There is no word in Aztec for “amino acid.”
So how did the ancients of Mexico and Mesoamerica know that eating jointly the plant matter trio of corn, beans and squash provides a symbiosis of amino acids and protein approaching that of animal protein? Add to the bowl the ancient seed amaranth and it does.
Or how did they know that planting beans alongside corn — I mean next to, so that the beanstalk climbed the cornstalk — fixed nitrogen in the soil and thereby increased the corn’s yield?
They didn’t know that. But they did. Fascinating. Amazing. A grace.
And how did they know to take their great grain maize (we call it “corn”) once the kernels had dried, and to soak it and boil it and then to add some of the ashes from last night’s fire — think on that: they added cold wood ash from the hearth, like, why? — in what they said was “to nixtamalize”?
This ingenious process not only allows for the slipping off of the tough outer skin of the kernel, but also the opening up of the grain to grinding into meal or flour (and, thus, the making of dozens and dozens of forms of corn to eat out of hand or in a panoply of preparations). To boot, it results in both the reduction of dangerous mycotoxins in the maize and the unlocking not only of greater aroma and flavor than non-nixtamalized maize but also of all potential protein within the grain itself.
Yes, those no-named, known-but-unknown amino acids. Awing. Wonderful.
Note that maize may have been exported and eagerly accepted throughout the world after its discovery hereabouts in the 1500s (it is the third most planted crop on the globe after wheat and rice), yet the process of nixtamalization has not. You keep your secret that you have happily shared with some of us, you amazing Aztecs.
Ancient Mexico and Mesoamerica have blessed our modern eating in so many ways. It’s a true gift that these ways of eating, some thousands of years old, remain part of our diet today.
Merely look at the foodstuffs they gave us: chiles of matchless diversity; the tomato; all the great squashes such as the pumpkin, zucchini and chayote; the avocado and guava, to name just two fruits; beans to match the chiles in unmatchable diversity; the cacao pod and the chocolate made of it; and vanilla, an edible orchid.
How did they know that, by weight, those squashes (and their flowers and seeds, once cooked) are more nutritious in amino acids than equivalent measures of either maize, beans, amaranth or even egg whites?
And before they received citrus from their Spanish conquistadors, did they realize how much both the essential vitamins C and A came by way of these many foods just mentioned? How did they know? They just did.
Side note: they also gave us the turkey. We forget that because we think Massachusetts did but, nope, Mesoamerica did.
But always, these ancients knew about maize, in one early Guatemalan word called “kana,” meaning “our mother.” Corn and what they did — and do — with it, remains their most stunning gift.
Nixtamalize it first, of course, then grind it and add water or broth and this gruel (called pozole, pinole or atole) is breakfast or, heck, any meal. Grind it and moisten it and the dough rolls into a tortilla (which itself can be a holder, a platter or “plate,” an envelope such as a quesadilla, or a base, as with enchiladas). Surround a filling with it and then again with its ear’s husks and it’s the tamale.
Sometimes it’s just a napkin. Ha.
I like to think about a couple of things in the everyday Mexican kitchen and how they loop back to time primordial in the foodways of Mesoamerica.
Every kitchen has a blender, which is merely the place where so many forms of plant matter meet: to make a sauce (salsa) or a mole or an agua fresca or any number of other liquid-y foods that these vegetable- and fruit-loving people forever have eaten and eat.
And I note that, while North American stoves typically sport a grill, Mexican stoves almost never do. But they always have a griddle. That is for the blistering of and adding additional flavor to chiles and, yes, after Spain and the 1500s, the grilling of meats.
But above all, the griddle is the place for the making of or reheating of the tortilla, especially the corn tortilla. In its way and due to its meaning, the griddle space is akin to a church tabernacle for the sanctified bread.
The recipe here is a contemporary turn on the “holy trinity” of beans, corn and squash. These are “the three sacred sisters” of its name.
Heirloom Three Sacred Sisters Salad
From Holly Arnold Kinney, “Shinin’ Times at The Fort” (Fur Trade Press). Serves 4-6.
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 chayote squash, diced
- 1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels, blanched and drained
- 1 1/2 cups cooked Anasazi or pinto beans, rinsed
- 1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced
- 1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
- 1/4 cup white wine vinegar
- Juice of half a lemon
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh tarragon, or ½ tsp. dried tarragon
- 3-5 tablespoons olive oil
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- 4 to 6 sprigs of fresh cilantro, for garnish
- 1/3 cup hulled sunflower seeds, lightly toasted, for garnish
In a skillet over medium-high heat, melt the butter. Add the diced chayote and sauté for 2-3 minutes, until slightly softened and beginning to brown.
In a salad bowl, combine the vinegar, lemon juice, sugar and tarragon. Gradually whisk in the olive oil. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Add the corn, beans, squash and bell peppers. Toss the salad, then let chill for 1 hour. Serve garnished with fresh cilantro and toasted sunflower seeds.
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