Foodies are always looking for the next big thing in food: The newest discovery, the hidden gem, and the tastiest obscure options. Health nuts quickly jump from one superfood to the next, claiming each is the key to great health and longevity. But while foods are being Columbused, we often forget these foods now deemed trendy have actually been around for ages; discovered by someone way before that hot food blogger decided it was cool. On top of that, they were available inexpensively or sometimes even for free. How ironic is it that with food prices sky-rocketing, the people who have always relied on these foods and introduced them to the world — many being of indigenous ancestry — can barely afford them anymore. Let’s take a look at some of these foods, now loved by hipsters, that are actually indigenous and Latin American in origin.
Avocado and All Things From It
Avocados are thought to have originated in the South of Mexico. Just think about it — the Spanish word for avocado, aguacate, comes from the Nahuatl word, āhuacatl. Before the Spanish arrived in what is now Latin America, the avocado was cultivated from the Rio Grande all the way down to Peru. What was originally an indigenous food is now outrageously overpriced in a lot of areas, in the form of avocado toast, guacamole, and just plain avocados themselves. According to an article in Time magazine, Americans are spending a whopping $900,000 a month on avocado toast, paying upwards of $11 (in Chicago) for avocado on a piece of bread. Meanwhile, most of us who grew up eating avocado toast or what we call pan con aguacate, know it actually cost WAY less than that.
Remember when you didn’t know what quinoa was? When you most likely pronounced it wrong (unless it was part of your culture, or you knew about it before it became a big trend)? As you can probably tell by the indigenous name, quinoa is actually a food that has been around way before it became an overpriced superfood, available at your local, expensive, and natural grocery store. Quinoa is native to both Peru and Bolivia, where it was consumed before the arrival of the Spanish. Now, it’s everywhere. According to the NACLA, the North American Congress on Latin America, between 2005 and 2013, quinoa prices skyrocketed by 600%.
Another indigenous food that’s often seen in trendy eateries these days are arepas. Arepas are to Colombia and Venezuela what tortillas are for Mexico and Central America. The Venezuelan version of the corn cake serves as a sandwich stuffed with all kinds of ingredients, including meat, cheese, sweet plantains, and avocado. Colombians eat it as is, usually slathered with butter, salt, and at times cheese or hogao (a type of Spanish sofrito). Arepas have been available in these two countries before the Spanish colonized those areas. In fact, the word “arepa” is said to come from erepa, an indigenous word meaning maiz, most likely from the Cumanagoto people of Venezuela. Thanks to the popularization of the food, some arepas in restaurants have been known to reach the $11 mark. You used to be able to get an arepa for $5 or less in New York City, and fortunately, in Latino communities like Corona or Jackson Heights, Queens, you still can.
Ceviche is one of the dishes that Peruvian food is known for. The raw seafood dish is made usually of fish and in some versions with shrimp, marinated and cooked with citrus fruits, such as lemon or lime juice, and made more flavorful with the addition of onions, cilantro, aji (chili pepper), and other ingredients. There are many theories as to the exact origin of ceviche, but it has been in Peru since colonial times. Today, you can get a good ceviche from Peru, and a variety of other Latin and non-Latin-American countries, some for a hefty price. At La Mar Cebicheria Peruana, in San Francisco, one of their ceviches can cost you up to $19.
Can you imagine a life without chocolate? We can’t either! We have the Aztecs from Mexico to thank for chocolate bars, cake, brownies, hot chocolate, and all other things chocolate. The word chocolate itself comes from the classical Natuatl word for cacao, which is chocolātl. While there is still a lot of inexpensive chocolate available throughout the world — thank God — there are also many with exorbitant price tags. Take, for instance, To’ak’s outrageous $685 aged Ecuadorian chocolate bar. Or, how about the House of Knipschildt’s La Madeline au Truffe. The pricey chocolates, some of the most expensive in the world, are a whopping $250 — each.
Pozole is so delicious and cozy, it’s become one of the go-to soups/stews for a warm and hearty meal (and a solid hangover cure, if you ever need one). The Mexican sopa’s name comes from the indigenous, Nahuatl word, pozolli, which translates to “hominy.” The ingredients used to make a traditional pozole include hominy, pork, Mexican oregano, chiles, and onions. Over time, the old school indigenous Mexican soup has found its way onto pricey American menus. At Port Fonda, in Kansas City, Missouri, for instance, a red pozole with seafood, will cost you $15. Yes, you read that right —$15!
Chia seeds are another indigenous food you may not have heard about until recently. Today, you will see it in trendy smoothies, yogurts, and chocolate puddings, but, it has been used as a food in Mexico since 3500 BC. The name chia was actually given by the Mayans, who consumed the seeds; it means “strength.” So, before the pricey health food stores started stocking the superfood, the Mayans and Aztecs, were on that hype over 5,500 years before. Oh, if only the prices were the same. On another note, never eat them dry! They need moisture or they’ll expand in your throat or intestines, with whatever moisture they can get, which can create dangerous blockages.
Speaking of smoothies, you may have seen those popular açaí bowls in your local smoothie shop. They feature the antioxidant-rich fruit (in puree form), with all kinds of toppings, such as blueberries, bananas, coconut, oatmeal, and peanut butter. Like a lot of other superfoods, açaí’s roots are indigenous (looks like we should pay attention to what indigenous peoples have to say about health and diet, no?). The word comes from the Tupi-Gurani word meaning “fruit that cries.” This fruit and the tree it grows on are native to Brazil. In 2017, the Miami New Times reported on Berri Bar’s luxe Golden Bowl (which includes Manuka honey, camu camu, gold flakes, and açaí), which cost $101. What?!
We are taught to associate potatoes with Idaho and Ireland, but they are actually native to Peru and Bolivia. In fact, the word “potato” appears to be a mashup of the Quechua papa, and the Taino batata (a word they used for their sweet potatoes in Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and other Caribbean countries). There are currently over 3,500 varieties of potato in Peru. Just think of all the overpriced items that have sprung from this tuber, including, Swedish St. Erik’s chips, which cost $56— for five chips! A potato itself (the Bonnotte potato), which grows exclusively in France, is harvested by hand and fertilized only with sea water and seaweed (the most expensive in the world, costing about $655 a kilo).
Maca, also known as Peruvian ginseng, is a herb often sold in root or powder form. It has an array of health benefits, including increasing energy, fertility, and libido, and reducing sun damage. Once a food is “discovered,” and given the title of superfood, it quickly becomes the latest health trend, sending prices through the roof. Maca is no different. On a healthy, green nutrition site, two pounds of dried maca (in either root or slices) originally sells for $200. While we are all for people everywhere benefiting from the world’s natural medicine (always check with your doctor first before taking anything!), we don’t like prices soaring so that it becomes inaccessible to many.
It’s not uncommon for traditionally Latinx and/or indigenous food to become mainstream. The prices start to climb, and different versions of the original begin to be made. Not surprisingly, tamales are yet another popular indigenous, then Mexican food, with an Aztec origin. In fact, the word tamale comes from the Nahuatl word tamalli. They were made as far back as 7000 BC to 8000 BC, and were the brainchild of the Olmec and the Toltec, and later the Aztec and the Maya. The concept spread around Latin America, where each country gave it its own twist. The United States also has created its own versions, with higher than usual prices. For instance, luxury retailer Neiman Marcus sells theirs for $92 (for 72).
Yerba mate is an indigenous plant used to make the drink mate. The word “mate” comes from the Guarani word mati, which means several things —”gourd,” a drink container, and infusion of an herb. It is native to Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay. In addition to providing energy via caffeine, yerba mate can help with weight loss, protection against infections, and is also high in antioxidants. It is touted as a good alternative to coffee and is stocked amongst other health food items at grocers around the world. This usually means the prices go up. At one place, an ounce of yerba mate is $6.75 an ounce.
Yes, vanilla. Americans love themselves some vanilla and it’s been around in this country for ages. But did you know it’s actually native to South and Central America and the Caribbean? The plant from which vanilla is derived was cultivated by the Totonac of what is today Mexico. The country produced the majority of vanilla up until the 19th century when vanilla was exported and grown in other countries (including Madagascar and Indonesia, the current largest producers in the world). These days, vanilla has been known to be more expensive than silver and is the most expensive spice after saffron. On this site, a 4-ounce, one-cup bottle of 100% vanilla bean powder will set you back $110.
Tacos have become incredibly popular with Americans. It seems as if everyone has become obsessed with this dish. But like a lot of other foods, tacos are theorized to have originated in Mexico (seriously, we need to thank Mexico for all the food awesomeness it has given us). The theory suggests that tacos came from the Mexican mines; after all, the word also means the paper-wrapped gunpowder that the miners used to make dynamite, i.e. tacos de dinamita. Today, tacos are seen everywhere, in all kinds of iterations. If we’re going to see tacos get redone in a luxurious way while having the price jacked up, let it at least happen in the place where it is believed to have all began — Mexico! At Grand Velas Los Cabos, a taco, that includes gold, Kobe beef, and Alma Beluga caviar, costs an out-of-this-world $25,000. Who would pay this?
Finally, we have camu camu, which comes from the bushy camu camu tree. The tree is native to the Amazon Rainforest of Peru and Brazil and is still currently grown in those countries, as well as Bolivia, Colombia, and Ecuador. It produces the berries and leaves used around the world today for its Vitamin C, ability to aid in weight loss, and more. Whenever these indigenous foods are “discovered” by people outside of their native areas, it leads to a major demand for the product, which then leads to a surge in price and a lower supply. Take, for example, this camu camu powder — 3.5 ounces costs $50.