The Aztec civilisation, which flourished in the 14th century until the fall of the Aztec Empire in 1519, was a society based around agriculture. Most Aztecs would spent their days working their fields or cultivating food for their great capital city of Tenochtitlan.
Since it was easier to grow crops than hunt, the Aztec diet was primarily plant-based and focused on a few major foods. Maize, beans, salt and chilli peppers were the constants of Aztec cuisine, providing the average Aztec with a well-rounded diet without major deficiencies in vitamins and minerals.
Most Aztecs ate twice a day: the first after a few hours of morning work, and the second during the hottest hour of the day: at around 3 o’clock.
Breakfast would usually be a maize porridge with chillies or honey, or tortillas, beans and sauce. In the afternoon, the main meal would consist of tamales, beans, tortillas, and a casserole of squash and tomatoes.
Banquets and feasts, as well as the ceremony surrounding them, played a key role in Aztec culture. Feasts were determined by the religious calendar, and were used as a display of material wealth. They featured singing, dancing, storytelling, incense burning, offerings, tobacco, flowers, and gift-giving.
Festivities would begin at midnight. Some attendees would drink chocolate and consume hallucinogenic mushrooms so that they could describe their experiences and visions to the other guests.
Before eating, each guest would drop some food on the ground as an offering to the god Tlaltecuhtli.
In all aspects of life, the Aztecs stressed frugality, simplicity and moderation. All members of Aztec society engaged in fasting to some extent. The main purpose of an Aztec fast was to abstain from salt and chillis. There were no regular exceptions from the fast.
Once every 52 years during the New Fire ceremony, some priests would fast for an entire year. Commoners also engaged in fasting, but less rigorously.
Aztec women were responsible for cooking, as for almost all domestic duties. Not using oils or fats, the main method of food preparation was boiling, grilling or steaming in two-handled clay pots or jars called xoctli.
The most common Aztec foods were tortillas, tamales, casseroles and the sauces that went with them – the Aztecs loved their sauces.
Maize, beans and squash were the three staple foods, to which nopales and tomatoes were usually added. Chilli and salt were ubiquitous.
The Aztec diet was dominated by fruit and vegetables, but at times also included domesticated animals such as dogs, turkeys, ducks and honey bees.
The most important Aztec staple was maize, a crop held in such high regard that it played a central part in Aztec mythology. To some of the first Europeans, the Aztecs described it as “precious, our flesh, our bones”.
Maize came in varieties of colour, texture, size and quality, and was eaten as corn tortillas, tamales or ātōlli, maize gruel. Maize was broken down by nixtamalization: dry maize grain would be soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution, usually limewater.
This process would release the outer hull of the grain, and make a maize easier to grind. It transformed the maize from simple carbohydrates to a nutritional package of calcium, iron, copper and zinc.
Another important staple in the Aztec diet, beans served as a good source of protein. They were served at every meal. The beans would be soaked in water for several hours and then boiled until they were soft. They would sometimes be mixed with other vegetables to make a soup or stew.
Fruit and vegetables
The most important fruit and vegetables were chilli peppers, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, onions and avocados. Squash was also extremely popular, including courgettes and pumpkins. The seeds were eaten fresh, dried or roasted.
Red and green tomatoes were often mixed with chilli in sauces or as filling for tamales. The Aztecs also ate various mushrooms and funghi, including the parasitic corn smut which grows on ears of corn. The main fruits consumed were guavas, papayas, custard apples, zapotes, mamey and chirimoyas.
Meat and fish
The Aztec diet was mostly dominated by fruit and vegetables, however they did eat a variety of fish and wild game. Rabbits, birds, frogs, tadpoles, salamanders, green iguanas, pocket gophers and insects (and their eggs and larvae) all served as valuable food sources.
The Aztecs also ate domesticated turkeys, duck and dogs, and at times larger wild animals such as deer. These, however, were eaten only on rare occasions.
A wide range of herbs and spices were available to the Aztecs, who loved seasonings and sauces.
Chilli peppers, which came in a variety of species, were often dried and ground up for storage and use in cooking.
The Aztec cuisine featured a significant number of flavours, including sweet, fruity, earthy, smoky and fiery hot.
The most common Aztec drinks were ātōle, and pulque – a fermented juice of maguey (the century plant) which was the main drink of commoners. The rich made a point to not drink pulque.
Ātōle accounted for a considerable amount of the daily calorie intake. Made up of 8 parts water and 6 parts maize with lime, the mixture would be cooked until softened and thickened.
Alcoholic drinks were made from fermented maize, honey, cacti, pineapple and other plants and fruits. Drinking was tolerated, even for children, however becoming drunk was absolutely not acceptable. The penalties could be severe, even more so for the elite.
A commoner would be punished by having their house destroyed and sent off to live in a field like an animal. A noble could be executed for drinking too much alcohol for their first transgression.
The cocoa bean was highly treasured and of high symbolic value in the Aztec Empire. In some cases, it was used as a currency. Cacao was a rare luxury, favoured by rulers, warriors and nobles. It was most commonly drunk as cacahuatl (“cacao water”), flavoured with chilli peppers, honey, vanilla and spices and herbs.
Although cocoa was introduced to Europe in the early 16th century by Christopher Columbus, it was not until Hernan Cortes substituted sugar for spices that it became a commercial success. The word “chocolate” comes from the Aztec word, chocolatl.
Cannibalism was deeply connected to Aztec mythology. Aztec gods and goddesses needed to consume the sacrificed flesh and blood of humans in order to sustain themselves – and the world.
Since human flesh was seen as the food of the gods, ritual cannibalism had a sacred meaning, bringing the consumer closer to the deities.
Victims, often prisoners of war, would be sacrificed in public on top of pyramids and temples by having their hearts cut out. Their bodies would then be thrown to the ground where they were dismembered.
The pieces were then distributed to the elite, and consumed in the forms of stews flavoured with salt and eaten with corn tortillas – but without chilli.