Typical Foods and Spices Found in
Modern and Pre-hispanic Mexican
Here, we feature a list of some of the most important foods, fruits,
vegetables, plants, and spices used in Mexican cuisine and cooking. Most
of these fruits, vegetables and spices have been used for centuries in
Mexico, and in most cases, before the arrival of the Spanish. Search our
list of traditional and pre-Hispanic Mexican foods here:
|Want to learn more about the traditional foods of Mexico? Check out our
recipe book: Recipes from an Aztec Garden!
This is a unique collection of traditional and classic Mexican recipes.
The Aztecs made use of the wild plants and animals present in the large lake valley
where they made their home. They also used some of the most unusual and
advanced systems of agriculture found at that time. This allowed them to grow a
huge variety of plants.
The Aztecs used an unusual system of gardening called Chinampas, which are
“floating” gardens which they constructed throughout the series of lakes that once
formed the ancient city of Tenochtitlan.
Chinampa is a compound Nauhatl word meaning “upon a reed basket," and refers to
the fact that the Aztecs built up the soil on reeds and stabilized their gardens with
various kinds of trees (including a kind of willow tree (ahuejotes)) to create a firm
piece of ground upon which to grow their crops.
This ancient agricultural system using Chinampas is said to have produced a great
abundance of vegetables, fruits and flowers, including corn (maize), squash, chiles,
and tomatoes, all typically foods of Mexico and the Valley of Mexico. These typical
foods of the Chinampa agricultural system are now widely consumed in Mexico and
throughout the world.
You can see the remnants of this agricultural system today in the southern part of
Mexico City, in the suburb of Xochimilco. For more information about the Chinampa
system of gardening, see here.
As the Aztecs expanded their territory, they imported foods from throughout the
region, including the tropical areas throughout Mexico. For these and other reasons,
the cuisines that the ancient peoples of central Mexico enjoyed were some of the
richest and most varied in the world.
Achiote is the seed of the annatto tree. This tree is originally from South America but
found its way to Mexico and Central America with time. Achiote seeds and paste are
commonly used in Maya cuisine.
Amaranth (amaranthus spp.)
(Spanish: Amaranto; Nahualt: Huautli or Huauhtli):
Archaeological evidence suggests that indigenous peoples of the Americas first began
cultivating amaranth between 5,000 and 7,000 years ago. The use of amaranth in
Mesoamerica as a food probably began with the Mayas, and subsequently spread to
other indigenous groups in Mesoamerica.
Amaranth was one of the most important crops for the Aztecs, who are said to have
produced 15 to 20 tons of amaranth a year.
There exist roughly 800 species of amaranth. The species grown in Central Mexico is
known as amaranthus hipochondriascus. Amaranth is rich in proteins, amino acids,
calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, potassium, zinc, and iron. Leaves of the
amaranth plant are also edible, and are a good source of vitamins A and C, calcium
For the Aztecs, amaranth served both as a food crop and as an important part of
their religion and rituals. Amaranth seeds, mixed with human blood, were used to
create sculptures representing Aztec deities. This is probably one of the main reasons
that the Spanish attempted to eradicate the cultivation of Amaranth during the
Conquest of Mexico, as the Spanish considered this practice primitive and pagan.
Despite the efforts of the Spanish to destroy Aztec culture, the cultivation of
amaranth has thankfully survived to this day. The cultivation and consumption of
amaranth is once again very popular, especially in Central Mexico. It is mostly found
in the form of alegrias, blocks of amaranth seeds mixed with honey, raisins, peanuts,
and other nuts. In Mexico City, once the geographical center of the Aztec empire,
you can find vendors selling alegrias on virtually every street corner.
This website from Purdue University has lots of info of the traditional use of Amaranth
Avocados and Avocado leaves
For the indigenous communities of Mexico, the avocado tree (aguacate) provides not
only fruit, but an important spice as well. Aguacate is actually a Nahualt word that
means “testicle.” This is probably due to the shape of the avocado fruit.
Boldo is a small leaf that is used as an herb in Mexico and other Latin American
countries for cooking. They are specifically used for tea. Boldo leaves are originally
from Chile, but found their way to Mexico many years ago. Bay leaves are a good
replacement for boldo in typical Mexican dishes. It has a woody and spicy flavor.
Read more about boldo here.
Beans were another important crop for the Aztecs. The most common beans eaten
were black beans, kidney beans, and tepary beans. There are dozens of unique ways
to cook beans, and they are widely consumed in Mexico and throughout the world.
This is a extremely nutritious and versatile crop. Tlacoyos, a delicious stuffed tortilla,
is a typical food from the state of Mexico and a typical food from Mexico City. Frijoles
de Boda is a rich and spicy dish typical of the state of Colima.
Chile Peppers (Spanish: Chile):
Chiles belong to the genus Capsicum, and the family Solanaceae (the Nightshade
family). Other members of the nightshade family include eggplant, tomato, and
Modern botanists believe that chiles were originally cultivated in South America. Their
migration north may have to do as much animals spreading their seeds as with
human interaction. Birds especially are important agents in dispersing chiles seeds,
and probably help to distributing them throughout the Americas. Birds aren’t affected
by the heat of spicy chiles and do their stomachs don’t completely digest the seeds,
which makes them excellent mediums for transporting the seeds during their
migration. Gary Nabhan, an ethno-botanist working out of Arizona, has written
several articles on this fascinating relationship between chiles and birds.
In Mexico, there are dozens of varieties of chile that were used in pre-Hispanic
cuisine. Today, Mexicans continue the tradition of using chiles in a wide variety of
foods. Dried chile piquín is sprinkled liberally over mangoes and corn. A variety of
delicious salsas require chiles as their main ingredient. A savory Mexican dish known
as Mole requires as many as 4 different kinds of chiles.
If you want an idea of how many varieties of chiles exist, see this pdf file from the
University of California Extension Service.
Cacao is actually a large fruit that grows on a small to medium sized tree in tropical
regions of Mexico and Central America. The seeds of cacao are the source of
chocolate. The seeds are dried, roasted, and ground to make the coco powder than
is the basis for chocolate.
Cacao was used extensively throughout Mesoamerica. The Mayas, Aztecs, and
Olmecs were all thought to have cultivated cacao. The Aztecs used the beans as a
form of currency. Because it was considered such a precious crop for the Aztecs,
only the upper classes consumed chocolate, usually in the form of a beverage.
While or many people prefer a basic sweet chocolate, the Aztecs often added other
unusual spices to their chocolate, including chiles and annatto.
For an excellent site about the history of chocolate, check out this Cacao and
Exploring Chocolate: Learn about the history of chocolate, check out chocolate
products from Mexico and free trade chocolates, and review delicious chocolate
Learn how you can visit a working cacao farm in the sate of Tabasco here.
Nopal (oputia ficus-indica) is an edible cactus that was consumed throughout
Mesoamerica. The tender cactus pads make an easy and quick meal, as they can be
harvested and eaten raw or cooked. Nopal was also prized because it is associated
with cochineal, an insect that is used as a natural red dye.
Nopal has gained a reputation internationally as it seems to ease the effects of
diabetes. Studies have shown that eating nopal can reduce blood sugar and
Currently, there is a massive production of the nopal cactus is Mexico, with most
nopal being produced and consumed in the Valley of Mexico and the Bahío
There is still a limited production of cochineal in Mexico, which has declined in modern
times due to abundance of artificial dyes.
Read more about nopal production and health benefits here.
Cal (Slaked lime)
Cal is used to make nixtamal, a soft cornmeal used for tortillas and tamales. The
addition of cal to corn makes corn easier to digest, and makes many of its vitamins
and minerals available to the body.
Chayotes (Sechium edule) are a popular vegetable throughout Mexico and Central
America. They are very similar in flavor and texture to many squash. They have
been consumed in Mexico since the time of the Aztecs. The name “chayote” is
actually a derivative of the Nahuatl world chayotli. Both the fruit and the leaves
have been used historically in Mexico. The leaves are used to make a medicinal tea,
and the fruit is consumed in stews, salads, or alone. In Honduras, I have eaten
chayotes in many different forms, including sliced and made into a sort of “sandwich”
with cheese and ham. These were called "huaraches de chayote." Due to the
increasing number of Mexican immigrants in the U.S., chayotes are now available in
many communities outside of Mexico. Learn about the culinary and medicinal uses of
chayote at this website hosted by Purdue University.
Although chia seeds are mostly associated with the Chia Pet (Trademark), chia is a
food that was widely consumed by the Aztecs. Chia has numerous health benefits.
Learn more about chia seeds here.
Corn is one of the most important food crops of the Americas. For the Maya and
Aztecs, corn was more than just a food, it was a vital and sacred part of their
culture. This is also true for modern Mexico.
The cultivation of corn probably began over 8,000 years ago in central Mexico and
Central America. Ancient corn cobs were found in the Guilá Naquitz cave in the state
of Oaxaca, Mexico and the San Marcos cave in Tehuacán.
Corn was first thought to be domesticated from teosinte, an annual grass growing
wild in Mexico and used as a fodder plant.
It is believed that the ancient peoples of Mexico began to select teosinte plants that
had larger seed heads until they eventually achieved the modern corn cob that we
see today. This process probably took several generations.
Due to domestication, humans have transformed corn into a plant that can no
longer self-sow. Modern corn requires someone to break the hard, tightly bound cob
and plant the seeds. Wild teosinte, however, is very fragile and the seeds easily fall
off and grow new plants. Without human interaction, modern corn would cease to
Please see this site from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for
an excellent article on the history of corn.
Epazote is a pungent herb found in many popular Mexican dishes. It is also known as
“wormseed,” as it can be used to treat intestinal parasites and flatulence. Read more
Escamoles (Ant Eggs):
Escamoles are the larva of black ants and are consumed cooked with spices. Check
out this site from Cornell University for more information about Escamoles.
Guajes are a variety of seed pods from leucaena trees and are eaten raw or cooked.
They have been consumed since pre-Hispanic times. The state of Oaxaca owes its
name to this tree. Check out this web page for a picture and discussions on the
This plant is also known as the root beer plant. In Mexico, Hoja Santa leaves are large
and heart-shaped. They are used both in cooking and to wrap tamales. Hoja Santa
leaves are also used in a wonderful dish from Veracruz using fish in a tomato based
dish. While to some it may taste like root beer, to me Hoja Santa has a lightly sweet
flavor like anise. Read more about the Hoja Santa leaf here.
Honey was used extensively in Mesoamerica. The Mayas especially made use of
honey to flavor their foods and beverages. Today, the Xel-Ha National Park in the
state of Quintana Roo maintains a thriving honey business managed by a local Maya
community. The honey is even blessed by a Mayan priest during an elaborate
Huitlachoce is a Nahualt word that translates roughly to “excrement of the Gods.”
This rather unappetizing name is strangely appropriate for this odd but delicious food
of pre-Hispanic origin. Huitlachoche is actually a fungus that grows on corn during
the rainy season. It grows as grayish lumps on the corn cob, and is harvested and
cooked with onions and various spices. It the U.S. it is know as "Corn Smut" and is
eradicated from corn fields. In Mexico, it is prized and means that the corn cobs will
get a higher price in the market.
See this fascinating article on the domestication of corn smut from the University of
The Maguey Cactus (Agave americana) is found throughout central Mexico and
was a very important plant for the Aztecs and other Mesoamerica cultures. The
maguey produces the once sacred beverage pulque, which is the fermented juice
extracted from the flower stalk. Before turning into pulque, the juice is called agua
miel (honey water), which is a highly nutritious drink still consumed today in rural
areas. Maguey fibers can be used for rope, clothing, and other products.
The Maguey is also known as the Century Plant and now grows throughout the
world. The Maguey’s English name implies that it only flowers once every 100 years,
which is incorrect. The plant typically blooms at maturity, about 20 years, depending
on the species.
Squash are found within the genus Cucurbita. They are annuals and are related to
gourds cucumbers, and pumpkins.
Native peoples of South America are thought to be the first to have domesticated
squash. Eventually, the seeds were traded and made their way to Mesoamerica. In
many cases, squash were valued more for their tender edible seeds than for the
Chilacayote is a special type of squash used in many dishes throughout central
Mexico. It is native to Central America and Mexico.
Tamales (Tamal or tamale singular):
Tamales are a very ancient food. Ancient populations throughout Mexico and
Central America, including the Aztecs and the Maya, have enjoyed tamales for
hundreds of years. What makes tamales possible is the invention of a mixture of
corn and slaked lime (“cal” in Spanish) called “nixtamal.” This soft mixture releases
nutrients within the corn and softens it for easy digestion. Once the corn is soften
with cal, the nixtamal is ground into a mush, and stuffed into a wrapper, alongside
The number of materials used for wrappers is impressive. In Mexico, people use
anything from corn husks to banana leaves to wrap their tamales. In some regions
of Mexico, people use wild plant leaves to wrap their tamales. Many of these leaves
impart a special flavor to the tamale.
In addition to corn, many "tamales" exist that contain no corn whatsoever. I have
sampled "tamales de capulin" (wild cherry tamales) and "tamales de pescado" (fish
tamales with trout and nopales). I consumed both within the area of Mexico City, and
both kinds of tamales were wrapped in corn husks. I am not sure whether these
kinds of tamales are an ancient or modern invention.
Tequila is to Mexico as Vodka is to Russia. The finest tequilas come from the tequila
agave (Agave tequilana), also known as the blue agave (agave azul in Spanish).The
most famous tequilas come from the state of Jalisco. Unfortunately, due to the
modern practice of monoculture, the blue agave has suffered recently from pests
and plagues, which has caused the price of tequila to rise significantly.
Tomatoes were probably domesticated first in South America. Several wild varieties of
tomatoes still grow between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, from
northern Chile to Peru and Ecuador. Wild tomatoes have very small fruits in
comparison to domesticated ones. When the Spanish first arrived to Central America
and Mexico, they found that the Aztecs were cultivating tomatoes. Studies show
that these tomatoes are direct descendants of the wild South American tomatoes.
Tomatillos (Physalis philadelphica):
Tomatillos are used throughout Mexico in salsas and other dishes. They are related
to the common tomato, as both are members of the nightshade (Solanaceae)
family. While tomatoes in Mexicos are typically called jitomates, tomatillos are often
referred to as simply tomates. Depending on the region however, they are also
called tomates de cascara or tomates verdes. Like the common tomato, tomatillos
originated in South America and made their way to Mexico through trade. Learn
more about Tomatillos at this website from Purdue University. And check out this
site with more information about tomatoes and tomatillos and how to grow them.
The wild turkey is native to the Americas and was one of the few animals
domesticated by the Aztecs.
Vanilla is a tropical orchid that produces a highly prized seed pod. Vanilla's scientific
name is Vanilla planifolia.
The pods are generally harvested early and taken to be fermented. The seed pods
can grow up to around 10 inches long. These orchids need to mature to about 11
feet long before they start producing these precious seed pods.
Vanilla is an important flavoring in many Mexican dishes.
Yuca (yucca) is an edible root that comes from a small shrub. It was originally
domesticated in Brazil. In other parts of the world it is known as Cassava root. It is
now a staple food in southern Mexico and Central America. It was also traditionally
used to starch clothing. Yuca is starchy like a potato and has a very mild flavor. It is
delicious in stews or fried. You can also use it in deserts.
The Caribe Food Corporation in Miami, Florida is a great place to find Yuca and other
and Spices of Modern and