Black Mexico: Afro-Mex cuisine that binds
African slaves brought culinary traditions that eventually infused a rich tradition called Afro-Mex cuisine.
The Joy Of Eating Black Beans, painting by Annibale Carracci. From Flickr/Robert Huffstutter
African slaves contributed more than servitude to colonial Mexico 600 years ago; they also brought the flavor that infused Afro-Mex cuisine
One in an occasional series on Afro-Mexican culture.
African cuisine flavors the legacy of the introduction of slaves into colonial Mexico 600 years ago. A quarter million souls from across the Atlantic Ocean provided labor for their Spanish slave traders, but labor wasn’t the only endowment. African slaves also brought their culinary traditions that eventually infused a rich tradition called Afro-Mex cuisine.
The Africans were transformative. Over the course of six centuries through the process of assimilation, they, along with an ethnic mix of Spanish and Indigenous counterparts, forged modern Mexico.
The three cultures poured everything into a mixing bowl — their language, customs, cultural traits, gene pool, music, arts, even food — and fused the “Mexican” of the modern era. Externally the dark melanin of Africans may not be very pronounced in Mexico’s population of 128.4 million, but internally, the blood coursing through their veins is a blend of Spaniard, Indigenous, and African.
That means the Africans never left.
Nowhere, is this rich blending more evident than in Mexican cuisine. From across the Atlantic Ocean, Western and Central African cuisines contributed vastly to the origin and evolution of popular Mexican cuisine.
In the State of Guanajuato, Mexico, once a substantially visible hub of African slaves, blackeyed peas, historically associated with African cooking, is still a culinary legacy.
Food historian Rachel Laudan, the prizewinning author of Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History, who frequently writes about food and food politics, adds some perspective.
On a trip to Silao, Mexico, the geographic center of Mexico, 10 miles south of Guanajuato, where centuries before runaway slaves escaped capture and fled into the hills, Laudan noted that a market there sold black eyed peas along with all the usual Mexican beans.
“You [could] see them in the sack at the back,” Laudan said. “When you ask the vendors how they cook them, they indicate that they ‘guisar’ them, that is they put them in stews as they would habas or garbanzos. They do not eat them alone and simply boiled as they would the huge variety of Mexican beans. This makes sense because all three are Old World, not New World, legumes.
“To see black eyed peas in Mexico [was] odd. You simply don’t run across blackeyed peas in markets in Central Mexico. But the hypothesis that I have to consider is that these are a legacy of the African heritage in Guanajuato. “Blackeyed peas have been closely associated with African cooking,” Laudan concluded.
The African slaves’ culinary influence is particularly noticeable in the mountain regions of Veracruz, where blackeyed peas are regularly consumed. Here, dark-skinned Mexicans with African features, abound. The historical connection is fairly obvious as Guanajuato had a substantial African population in the 16th century. They were mainly slaves from West Africa.
Guanajuato was an immigrant hub without a large settled indigenous community. Apart from Africans, it was comprised of Spaniards, particularly Basques and Castellanos, migrant indigenous particularly nahuas, michoacanos, otomis, and chichimecas, Portuguese (possibly crypto jews), and French. According to a document that appears to date from the 1580s, in the mining area of Guanajuato, there were 400 Spanish, 800 slaves, 500 horses, and 800 mules.
Veracruz cooking commonly contains Spanish, indigenous and African ingredients and cooking techniques. The slaves that came later brought blackeyed peas to Mexico.
The following is a popular blackeyed peas recipe in Mexico.
Mexican Blackeyed Peas
- 1 (16 oz.) pkg. dried blackeyed peas
2 lbs. bulk pork sausage
- 1 med. onion, finely chopped
- 1 (18 oz.) can whole tomatoes, undrained
- 1/2 c. water
- 2 tbsp. sugar
- Chili powder, to taste
- 2 tsp. garlic salt
- 1/4 tsp. pepper
- 2 1/2 tbsp. finely chopped celery
Sort and wash peas. Place in a large Dutch oven. Cover with water 2 inches above peas. Let soak overnight.
Brown sausage in a heavy skillet, stirring to crumble. Add onion. Cook until tender and drain. Drain peas well. Stir in sausage and remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat. Simmer 1 1/2 hours. Add water, if necessary. Recipe courtesy Mediavine.
Blackeyed peas were a significant culinary contribution to colonial Mexico from the continent of Africa, but certainly not the only endowment.
One of the most important contributions of African cooking was the peanut. The peanut plant probably originated in Peru or Brazil in South America. No fossil records prove this, but people in South America made pottery in the shape of peanuts or decorated jars with peanuts as far back as 3,500 years ago.
European explorers first discovered peanuts in Brazil. As early as 1500 B.C., the Incas of Peru used peanuts as sacrificial offerings and entombed them with their mummies to aid in the spirit life. Tribes in central Brazil also ground peanuts with maize to make a drink.
Peanuts were grown as far north as Mexico when the Spanish began their exploration of the new world. The explorers took peanuts back to Spain, and from there traders and explorers spread them to Asia and Africa. Africans were the first people to introduce peanuts to North America beginning in the 1600s.
The peanut was then brought back with African slaves who had eagerly adopted it as a satisfying addition to their diet. Peanuts were used by Africans in meat stews, fish and vegetable dishes and in seasoning pastes for grilling. Ground with onions and chiles, they formed sauces something like the table salsa found in nearly every restaurant and home in the Mexico’s state of Veracruz. There, Africans have profoundly influenced people, cuisine, and music, and even the names of many towns like Mocambo, Matamba, Mozomboa, and Mandinga. Yet, African recipes have become part of Mexico’s national cuisine well outside of Veracruz
Peanuts can be found in regional dishes such as encacahuatado, an alcoholic drink called the torito, candies (especially in Tlacotalpan), salsa macha and even in mole poblano from as far west as the neighboring state of Puebla.
The indigenous contribution is in the use of corn as well as vanilla (native to the state), and herbs called acuyo and hoja santa. It is also supplemented by a wide variety of tropical and citrus fruits such as papaya, mamey, and zapote. The Europeans introduced herbs to the region such as parsley, thyme, marjoram, bay laurel and cilantro that characterize much of the state’s cooking. Huachinango a la veracruzana, a local popular dish, is red snapper prepared with a light tomato sauce seasoned with bay leaves, onions, capers, olives and sweet yellow peppers.
The Afro-Cuban influence also includes peanuts and can be tasted in dishes such as pollo encacahuatado or chicken in peanut sauce. As it borders the Gulf coast, seafood figures prominently in most of the state.
Another significant part of African cooking that became incorporated into Mexican regional cuisine was the use of plátanos (plantains), which came with the Africans via the Canary Islands. In Veracruz, they are heavily used in breads like empanadas, gorditas, and tortitas; and desserts like mole, and barbacoa.
One other defining aspect of Veracruz cooking is the use of starchy tropical roots originating from Africa collectively known as viandas. They include cassava, yucca, malanga, taro, and sweet potatoes.
These were ingredients in African cuisine that became important in Mexican cooking and traditionally provided readily available nourishment. Viandas are inexpensive and easy to grow. They are also versatile and can be used in dishes ranging from croquettes in garlic and tomato sauces to dessert fritters and sweet tamales. Combined with tropical fruits, such as coconut and pineapple, they make delicious desserts.
Africans brought and preserved many of their traditions and cooking techniques. Their captors often provided them the less desired cuts of meat, including shoulder and intestines. Menudo, for example, was derived from the habit of the Spaniards to give the slaves cow’s intestines.
A similar practice occurred in the U.S. with hogs and pigs. After butchering swine, slave owners retained the best cuts of the meat for their families — ham, hocks, ribs, loins, chops, belly — and discarded the remainder, the shoulder, intestines (chitterlings), ears, snout, jowls, feet, hooves, and lips, for slaves
Slaves were resourceful and developed a way to clean the offal and season it to taste. In the U.S., Mexico, and South America, as well, the scraps of food landlords did not eat, and by mixing what was left for them, they usually ended up with new cuisines that today have been adopted into the cuisine of their respective nation, such as the Peruvian tacu-tacu.
Cooks from a variety of cultures share recipes and stories that provide a glimpse into the preparation of both daily and festive foods. In a Maya village in Yucatán, cochinita de pibil is made with the native peccary instead of pigs. On Oaxaca’s coast, families of African heritage share their way of cooking seafood, including a range of recipes, from the delectably familiar to the intriguingly unusual.
Even in the U.S., according to Manta, a tracker of small business in the U.S., a few miles north of the border awaits a Houston Afro-Mexican culinary experience that bears a visit. A diner/market there called Mex-African Foods, located at 9819 Bissonnet St., Ste. L, in Houston, Texas, fills the bill.
The owner dresses in authentic Nigerian garb and the music pulses with the beat of African drums. The place sells African, Caribbean and Yucatecan cooking ingredients. The cuisines of East Mexico and West Africa share ingredients.
The market shelves of Mex-African Foods are stocked with peanuts, plantains and fresh herbs common to the two cuisines, and products rarely seen before, like giant dried fish and diminutive bags of dehydrated wild greens. African dishes include suya, moin-moin, jollof rice, and chin-chin.
Mex-African Foods was established in 1994 and incorporated in Texas. Manta reveals that the company, owned by Lloyd Obi, hauls in annual revenue of $500,000 to $1 million.