Modern Mexican fare is well-known internationally, with its combination of Spanish and Mesoamerican elements. Many aspects of the cuisine were passed down from the Aztecs, the indigenous group that ruled in 15th and 16th century Mexico. The Aztec people consumed a predominantly vegetarian diet.
Nutrition for Typical Aztecs
The majority of Aztecs consumed beans and corn on a daily basis. They gained protein through eating insects, including ants and grasshoppers, and occasionally worms. An average Aztec meal consisted of between two and three tortillas, along with a side of beans. They ate twice daily, in the morning and then again in the afternoon. Gruel made out of the grain amaranth was also a regular part of their diet, mostly made at night for a quick and easy meal. Nutritionally speaking, Aztecs generally didn't receive a lot of oil or fat in their diets.
More Diverse Foods for the Privileged
Wealthy Aztecs enjoyed a much broader menu than the rest. Tomatoes, fruit and meat were all foods available to privileged members of the society. The Aztec emperor Montezuma II was believed to have as many as 30 separate dishes for every meal he ate, with luxurious foods such as roasted turkey, green plums, lobster, crab, turtle, frog, fish and quail. Other meats the Aztecs dined on were owls, deer, turkey, duck, lizards, parrots and eagles. Their vegetable favorites included artichokes, squashes, leeks, garlic, onions and watercress.
Enhancing the Nutritional Value of Corn
The Aztecs relied heavily on corn for their meals, and even had a technique called "nixtamalization" to increase its nutritional value. The technique involved immersing corn in water and then cooking it in a lime mixture. Nixtamalization transformed niacin and made it more efficient for the body to digest. When Aztecs ate this type of corn in conjunction with beans, they received whole proteins, and therefore suitable levels of amino acids.
Other Important Nutritional Components
Chili peppers were a common element in many Aztec meals, providing vitamin A, niacin, riboflavin and iron. The Aztecs also regularly dined on a grain they referred to as "chia." Chia contained phosphorus and calcium. Nowadays, chia is thought to possibly be helpful for protecting people against medical ailments such as diabetes and heart disease.
- Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes; Carl Waldman
- Atlas of the North American Indian; Carl Waldman and Molly Braun
- Handbook to Life in the Aztec World; Manuel Aguilar-Moreno
- The Aztec Empire; Jane Bingham
- Food and Culture; Pamela Goyan Kittler, Kathryn P. Sucher and Marcia Nahikian-Nelms
- How America Eats -- A Social History of U.S. Food and Culture; Jennifer Jensen Wallach
- What Did the Aztecs Do For Me?; Elizabeth Raum
- PBS: Aztec -- Fierce Wanderers
- Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images