meal was usually just corn tortillas that were dipped in chilis that had been ground in a mortar with a little water. Dough could be used to encase meat, sometimes even whole turkeys, before cooking. In major Aztec towns and cities there were vendors that sold street food of all kinds, catering to both the rich and poor. Other than ingredients and prepared food every imaginable type of ātōlli could be bought, either to quench one's thirst or as an instant meal in liquid form.
The Aztec staple foods included maize, beans and squash to which were often added chilis and tomatoes, all prominent parts of the Mexican diet to this day. They harvested acocils, a small and abundant crayfish of Lake Texcoco, as well as Spirulina algae, which was made into a sort of cake rich in flavonoids. Although the Aztecs' diet was mostly vegetarian, the Aztecs consumed insects such as grasshoppers chapolin [t͡ʃa'polin] (singular) or chapolimeh [t͡ʃapo'limeʔ] (plural), maguey worm, ants, larvae, etc. Insects have a higher protein content than meat, and even now they are considered a delicacy in some parts of Mexico.
Maize was the single most important staple of the Aztecs. It was consumed at every meal by all social classes, and played a central role in Aztec mythology. To some of the first Europeans, the Aztecs described maize as "precious, our flesh, our bones". It came in a vast number of varieties of various sizes, shapes and colors; yellow, reddish, white with stripes of color, black, with or without speckles and a blue-husked variant that was considered to be particularly precious. Countless other local and regional varieties must have also existed, but few were recorded. Maize was revered to such an extent that women blew on maize before putting it into the cooking pot so that it would not fear the fire, and any maize that was dropped on the ground was picked up rather than being wasted. One of the Aztec informants of the Spanish Franciscan missionary and chronicler Bernardino de Sahagún explained the practice in the following way:
|“||"Our sustenance suffers, it lies weeping. If we should not gather it up, it would accuse us before our Lord. It would say: O our Lord, this vassal picked me not up when I lay scattered on the ground. Punish him. Or perhaps we should starve."||”|
A process called nixtamalization was used all over America where maize was the staple. The word is a compound of the Nahuatl words nextli ("ashes") and tamalli ("unformed corn dough; tamal"), and the process is still in use today. Dry maize grain is soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution, usually limewater. This releases the pericarp, the outer hull of the grains and makes the maize easier to grind. The process transforms maize from a simple source of carbohydrates into a considerably more complete nutritional package; it increases the amount of calcium, iron, copper, zinc that are added through the alkalide or the vessel used in the process and niacin, riboflavin and more protein already present in the corn that is not digestible to humans are made available through the process. The inhibited growth of certain mycotoxins (toxic fungi) is another benefit of nixtamalization. If the processed maize, the nixtamal, is allowed to ferment, further nutrients, including amino acids such as lysine and tryptophan are made available. Together with beans, vegetables, fruit, chilis and salt nixtamalized corn can form a complete and nutritionally satisfactory diet with no need for animal protein.
A great number of herbs and spices were available to the Aztecs in seasoning food. Among the most important, chili peppers come in a wide variety of species and cultivars, some domesticated and many of them wild. These included a great range of heat intensity depending on the amount of capsaicin present, with some being mild and others being very piquant. The chilis were often dried and ground for storage and use in cooking, some roasted beforehand to impart different tastes. Flavors varied significantly from one type to another, including sweet, fruity, earthy, smoky, and fiery hot.
Native species of plants used as seasonings produced flavors similar to Old World spices that often proved to be more easily accessible in cooking after the Spanish conquest. Culantro or Mexican coriander provides a much stronger flavor than its Old World parallel, cilantro, and its leaves can be easier to dry. Mexican oregano and Mexican anise likewise produce flavors reminiscent of their Mediterranean counterparts, while allspice has an aroma somewhere in between nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon. The bark of canella or white cinnamon has a soft, delicate flavor that might have eased the acceptance of the more pungent cinnamon of Ceylon into modern Mexican cuisine. Before the arrival of onions and garlic, subtler but similar wild plants such as Kunth's onion and other southern-ranging species of the genus Allium, as well as the fragrant leaves of garlic vine may have been appropriated. Other flavorings available included mesquite, vanilla, achiote, epazote, hoja santa, popcorn flower, avocado leaf, and a large array of other indigenous plants.
Many different alcoholic beverages were made from fermented maize, honey, pineapple, cactus fruit and other plants. The most common was octli which was made from maguey sap. It is today known as pulque, an Antillean term. It was drunk by all social classes, though some nobles made a point of not downing such a humble beverage. Drinking was tolerated, even for children at some occasions, but getting drunk was not. The penalties could be very stiff, and were stricter for the elite. The first transgression of a commoner would be punished by tearing his house down and sending him off to live in the field like an animal. A noble would generally not get a second chance and could be executed for overindulging in alcohol. Getting drunk appeared to have been more tolerated for elderly people, though the sources diverge as to the exact age. This did not prevent the occasional tragedy of nobles who became alcoholics and drank themselves into poverty, squalor and an early death. An informant of Sahagún told the sad story of a former tlacateccatl, a general and commander of over 8,000 troops:
|“||He drank up all his land; he sold it all. [...] Tlacateccatl, a valiant warrior, a great warrior, and a great nobleman, sometimes, somewhere on the road where there was travel, lay fallen, drunk, wallowing in ordure.||”|
Ātōlli ([aː'toːlːi]), maize gruel, accounted for a considerable amount of the daily calorie intake. The basic recipe for ātōlli was eight parts water and six parts maize with lime that was cooked until it softened and then ground. The mixture was then boiled until it thickened. There were many variations of ātōlli: a mixture of 1/10 maguey syrup made nequātōlli; adding chili ground with salt and tomato would make iztac ātōlli; letting maize dough sour for 4–5 days and then adding more fresh dough with chili and salt would make xocoātōlli. Beans, baked corn tortillas with the crust cut off, toasted maize, chia, amaranth and honey could also be added and there was pinolli, ground toasted maize that was carried by travelers in sacks which could be mixed with water on the road for an instant meal.
Cacao had immense symbolic value. It was a rare luxury and an import that could not be grown within the boundaries of the Aztec Empire. There are no detailed descriptions of how cacao solids were prepared, but there are a number of allusions to the fact that it was eaten in some form. Cacao beans were among the most valuable commodities and could be used as a form of payment, although of somewhat low value; 80-100 beans could be used to buy a small mantle or a canoe-full of fresh water if one lived on the salty part of the lakes around Tenochtitlan. Nevertheless beans were frequently counterfeited by filling empty cacao shells with dirt or mud.
Cacao was most commonly drunk as xocolātl [ʃo'kolaːt͡ɬ] ("bitter water", the origin of the word chocolate) and was the beverage of warriors and nobles. It was considered a potent intoxicant and something that was drunk with great solemnity and gravity which was described as something "not drunk unthinkingly" by the Spanish chronicler Sahagún. Chocolate could be prepared in a huge variety of ways and most of them involved mixing hot or tepid water with toasted and ground cacao beans, maize and any number of flavorers such as chili, honey, vanilla and a wide variety of spices. The ingredients were mixed and beaten with a beating stick or aerated by pouring the chocolate from one vessel to another. If the cacao was of high quality, this produced a rich head of foam. The head could be set aside, the drink further aerated to produce another head, which was also set aside and then placed on top of the drink along with the rest of the foam before serving.
The Aztecs stressed moderation in all aspects of life. European authors and chroniclers were often impressed by what they perceived as exemplary frugality, simplicity and moderation. Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, the bishop of Puebla and viceroy of New Spain in the 1640s reported:
|“||I have seen them eat with great deliberation, silence, and modesty, so that one knows that the patience shown in all of their habits is shown in eating as well, and they do not allow themselves to be rushed by hunger or the urge to satisfy it.||”|
The primary meaning of an Aztec fast was to abstain from salt and chilis and all members of Aztec society engaged in fasting to some extent. There were no regular exceptions from the fast, something that shocked the first Europeans who came into contact with the Aztecs. Though fasting was common in Europe, there were permanent exceptions for the women and small children, the sick or frail and the elderly. Before the New Fire ceremony, which occurred every 52 years, some priests fasted for a whole year; the other priests 80 days and lords 8 days. Commoners engaged in fasts, but less rigorously. There was also a permanent contingent of fasters in Tehuacan. Along with various ascetic rigors like sleeping on a stone pillow, they fasted for periods of four years on just one 50-gram corn tortilla (about 2 ounces) per day. The only respite came every 20 days, when they were allowed to eat whatever they wanted.
Even rulers such as Moctezuma were expected to cut down on their otherwise luxurious lifestyle and did so with considerable conviction and effort. At times he abstained from luxuries and sex with women and ate only cakes of michihuauhtli and seeds of amaranth or goosefoot. The lord's chocolate was also replaced with water mixed from parched bean powder. This can be contrasted with the fasts of many European nobles and clergy that, while obeying the letter of the religious regulation by replacing meat and animal products with fish, were still luxurious feasts in their own right.
The Aztecs practiced ritualistic cannibalism. Victims, usually prisoners of war, were sacrificed in public on top of temples and pyramids by cutting out their hearts. The bodies were then thrown down to the ground where they were dismembered. The pieces were then distributed to the elite, which were mostly warriors and priests. The meat was consumed in the form of stews flavored only with salt and eaten with corn tortillas, but without the otherwise ubiquitous chili. In the late 1970s the anthropologist Michael Harner suggested that the Aztecs had resorted to large-scale, organized cannibalism to make up for a supposed protein deficiency in the diet. This idea gained limited support from some scholars, but has been shown to be based on unfounded assumptions about eating habits, agriculture and demographics, making it a highly unlikely scenario.