Jun 27, 2017

Stone Age Food, Huauzontle – UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage

If you delegate tasks you will raise doers.
If you delegate authority you will raise leaders.

Craig Groeschel

Huauzontle salad, www.lyukum.net
Or how a quick conversation with a Mexican lady, waiting ahead of us at the cash register of a local grocery store, allowed us to discover a new type of vegetable widely used in southern parts of Mexico, the meaning of tianguis, and true respect for Mexican cuisine. 

I asked the middle-age señora what the dark green ‘herb’ she had in her basket was for?  Food, tea, medicine?  She uttered the name and said it was a vegetable.  I didn’t quite catch what she called it so I peeked at the screen of the register when they entered the code for this produce.  Right there was the word guazontle (pronounced “wah-sont-lay) … one of the many spellings (huazontles or cuazontles) for this ‘new to us’ plant.

Because it is so delicate-looking I had assumed it was a spice or medicinal herb, not thinking it could possibly be a vegetable.  Its flavor is unique, with hints of pepper, spinach, mint and traces reminiscent of broccoli.  Huauzontle (Chenopodium nuttalliae) is called the Spinach of the Aztecs and is a cousin to quinoa.   

Before we say more about huauzontle, let’s first look at Mexico's tianguis, where some of the freshest and most local produce are normally found.  Having been on the west side of Mexico for 4-5 years we were used to words like tiendas, mercadillos, abarrotes, etc.  While visiting El-Tajin near Papantla in Veracruz, we kept seeing the word tianguis and wanted to understand what it meant.  

The plant as it is when you buy it
All translations of the word tianguis (tee-ahn-geese) I came across hold that it derives from the Nahuatl language however they do not all agree as to its meaning.  Some say it is the word for awning, what is normally used to cover market stalls, others say it means street or open-air market, yet others say it means to trade or sell.   

Tianguis have more of a temporary nature than tiendas, some happening only on special occasions (pre-Easter for example), others once a month, to once or twice a week.  In or near larger cities, they may take place daily.  The majority materialize when a town closes a street to the traffic so these small markets can be set up for the day and taken down each night.  Tianguis are multi-layered events.  They combine shopping with catching up on gossip and meeting friends.  They are a place to restock your pantry and spirit at the same time.  
  • The ruins of El-Tajin where we just saw the Voladores, are located where tianguis formerly took place pre-historically (600 CE).  
  • The oldest tianguis still in operation today started in the Mexico City area in 1491, more than 525 years ago!  
  • Judges (up to 12 in larger tianguis) are hired to resolve vendor disputes.  
  • Barter is still widely used in rural tianguis where many Mexicans have little money and no bank accounts.  
  • About 1/5 of Mexico’s population still shop there for food and about 1/3 for clothing.  
Most Mexicans like shopping there because it allows them social connections which they do not find in larger chains.  Unfortunately, this is also where stolen goods end up.  We generally only purchase fresh food and sometimes handmade items at these markets, preferring not to be involved with contraband or illegally obtained goods.

Huauzontle with red peppers - www.mexconnect.com
Unlike large grocery stores, you will find the following at tianguis:  freshest local crops of the least chemically treated produce (locals don’t usually have enough money to grow food with chemicals).  These fruits or vegetables may be cosmetically unattractive but intensely flavorful.  Corn may come in a huge array of colors and shapes (if anything we just go to look at beautiful produce – for example place where we saw our very first cashew apples).  Gracing various stalls are masa (corn dough), calabazas (squashes) and their seeds, herbs, mortars and pestles, embroidered huipiles, weavings, handmade cheeses, flowers, etc.

More than likely you will not find huauzontle in large markets, only tianguis or small local markets. 

Huauzontle, a plant native to Mexico, resembles an elongated broccoli with miniature clusters of flower buds that are eaten before the buds begin to open and bloom. Its tough stalks are cut off close to the bud or, when used to make batter-dipped huazontle, used as "handles" to eat something that resembles a chile relleno (stuffed peppers held by their stems).  Huauzontle is inexpensive, grows easily from seed, and is a low maintenance and high yield plant. It is easy to see why it has been an important vegetable in Mexico for so long, and the highlight of many meatless meals.

Nutritionally, huauzontle is an important element in a corn based diet, providing essential amino acids that corn is lacking. 

Huauzontle with red peppers - www.mexconnect.com
Huauzontle can be served as croquettes, fritters, stuffed with cheese then fried, steamed, sautéed or added to soups, gratins or pastas.  The dried seeds can be ground into flour for baking.

As with amaranth and corn, citizens of the Aztec nation in pre-Columbian Mexico paid an annual tribute to their government in the form of agricultural products and records indicate that annual payments of 160,000 bushels of huauzontles, known then as "huauthli" were used as payment.

The crop also played a significant role in Mexican religious ceremonies. The culinary use of huauzontles is very common throughout Mexican communities during the period of Lent.

The longer we visit Mexico, the more we are amazed by their love of cooking and the variety of foods they use.  

UNESCO recognized Mexico’s unique ancient culinary heritage and declared Mexican cuisine an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010, the first time a cuisine received the honor.  At that point, even France with its world renown gastronomy had been turned down twice. 

Mexican food is truly about ancient roots woven into a colorful tapestry. Corn (grown for thousands of years), beans and chili peppers (some 300 varieties) form its warp and weft.  As for the Voladores we saw in El Tajin, the term cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects. It also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from ancestors and passed on to descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.

Mexicans love to cook but the reason the UNESCO designation was deserved is that it goes well beyond the taste buds into the protection of an ancestral way of life.  Like the Giza Pyramids, the Great Wall of China, the Eiffel Tower, Machu Picchu and other world wonders, Mexican food with its indigenous influences is getting serious and well-deserved recognition.

UNESCO - Michoacan woman

UNESCO in its own words: ‘Traditional Mexican cuisine is a comprehensive cultural model comprising farming, ritual practices, age-old skills, culinary techniques and ancestral community customs and manners. It is made possible by collective participation in the entire traditional food chain: from planting and harvesting to cooking and eating. The basis of the system is founded on corn, beans and chili; unique farming methods such as milpas (rotating swidden [slash and burn mostly] fields of corn and other crops) and chinampas (man-made farming islets in lake areas); cooking processes such as nixtamalization (lime-hulling maize, which increases its nutritional value); and singular utensils including grinding stones and stone mortars. Native ingredients such as varieties of tomatoes, squashes, avocados, cocoa and vanilla augment the basic staples. Mexican cuisine is elaborate and symbol-laden, with everyday tortillas and tamales, both made of corn, forming an integral part of Day of the Dead offerings. Collectives of female cooks and other practitioners devoted to raising crops and traditional cuisine are found in the State of Michoacán and across Mexico. Their knowledge and techniques express community identity, reinforce social bonds, and build stronger local, regional and national identities. Those efforts in Michoacán also underline the importance of traditional cuisine as a means of sustainable development and encourage increased nutritional value.’
The only other cuisines or foods recognized by UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity are Turkish coffee, Croatian gingerbread, Mediterranean diet, Japan washoku, and finally French gastronomy.  Mexican cuisine is in good company.  Now you see why on this blog we speak so much of food as we ‘forage’ our way through Mexico.
Sources: www.mexconnect.com, www.lyukum.net, www.mexicoinmykitchen.com, www.mexicocooks.com, com, and UNESCO.

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