Avocados, cassava and other ancestral foods in Latin America


The many countries of Latin America have long harbored fertile ground, and for centuries indigenous peoples have used all they could for food. Our ancestors may have worked hard to find, prepare, and store food, but in the process they learned a ton about the land around them and the benefits of the many plants native to Central and South America. , as well as the Caribbean.

Many of our ancestral foods have in fact become very popular in the United States, thanks to their nutrient density and health benefits. Although some of them are not consumed regularly, many of them have long been a staple of our cuisine. Here, we’re sharing eleven ancestral ingredients that our ancestors used in food, some of which you may already eat and others that you should try incorporating into your diet. They are also readily available in most stores and / or online.


Various types of cacti were used as a food source by the indigenous peoples of Central and South America. They’re packed with vitamins and minerals like calcium, magnesium, and vitamin C, and they’re a good source of hydration. The natives often ate them raw or boiled and mashed, but they are delicious sautéed in garlic or chopped in casseroles and tacos.


Plantains grow in tropical climates and are native to many countries around the world. They have been widely cultivated and consumed in North America and the Caribbean since prehistoric times, and are still ubiquitous in many Caribbean countries. They are loaded with nutrients like vitamin C and vitamin B6, and being a starchy food, they are quite filling. Traditionally they would have been boiled and mashed or even dehydrated and made into flour, but today frying is the preferred preparation.


At this point, we all know that avocados are considered a super food. They’re full of healthy fats, fiber, vitamin C, vitamin B6, and magnesium, and of course, they taste delicious. Indigenous people believed that the creamy fruit could improve strength and fertility, and generally ate it mashed, just as we continue to do today.


Amaranth is an incredible and healthy whole grain that was used by the Aztecs as a source of food and for religious ceremonies. Its texture is similar to that of quinoa and has many advantages. The natives would also have made amaranth into flour, but the green vegetables are also edible, so they would have used them as well. Today you can make amaranth as a hot breakfast cereal or use it cooked in a salad.


Today, we use annatto (annatto) the same way our ancestors did … as a coloring! Annatto is commonly used to color rice dishes, stews, and pasta throughout Latin America. It’s a seed, so it actually contains quite a bit of protein and is known to have antioxidant and antimicrobial properties, so it was also used medicinally in traditional cultures. Typically, we simmer the seeds in a neutral oil to color the oil, which is then used in various dishes. Alternatively, it can be powdered and used as a spice.


Natural cocoa is actually so good for you! It has all the deep flavor of chocolate without the sugar, and is a great source of lots of minerals including iron, magnesium, manganese, and copper. Just as we appreciate it today, the Mayans and Aztecs made a drink made from dried cocoa and spices. The Mayans preferred it hot and the Aztecs cold. Cocoa beans are commercially available and can be added to smoothies, baked goods, oats, etc. Buy unsweetened ground cocoa to make hot chocolate and maybe add a little cinnamon for sweetness if you like.


Chayote, which is part of the squash family, was actually cultivated by the Aztecs and Mayans in Central America. Sweet squash is packed with hydrating water, fiber, vitamins C and B, and is excellent chopped and cooked in stews or stir-fries. It’s a very versatile vegetable that takes on the flavor of whatever it’s cooked with so you can add it to soup or just pan-roast with your favorite spices.


Quinoa is another super nutritious ancient grain that comes straight from Latin America, Peru to be more precise. While many of us never even heard of it until it became popular during the superfood movement that started several years ago, it has been around in Latin America forever. The small grain is a complete protein full of fiber, B vitamins, zinc and many other nutrients. It can be prepared like rice, ground into a flower, eaten in salads, and even used as a hot breakfast cereal.


Hominy is like one of the original processed foods passed down from our ancestors. But in the right way! The delicious, chewy kernel that we love to eat in the pozole is actually a form of corn that has been soaked to soften the hard outer shell and get the softer kernel on the inside. Indigenous people used the alkali from wood ash for the process, and today lime or lye water is used. Hominy can then be added to stews, seasoned, heated and served, then dried and made into oatmeal or cornmeal. Hominy is a good source of iron, fiber, and magnesium.


Cassava (yuca) was a staple in the diets of many indigenous peoples throughout Latin America and is still widely used today, particularly in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. It is an excellent source of potassium and vitamin C. It was very commonly simmered by the Tainos, as is still the case today, in dishes like sancocho, but it can be cooked in many ways, including in fries, in masa for pastels or boiled and included in a salad.


While we don’t know if it has received the official designation of “superfood,” we like to think ginger is. In Latinx culture, it is used quite often in medicine, usually prepared as a tea. The natives used it in the same way and used it to season food as we do today. It was also frequently used by indigenous peoples to heal wounds. We recommend using it in baked goods, lattes, tea, and to season dishes like curries and stir-fries.

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