The many countries throughout Latin America have long been home to fertile ground, and for centuries, Indigenous people used everything they could for nourishment. Our ancestors may have worked hard to find, prepare and preserve food, but in the process, they learned a ton about the land around them and the benefits of the many plants that are native to Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean.
A lot of our ancestral foods have actually become quite popular in the United States, thanks to their nutrition density and health benefits. While some of them we don’t eat on the regular, there are many that have long been staples in our cuisine. Here, we’re sharing eleven ancestral ingredients that our ancestors used in food, some of which you may already eat and others you should try incorporating into your diet.They are also readily available in most stores and/or online.
Various types of cactus were used as a food source by indigenous people throughout Central and South America. They are absolutely packed with vitamins and minerals like calcium, magnesium and Vitamin C, and they are a good source of hydration. Native people often ate them raw or boiled and pureed, but they are delicious sauteed in garlic or chopped up in stewed dishes and in tacos.
Plantains grow in tropical climates and are native to many countries around the world. They have been widely grown and consumed throughout North America and the Caribbean since pre-historic 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’re quite filling. Traditionally, they would have been boiled and mashed or even dehydrated and turned into flour, but today, frying is the preferred preparation.
At this point, we all know that avocados are considered a superfood. They are full of healthy fats, fiber, Vitamin C, Vitamin B6 and magnesium, and of course, they taste delicious. Indigenous people reportedly believed the creamy fruit could improve strength and fertility, and typically ate it mashed, just as we continue to do today.
Amaranth is an incredible, wholesome whole grain that was utilized by the Aztecs as a food source and for religious ceremonies. It’s similar in texture to quinoa, and has a lot of the same benefits. The native people would have also made amaranth into a flour, but the greens are also edible, so they would have utilized those as well. Today, you might prepare amaranth as a hot breakfast cereal or use it cooked in a salad.
Today, we use achiote (annatto) in much the same way as our ancestors did…as a coloring! Achiote is commonly used to color rice dishes, stews and doughs throughout Latin America. It’s a seed so it actually contains a bit of protein, and is known to have antioxidant and antimicrobial properties, so it was also used in medicine in traditional cultures. Typically, we simmer the seeds in a neutral oil to color the oil, which is then used in various dishes. Alternately, it can be ground into a powder and used as a spice.
Natural cacao is actually so good for you! It has all of the deep flavor of chocolate without the sugar, and is an excellent source of a bunch of minerals including iron, magnesium, manganese and copper. Just as we enjoy it today, Mayans and Aztecs made a beverage out of dried cacao and spices. Mayans preferred it hot and Aztecs cold. Cacao nibs are available commercially, and can be added to smoothies, baked goods, oats, etc. Purchase unsweetened, ground cacao to make hot chocolate and perhaps add a little cinnamon for sweetness if you’d like.
Chayote, which is a member of the squash family, was actually cultivated by Aztecs and Mayans in Central America. The mild squash is full of hydrating water, fiber, Vitamin C and B vitamins, and is excellent chopped and cooked into stews or stir-fries. It’s a very versatile veggie that takes on the flavor of anything it’s cooked with so you can add to soup or simply pan roast with your favorite spices.
Quinoa is another super-nutritious ancient grain that comes straight from Latin America, Peru, to be more specific. While a lot of us never even heard of it until it became popular during the super foods movement that started several years ago, it’s been around in Latin America forever. The tiny grain is a complete protein full of fiber, B vitamins, zinc and lots of other nutrients. It can be prepared just 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 a good way! The delicious, chewy grain we love to eat in pozole is actually a form of maize that’s been soaked to soften the hard outer shell and get to the softer grain on the inside. Indigenous people used the alkali from wood ash for the process, and today, lime or lye water is used. The hominy can then be added to stews, seasoned, heated and served, and dried and turned into grits or cornmeal. Hominy is a good source of iron, fiber and magnesium.
Cassava (yuca) was a mainstay in the diets of many Indigenous people throughout all of 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 stewed by the Tainos, as it still is today, in dishes like sancocho, but it can be cooked many ways including to be eaten as fries, as masa for pasteles or boiled and included in a salad.
Although we’re not sure if it’s received the official designation of “superfood,” we like to think that ginger is. In Latinx culture it’s used medicinally quite often, typically prepared as a tea. Native people used it similarly and used it to season food just as we do today, as well. It was also frequently used by indigenous people to dress wounds. We recommend using it in baked goods, lattes, tea and to season dishes like curries and stir-fries.