What did the Aztecs eat, and how did the Aztec food supply fulfill the nutritional requirements of one of Mesoamerica’s greatest civilizations?
The Aztec food supply was very different from that typically found in the Old World. While European nations possessed domesticated animals such as sheep and cattle, the Aztecs were quite limited when it came to meat, especially in terms of livestock. While certainly not a vegetarian society, the Aztecs, and the commoner classes in particular, existed primarily on vegetables, fruit and grains.
Aztec Crops – Vegetables and Grains
The Aztecs were heavily reliant upon vegetables and grains. When combined, these plant foods provided the Aztecs with much of their nutritional requirements:
- Maize (corn) – maize was an essential part of the Aztec diet, fulfilling the same basic needs as wheat in the Old World. Maize was used to make the dough for Aztec staples such as tortillas and tamales. The kernels were also added directly to various dishes and eaten straight off the cob (various drinks were also made from maize).
- Beans – beans were the second most important staple in the Aztec diet. They provided important amino acids not found in maize, and increased overall protein consumption.
- Squash – the Aztecs cultivated squashes, but were certainly not the first to do so. Squash cultivation is believed to have first occurred in Mesoamerica approximately 10,000 years ago.
- Chili peppers – chili peppers were used to flavor many Aztec dishes and were a good source of vitamin A and C. According to Luis Alberto Vargas and Janet Long-Solis (Food Culture in Mexico), chili peppers have been part of the Mexican diet for at least 7,000 years.
- Tomatoes and tomatillos
- Sweet potatoes
- Amaranth – amaranth was used as a grain by the Aztecs, who called it huautli (it was also an important part of the Inca diet, and is known as kiwicha in the Andes today).
A wide variety of tropical fruits were available to the Aztecs, many of which were unknown outside of the Americas:
- Avocado – avocados were seen as a fertility fruit by the Aztecs. The name of the fruit derives from the Nahuatl word ahuacatl, literally “testicle.”
- Cherimoya – more commonly known as custard apple.
- Guanábana (soursop) – from the same genus as cherimoya, with a similar creamy texture.
- Guayaba – the fruit of the guava tree, named xalcocotl by the Aztecs. Guayaba contains much higher levels of vitamin C than citrus fruit.
- Prickly pear – the fruit of the cactus plant. The fruit was called nochtli by the Aztecs, and is commonly known as tuna in modern-day Mexico.
- Zapote (sapote) – a family of fruits known collectively by the Aztecs as tzapotl. Tropical fruits of the zapote family include the sapodilla and mamey. Aztec chewing gum, or chicle, was made using sap from the sapodilla tree (Manilkara zapota).
Aztec Food – Meat
The Aztecs obtained their meat from both domesticated and wild animals. Meat was something of a luxury, and general graced the tables of the nobility. Domesticated sources of meat were limited to:
- Turkeys – turkeys were sold in markets throughout the Aztec Empire. According to Dirk R. Van Tuerenhout (The Aztecs: New Perspectives), “The turkey was the only true domesticated fowl in Mesoamerica.”
- Dogs – a breed of hairless dog (similar to the Peruvian Hairless Dog) was kept specifically for its meat.
- Muscovy ducks – a semi-domesticated duck, often served alongside turkey and dog during banquets and celebratory feasts.
- Rabbits – rabbits were bred in captivity and hunted in the wild.
- (Bees – while not a source of meat, the Aztecs did successfully domesticate bees for their honey)
The Aztec food supply also included meat from a number of wild animals, including:
- Wild ducks
- Wild boar
- Peccary – a small, pig-like animal.
Aztec Food – Fish and Other Food Sources from Lake Texcoco
The lakes of Central Mexico were another source of Aztec food. Many items harvested from these lakes were unknown to the Spanish Conquistadors. The Europeans, not without reason, were hesitant, if not unwilling, to sample a number of these delicacies:
- Fish – fish were plentiful in the lakes of Central Mexico.
- Freshwater shrimp
- Water bugs – known as axayacatl by the Aztecs, these bugs were cooked and eaten. Their eggs were also used, sometimes being added to tortilla mix.
- Worms – izcahuitli, tiny worms found living in the lakes.
- Salamander – the axolotol, according to Van Tuerenhout, is a very peculiar breed of salamander that still lives in the lakes of Mexico today.
- Blue-green algae – this algae, known as tecuicatl, was harvested from Lake Texcoco. The slimy green substance was then dried and cut into loaves or bricks. It was easy to store, had a shelf-life of about one year, was high in protein and contained eight essential amino acids.
- Luis Alberto Vargas and Janet Long-Solis – Food Culture in Mexico, Greenwood Publishing, 2005.
- Dirk R. Van Tuerenhout – The Aztecs: New Perspectives, ABC-CLIO, 2005.
- Emory Dean Keoke, Kay Marie Porterfield – Food, Farming, and Hunting, Chelsea House, 20005.
- Frances Berdan, Patricia Rieff Anawalt – The Essential Codex Mendoza, University of California Press, 1997.