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Week 5 - Guacamole, the Aztec empire, and the Mexican flag

Avocados, chiles, tomatoes, salt and lime.  These ancient Aztec foods have been nourishing hungry Mexicans since long before the Spaniards arrived.

Guacamole - one of the original mexican foods

When the Spaniards first arrived at the Aztez empire in 1519, they were amazed at what they found.  Instead of primitive people living on undeveloped land, they found a thriving metropolis with tall buildings, sophisticated engineering and architecture, and a highly developed culture.  The capital of the Aztec empire was called Tenochtitlán, and it took their breath away.

This famous mural by Mexican artist Diego Rivera shows the marketplace at Tenochtitlan as it might have looked when Cortez and his men first arrived.

This famous mural by Mexican artist Diego Rivera shows the marketplace at Tenochtitlan as it might have looked when Cortez and his men first arrived.

Tenochtitlán was five times larger than London, bigger than any city Cortez and most of his men had ever seen.  It was built on islands in Lake Texcoco, with glistening palaces and canals for streets.  The huge marketplace was filled with so many amazing things that one man who wrote about it said “why do I waste so many words in recounting what they sell…?  For I shall never finish….” 

Close-up from the Diego Rivera mural.  Note that the entire city was built on a lake, with floating bridges connecting the islands.  If you look closely at the steps leading from the pyramid-shaped temples, you'll see the blood from human sacrifices cascading down the stairs!

Close-up from the Diego Rivera mural.  Note that the entire city was built on a lake, with floating bridges connecting the islands.  If you look closely at the steps leading from the pyramid-shaped temples, you'll see the blood from human sacrifices cascading down the stairs!

Amid all the gold, silver, obsidian, feathers, animal skins, slaves, live animals and food for sale in that marketplace was… guacamole!  Modern Mexican guacamole is made with almost all native ingredients (the only exception is cilantro, which comes from Asia).  When you make guacamole at home, you can imagine the amazing city of Tenochtitlan every time you take a bite.

All About Avocados

Unripe avocado - we try to buy them unripe, then let them ripen on the kitchen counter for a few days.

Unripe avocado - we try to buy them unripe, then let them ripen on the kitchen counter for a few days.

The variety of avocado we use in Mexican cooking is called “Hass” avocado.  It is sort of egg-shaped, with bumpy skin.  Do not use any other variety for Mexican cooking!  You will occasionally see other varieties in American grocery stores, such as the large, round, smooth-skinned avocados sometimes called “Florida” avocados.  These do not have the right flavor for Mexican food!

Ripe Hass avocados.  If you are not ready to use them right away, store whole, ripe avocados in the refrigerator.

Ripe Hass avocados.  If you are not ready to use them right away, store whole, ripe avocados in the refrigerator.

We try to buy avocados when the skin is still bright green, and allow them to ripen on the kitchen counter.  That way, we can be sure that whatever softness develops in the avocado is from ripening, not from rough handling.  You can speed the ripening process a bit by storing avocados in a paper bag, so the ripening gases are contained with the avocados.  (Do not use plastic bags – your avocados need to breathe!)

Here’s how to tell when your avocados are ripe:  the skin will become quite dark, almost black; and when you gently squeeze them, or press your finger into the side, the flesh will yield a bit.  Another clue is that when you pop off the small nub of stem from the end, it will be pale green underneath (white means unripe, while brown can mean overripe).  If you feel any space between the skin and the flesh, the avocados are overripe.  With experience, you’ll know exactly how a ripe avocado should feel.

Once avocados are ripe, if you’re not ready to use them right away, you can store them in your refrigerator vegetable drawer.  This will slow further ripening almost to a stand-still, giving you as much as an additional week to use them, depending on the conditions in your vegetable drawer.

El Aguila Y La Serpiente

The insignia in the white portion of the Mexican flag is called El Aguila y La Serpiente, which means "the eagle and the serpent."  It tells an ancient story about the people who lived in Mexico before the Spanish conquistadors arrived.

Long, long ago, there were many nations and groups of native people living in various parts of what is now Mexico.  At different times, one or the other of these groups would become very powerful, and rule over the others.

One group, the Aztecs, were not powerful.  Legend has it that they were nomadic outcasts, wandering the land with the seasons, following the changes and movements of the animals and plants they needed for food.  They longed for a permanent home, but weren't welcomed anywhere.

aguilanopal.png

The Aztecs believed that their god, Huitzilopochtli, would show them a sign to lead them to a place they could call home. The sign they were looking for was this:  they would see an eagle perched on a cactus, devouring a snake. They searched for this sign everywhere they went.

Finally, one day, they saw exactly this sign.  According to legend, the year was 1345 when they finally saw an eagle eating a snake while perched on a cactus.  But the cactus was on a small island in the middle of huge lake.  This was supposed to be their promised land?  How could they possibly settle here?

Well, since this was the land their god led them to, they decided they would make it work.  With hard work and ingenuity, they expanded the island and developed a complex system of system of canals and causeways.  They were so successful that over the next 180 years, the Aztecs became the most powerful empire in all of Mesoamerica.  

By the time Hernan Cortez and his Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1519, the Aztecs were the undisputed powerhouse of the region. 

We had fun making our own Mexican flags in class this week.

Food in patriotic colors

Green, white and red are patriotic colors in Mexico.  And they are often present in Mexican cooking as well!

In class this week, we had fun making guacamole and decorating it in the colors of the Mexican flag.

Scooping the avocado flesh out of the skin

Scooping the avocado flesh out of the skin

Adding tomatoes, cilantro and jalapenos...

Adding tomatoes, cilantro and jalapenos...

The finished product - decorated with cilantro, onions and tomatoes to reflect the Mexican flag!

The finished product - decorated with cilantro, onions and tomatoes to reflect the Mexican flag!


Recipe

Guacamole

No Mexican feast would be complete without guacamole.  Rustic and delicious, great guacamole showcases the flavors - and colors! - of Mexico.

Click for the recipe....

 

Next Week:  Carnitas!