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The History of Food in Latin America Essay

If one looks at any book shops collection of cookery books you will find volumes about the cuisine of many parts of the world, but those about South America will be very rare indeed, though Mexican and Caribbean food may be described. Yet those other cuisine use foods that originate in Southern America such as potatoes, chocolate, chillies, tomatoes, and various legumes. There are also grains that have remained more or less local to South America such as quinoa, known to the Incas as ‘the mother grain’. Maize originated in Central America, which had one of the most highly developed of ancient agricultural systems.

The corn quickly spread both north and south, so much so that it can be considered as an all American food. The type usually grown in South America is flint corn, according to Isabel Moore in ‘The Food Book’ page 21. This has kernels that are smaller than most varieties and has tougher outer skin. This has long been used to produce chichi or chicha, a beer made from chewed kernels. The name comes from Haitian ‘mahiz’ meaning ‘stuff of life. The Aztecs used human sacrifice in their attempts to placate the gods and ensure good harvests. They believed that maize contained the spirits of many gods, the main one being Cinteot.

There were ceremonies to worship him at every stage from the first sowing to the harvesting of the ripe ears. Maize lacks. The Aztecs, up in southern Mexico used human sacrifice in their attempts to placate the gods and ensure good harvests. Isabel Moore tells us that maize lacks more of the essential amino acid lysine than other grains and relying on it as a staple can result in deficiency diseases such as pellagra. I t was first grown deliberately about 5,500 years ago. Those early farmers would compensate for its deficiency by boiling it with a little ash or lime.

This released the niacin. I t was then used again in flour or eaten with fish, beans and other vegetables and fruit which then supply the missing amino acids. Surprising the Incas also invented pop corn, which was useful in that it would keep. The Aztecs had come down from New Mexico into the area of modern Mexico in the fourteenth century. They found a country with many lakes, and soon were making use of the foods they contained. Alan Davidson tells how added to their diet small insects and algae as well as the more obvious fish and water fowl.

They also obtained salt from the lake water by boiling it so that the water evaporated leaving behind the crystals. When the Europeans reached Latin America in the16th century they made the first written descriptions we have of Pre-Columbian foods These early descriptions contain some inaccuracies as they met new cultures that they did not fully understand. By the time the Europeans reached the Americas the Mayan civilization was already in decline, but their foods were still important in local culture. Maize was very important for such times as birth and death.

It would be drunk in the form of as posole, a gruel, or atole, as a thin porridge and as bread in the form of tortillas and tamales. They ate turkey, but also iguana, armadillos, tapirs, ducks, partridge, frogs and monkeys. In coastal district fish were naturally a feature and preserved fish were traded. This is a much wider range of protein foods than are eaten in the main in modern times. Alan Davidson in ‘The Oxford Companion to Food’ ( page 44) tells us that they kept bees for their honey. The Inca Empire in South America was formally a massive one extending over an area the same as the Roman one.

The web site ‘Food of the Incas’ tells how the Empire was a huge food distribution network and how they were able to preserve excess harvests. More specifically, they used very efficient food distribution and preservation techniques. The Incas were sun worshippers, because the sun gave them both the light and heat necessary for the growth of food. For grains they used quinoa , achita, and canahua, all of which were ground into flour according to the Food Time web page. Tortillas would be by every woman and girl and, although some would be eaten immediately, they could also be stored and used by travelers.

A sort of maize dumpling made from dough called Xoars were also common. The dough would be mixed and beans, chilies or meat would be placed at the center and the whole then wrapped in leaves and steamed. They must have been somewhat like Chinese dim sum. Food such as potatoes and meat were preserved by a kind of freeze drying according to Baudin in ‘Daily Life in Peru’, pages 84 and 85. They would be left exposed at night to freezing temperatures. In the day the sun would evaporate the water. This continued for several days. The dried potato pulp that resulted was known as chuno and would keep for about a year.

The dried beef was called charqui, from which we get the modern word ‘jerky’. Other meat comes from animals that aren’t eaten in other parts of the world. The llama is of course a domesticated animal used for transport, but also for wool and once it was of no more value as transport, was used as meat. The guinea pig was also eaten as well as other small mammals. In earlier time meals were taken twice a day, at about 9 and again in late afternoon. At both meals a mildly alcoholic drink, chichi, mentioned earlier, was drunk in preference to water. Most meals would include a soupy stew containing whatever was in season.

Coca leaves would be chewed after meals. This has become in modern times Cocaine, but was used to combat the extreme weather. The sapodilla tree provided snacks in the form of chewing gum. Much of the empire’s land was mountainous, but would be terraced so provide flat surfaces for the cultivators. Chocolate comes from the fruit pods of the cacao tree from Central and South America. Drinks made from cacao beans were part of central American culture and were discovered by Spanish explorers. The name comes from two Aztec words – ‘chocal’ meaning hot or bitter plus ‘atl’ meaning water.

The Mayans also knew about chocolate though it is unsure whether or not they used it ceremonially or as an everyday drink. Cacoa beans were also used as currency by the Mayans. The emperor Montezuma was said to have a million or more bean sin storage according to Isabel Moore, page 336. The original Mayan drink would also contain chilli. Chillies are something we now associate with the food of many different cultures, Tex Mex and Thai for instance. The word comes from Nahuati, the Aztec language, for the capsicum. Peppers are part of the same family as other foods we associate with that part of the world – the potato and tomato.

They vary from the sweet to those containing so much capsaicin, an alkaloid that they will produce burning sensations and even numbness in the mouth. They were brought back to Europe by explorers such as Columbus and from there quickly travelled around the world. Another food that travelled quickly were beans of many related types. Haricot is an attempt at the Aztec word Ayacotl. Prior to this only the broad bean was in regular use in Europe. China had mung and soya beans , but all others come from the Americas where they have been a staple for some 7,000 years according to Isabel Moore.

( Page 138) We now associate coffee with Latin America, but this originated in the Horn of Africa and was taken to the Americas by Europeans who realized its potential as a crop. Brazil is now the largest producer in the world. So we can see that traffic in new foods is bilateral. Squash, avocados and pumpkin have long been cultivated alongside chillies and tomatoes and this is reflected in the kitchen where they are cooked alongside each other. The squash seeds were also eaten as snacks. Although the sweet potato is not related to the ordinary potato it comes from a similar area.

It originated in the highlands of Peru, where it has been grown for two millennia. It spread from there to Central America and the Caribbean, from where sailors, long before the European invasion, took it east to Polynesia and even as far as New Zealand. It arrived in Europe with returning Spaniards before the more ordinary type as promoted by Sir Walter Raleigh. In Elizabethan England it was used as aphrodisiac, and became very fashionable in Europe after the Empress Josephine, who was born in the Caribbean, had it planted in her French gardens.

Herbs such as guarana, yerba mate, and hibiscus were widely used, but more for healing than as flavouring. The natives of Peru have long used the maca root as a naturally occurring Viagra type supplement. Inca warriors would eat it before going into battle, but it was forbidden after they had conquered a city in order to protect its female inhabitants. In more modern times the food of the area has been much influenced by that of other peoples – Americans to the north, the Portuguese in Brazil of course and the Spanish, throughout the remainder of the area.

Modern food is a blend of indigenous foods such as beans with those from elsewhere in the world such as aubergines, now grown widely in Central America. Travel is easier in modern times. One can easily eat a meal in a foreign country and then buy the ingredients once home to reproduce it in one’s own kitchen. It is almost guaranteed however that whether cooking an Italian pizza, an Indian curry or an Irish Stew you will use ingredients that originate in Latin America.

References Books Baudin,L.Daily Life in Peru, Macmillan, New York, 1962 Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food, Oxford University Press, 1999 Moore, I. The Food Book, BBC, London 2002 Electronic Sources Aztec Religion , Corn http://www. microscopy. fsu. edu/religion/pages/aztec. html retrieved 11th December 2007 Food of the Incas http://library. thinkquest. org/C005446/Food/English/inca. html retrieved 10th December 2007 Food Timeline http://www. foodtimeline. org/foodmaya. html#maya retrieved 11th December 2007

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