As Cinco de Mayo nears, liquor companies and food manufacturers attempt to give the public a taste of authentic Mexican drinks and food. What many people think of as authentic and typical is actually the result of colonization and years of adapting indigenous foods to European tastes. Wheat, pork, beef, cheeses and rice were brought to Mexico by the Spanish. Flour tortillas exemplify the blending of European ingredients with native Mexican tradition.
Within the vast and vibrant Chicano food scene, there is a group of scholars and chefs who are tapping into their ancestral memory to give Mexicans and Mexican Americans a taste of what their indigenous ancestors ate. Eating indigenous foods is not only a step toward decolonizing, but it’s also about reclaiming health, building community and inspiring people to embrace their rich history that goes back thousands of years on this continent.
Claudia Serrato, a Chicana from Los Angeles of Purépecha origin (indigenous people from the Mexican state of Michoacán) and a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology, is one half of Cocina Manakurhini, a mobile kitchen and catering service that highlights native foods. She shared her perspective on embracing indigenous foods and provided some examples of the dishes that she makes with Cocina Manakurhini.
“I have been cooking with native chefs throughout the country as part of my research for my dissertation. Back in 2008, I came up with the concept of indigenous veganism. I wanted to explore that and so I connected with Native American chefs throughout the country. I was eating my ancestral foods, and I started to think about how I could substitute certain ingredients for ingredients that honor the landscape and where my family comes from. My partner in Cocina Manakurhini is also Purépecha, so we wanted to infuse food from Michoacán into our dishes, but also incorporate the local flavors of Los Angeles and those from the indigenous people from Southern California, the Tongva,” Serrato said.
Some of the dishes that Cocina Manakurhini has made at its events include hand-ground nixtamal blue corn tamales with bison and quelites en chile rojo. Quelites are a native Mexican green. A three sisters salad is another favorite, which is made with corn, beans and squash, a foundation of the Native American diet. Purépecha atole bites are an example of a sweet dessert made with hand-ground blue corn, sweetened with agave or maple syrup. Raw chayote with nettle pesto is another favorite; chayote is a Mexican squash and nettle is a flowering plant that is native to western North America.
Photo by Luz Calvo
Luz Calvo is a professor of ethnic studies at California State University, East Bay. She and her partner, Catriona Rueda Esquibel, wrote Decolonize Your Diet: Plant-Based Mexican-American Recipes for Health and Healing, published in 2015. The book features over 100 recipes based on Mesoamerican cuisine in addition to contributions from indigenous cultures throughout the Americas.
“Since our book has been published, we have given many workshops and talked to people about the value of existing knowledge in our communities. When we speak to people who are more recent immigrants, they get excited when we talk about cooking with quelites and verdolagas, both wild greens, and nopales (cactus). These are foods that they know from living in rural Mexico, but they aren’t necessarily served in Mexican restaurants here,” Calvo said.
These foods bring back memories of eating at home, and they have tremendous health benefits. Verdolagas have omega-3 fatty acids and are a rich source of vitamins A and C. Quelites are rich in vitamin A, and C and folate. Nopales normalize blood sugar and lowers cholesterol.
This Cinco de Mayo, when Mexican food and drinks are sold for mass consumption, think about how native food can be nourishing and energizing instead of heavy and greasy. This day that commemorates the Mexican Army’s victory over the French can be an opportunity to bring the basics and focus on native plants and flavors. If one is going to decolonize their Mexican food, there’s an irony in doing it on Cinco de Mayo because there is a distinct French influence in the cuisine from pastries to cream sauces.