It never ceases to pleasantly surprise me when, after having studied or learnt something about ancient civilisations such as the Greeks, the Roman Empire or Ancient Egypt, the Aztecs, Incas or Mayans, I discover remnants of these cultures and civilisations in our modern world. Facts about these periods and civilisations are taught in school as part of a time period that has no relation to our lives in the 21st century. We are able to visit the ruins of these great empires and learn facts about daily life, habits and beliefs, but we never associate what we learn with our own lifestyles except to compare the differences.
The Nahuatl are a group of indigenous people from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua and history refers to them as the Aztecs, one of the three empires of the Americas prior to the arrival of the Spanish. The Aztec Empire existed in Central America between around 1345 AD and 1521 AD. At the peak of the empire, it spread across most of Mesoamerica and controlled around 11,000,000 people. They had a very advanced social structure which included rulers, nobles (who were warriors, judges and priests) and the commoners who were allowed to own land as a group or family, but not as an individual. It was almost impossible to move between the social classes. Until the age of 15, children were taught at home by their parents, but once they turned 15 then both girls and boys had to go to school. Boys were trained as warriors and girls were taught about Aztec religion, morals and history. Aztec society allowed women to retain their own property and money even after marrying and were allowed to work in medicine, education, religion and trade. The strict moral code of the Aztecs meant that such things as drunkenness and public disorder could be punished by death. This great empire existed until 1521 AD when it was conquered by the Spanish in alliance with the enemies of the Aztecs. In contemplating this great empire that disappeared five hundred years ago, I started a quest to discover if there were any remnants of the Aztecs in our lifestyles, language or food and the results were quite surprising!
The first word which came to mind is a food item which is now popular throughout the world and is guacamole, the smooth, rich avocado sauce used for dipping. The word guacamole comes directly from the two words āhuacatl (avocado) and mōlli (sauce) in the Nahuatl language. The English word avocado actually derives from aguacate (Spanish) which comes directly from āhuacatl. So this popular dipping sauce was known simply as ‘avocado sauce’ by the Aztecs. The avocado is actually an indigenous fruit of the Americas. Although part of the Aztec cuisine, guacamole is now world-famous and can be found around the globe. Guacamole consists of three avocados mashed together with the juice of a lime and a teaspoon of salt in a bowl. Add to this half a cup of diced onion, three tablespoons of coriander, two chopped plum tomatoes and one teaspoon of minced garlic and stir until all the ingredients are blended smoothly together. Stir in one pinch of cayenne pepper (optional) and leave to chill in the fridge for an hour before serving for best flavour or serve immediately. If you like a little heat in your guacamole, add a few drops of Lovejoys Burn Yo fact Hot Sauce, pop it in the fridge for an hour and enjoy with friends!
Another addition to modern cuisine are the ever popular tortillas. Corn was the main staple grown in Mesoamerica and was made not only into tortillas and tamales, but also into corn porridge for breakfast. Tamales are a dish of seasoned meat and corn flour steamed or baked in corn husks. Tortillas - for the Aztecs - refers to the wraps that are nowadays often made out of wheat instead of corn and filled with anything and everything. No matter what fillings are used in a tortilla, they never cease to be satisfying either as a snack or as part of a main meal.
We can also thank the Aztecs not only for the word, but also for the tomato. Tomato comes directly from the Nahuatl word tomatl which means ‘swelling fruit’ and once again, the tomato is a fruit native to the Americas.
The chilli - a staple of Aztec cuisine - is also a word that comes directly from Nahuatl. In Nahuatl chīlli means ‘hot pepper’. There are currently more than 400 ‘hot peppers’ in the world and over 60 of these are indigenous to Mexico.
The chipotle is a word that has its roots in the Nahuatl language. As seen above, chīlli means ‘hot pepper’ and pōctli is a word that refers to something that is smoked. So chipotle is a smoked (and usually dried) jalapeño pepper from the city of Jalapa (or Xalapa in Nahuatl) in Guatemala.
A delicacy on the Aztec table was the salamander axolotl. This salamander has the unique ability to regenerate different parts of its body such as kidney, heart, lungs and missing limbs in the case that they are damaged. In Aztec mythology Xolotl was the god of twins, fire, lightning, monsters, misfortune, sickness and deformities. He had two animal forms, one of which was the salamander which takes its name from him. The axolotl is native only to Lake Xochimilco in the Valley of Mexico as well as in the canals and waterways of Mexico City. Unfortunately, it is now in danger of extinction and is an endangered species and protected by law.
Perhaps the most surprising English word that derives from Nahautl is the word ‘shack’. In Nahuatl, xacatli means ‘grass hut’ and it is obvious to see the direct link between the pronunciation of the two words.
Last, but not least is the world-popular chocolate. The cocoa bean (cacahuatl in Nahuatl) is native to both Central America and South America and played an important part not only in life within the Aztec Empire, but also within the Inca Empire. The word chocolate is derived directly from the Nahuatl word xocolātl, (xococ - sour/bitter, atl - water/drink). Initially, chocolate was not a food, but a drink that was flavoured with chilli peppers, honey, spices and herbs. It was very important in Aztec life and was even used as currency for trade, given to warriors as a post-battle reward and served at royal feasts. There is so much more to be said about chocolate and its history and this will be covered in more depth in a separate post - watch this space!
LIke many, I know limited facts about the Aztecs, their life and customs and given that their empire disappeared five hundred years ago, their existence, customs and beliefs remain a bit of a mystery to me. I also grew up in a corner of the world where there was no talk, knowledge or even interest (dare I say it) in what happened in medieval Mexico. However, in spite of the gaps in my own knowledge, I am fascinated to see that there are remnants of this powerful empire in our modern lives. Foods that were delicacies for the Aztecs such as guacamole and xocolātl are now common components of western cuisine. The tomatl or xitomatl can be found in most kitchens across the world and is an essential ingredient in many dishes and recipes. Chili has found its way into the hearts and lives of those who love spicy food (and is an essential ingredient in the Burn yo Face Hot Sauce) and the chilipōctli (chipotle) is a sought-after delicacy by many. Corn tortillas are found throughout the world and are popular wherever they are found. So although the Aztec Empire is no longer with us, their presence can still be felt through the foods and delicacies that adorned their tables and which have spread across the world and the words that they have given to us to describe these delicacies. Truly an empire can be measured by the legacy it leaves and I don’t think that I am wrong in saying that guacamole, tomatl, xocolātl, tortillas and chilipōctli are here to stay. :-)