• Chili

    As mentioned above, two of the first new plants that the Spanish encountered in the Antilles and then in Central America were ajíor chili pepper (Capsicum sp.) and the vanilla bean (Vanilla planifolia). They called the chili peppers “ají”, a derivative of the word ‘haxí’’, the name that the native Mexican Taino people used for these plants. The Europeans called it “pepper of the Indies”, thinking mistakenly that it was related to the Middle Eastern pepper plant. However, chili peppersare native to the highlands of Central America and have been grown there for 7000 years. Indeed, they were one of the first food plants to be domesticated in the region, even before more traditionalcrops such as corn and beans. In pre-Hispanic times, chilies had social and economic value, being a basic condiment in the indigenous diet and a major tribute good. Because of its irritating properties, chili was sometimes used as a weapon of war and even for punishing children, as some colonial illustrations reflect.

  • Cocoa

    Cocoa, also known as cacao, “a small seed like our almond, with a pleasant taste” in the words of one Spanish chronicler, is a native American food that generated the most interest among Europeans in the early years of colonization. The seeds of the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao), called cacáhua in the native Náhuatl language, are used to make chocolate, which was called xocolatl by the Aztecs and chocolhaa (meaning “bitter water”) by the Maya.

    It is thought that the wild cacao tree originated in the Orinoco or Amazon region and then migrated to Central America; some 3000 years ago, it was cultivated in the southeastern lowlands of that region. From there, it spread to the territory of the Olmecs, on the coast of Veracruz, where recently archeologists have found the earliest evidence to date of a cocoa-based beverage, 800 years earlier than previous records from the Mayan area of Belize and Honduras.

    According to Spanish testimonies, the original chocolate drink was a cold, bitter beverage that was prepared by first drying the cocoa beans over a fire then grinding them and mixing the powder with water and chili, honey, vanilla and corn flour. The resulting thick beverage was served in large elaborately decorated ceramic vessels and drunk with the aid of a spoon. Its strange and exotic flavors led one conquistador to describe it as a beverage that “seemed more suited to pigs than to men”. The drink was later adapted to European tastes by combining the powdered cocoa beans with sugar, milk and spices, as well as American vanilla.

  • Squash

    Five species of squash from the Cucurbita genus were grown in the Americas, including the variety we call zucchini (Cucurbita Pepo), the great thick-skinned, orange-fleshed pumpkin (Cucurbita máxima), called sapallu in the Quechua language and ahuyama in Colombia, in addition to others of varied shapes and colors, such as the “Andean mate cup” gourds (Lagenaria siceraria), that were hollowed out and dried then fire-engraved with decorative designs. Squash were domesticated early in both Central America and the Andes, along with corn and beans; but the earliest archeological records of these plants were found on the coast of Ecuador, at sites dated around 7000 BP. From there, they spread quickly as a cultivated crop, became a staple of most ancient farming societies, which used both the pulp and the seeds, the latter toasted or ground. Empty gourds also served as household containers and dishes before pottery was invented. Indeed, the earliest ceramic vessels imitated the shape of these ancient gourd vessels.

  • Sweet potato

    The sweet potato or camote (Ipomea batatas) is another root vegetable that was consumed less widely in the Americas but quickly became a staple of European cooking from early on. Its slightly sweet flavor earned it the nickname of “sweet potato”. This tuber comes in white, purple and yellow varieties and was grown in subtropical zones, first in the Andean valleys of Peru some 8000 years ago and later in Central America. Camote is eaten cooked, is used to make flour, and is a medicinal plant used for infections and insect bites. It is also used as a natural dye. The word ‘camote’ comes from the Náhuatl word camohtli, while the term ‘batata’ is of Taíno origin; the plant is also known as boniato in the Caribbean. It was brought to Europe by the Spanish at the end of the 16th Century and since then has become enormously popular as a food item around the world; it is one of the most productive crops grown in the Far East today.

  • Chocolate

    Among the Mayan people, chocolate was a drink reserved for kings and noblemen and used in sacred rituals. It was also used therapeutically for its calming effects, and was given to warriors as a restorative and energizing drink.

    The entire process, from harvesting the beans to preparing the beverage, was accompanied by religious rituals in which gods associated with the cocoa plant were invoked for protection. For the Aztecs, xocolatl was a ritual beverage that was considered a source of spiritual energy and was reserved for the elite members of that society. Because it was often consumed at wedding ceremonies, the Europeans believed it possessed invigorating and aphrodisiac properties. This belief, combined with its nutritional and medicinal value, have made chocolate the highly popular food it is today.

    Interestingly, cocoa beans also were used as exchange currency in Central America: four beans could purchase a rabbit, while 10 could be traded for the company of a woman and 100 could buy the services of a slave. From early times, cocoa’s economic importance, tonic properties and other qualities captured the commercial interest of the Spaniards, who established plantations in Mexico and the Antilles, and later in West Africa. From there, cocoa production expanded in the late 19th Century to Ghana, which is now the world’s largest cocoa producer.

  • Beans

    Legumes were the first edible plants domesticated in the world and have been part of the human diet for thousands of years. In the Americas, the Europeans found a great range of new species that were as old as their Old World counterparts: including beans, which were called frijoles or porotos (Phaseolus vulgaris). The earliest crops were cultivated approximately 6000 years ago, according to records from Central America and the Andean region, while other species, such as the lima bean (Phaseolus lunatus) from the Andes, were domesticated thousands of years later. Since then, beans and corn have been the staples of the native American diet; the combination provides a high protein content and is therefore highly nutritious. The Spaniards appreciated this, and also combined these new American foods when incorporating them into their daily diet. These different species of legumes were named fava or faxón by the Iberian conquistadors for their resemblance to the Old World haba beans, while the Aztecs and Maya called them etl and búul, respectively. From the Andean Quechua language comes the word ‘poroto’ or purutu, the name given to the most common bean variety in that region, while in Mexico the generic Spanish term frijol has remained in use.

  • Sunflower

    Seeds from native plants were a rich food source in the Americas, but the two that were first produced on a large scale in the Old World were the sunflower and peanut. The sunflower (girasol or maravilla in Spanish) (Helianthus annus) was grown in Tabasco, in northern Mexico, around 4500 years ago. The Aztecs called it chimalxochitl, meaning “ring flower” or “shield”. From there the sunflower spread into southern and western North America. Its seeds were used to make flour, oil and pigments, besides being valued for its medicinal properties. The sunflower was also revered for its association with the Aztec and Otomi sun gods, probably owing to its large, heliotropic blossom. Returning Spanish colonists brought the sunflower back to Europe, where it was mainly an ornamental variety that was called by names that evoked the beauty of the West Indies: “sunflower”, “flower of the Indies” and “mirasol”. It was not until the 18th Century in Russia that sunflowers were grown on a large scale for human consumption (both the seeds and their oil) and as forage for animals. Today, the “pipas”, as the toasted seeds are called, are still considered a traditional snack food in the United States and across much of Europe.

  • Corn

    Corn (Zea mays), known as maize in Latin America, was the staple food of the pre-Columbian peoples of the Americas. The Spaniards called it “the people’s grain” and “bread of the Indies”, equating it to Old World wheat and barley. To a greater or lesser degree, this singular species of grass made its presence felt in all spheres of life—social, political, economic and religious—and held a central position in the cosmogony and creation myths of cultures throughout pre-contact Americas.

    Corn was domesticated more than 8000 years ago, first in the Mexican plateau (Tehuacán) then around 2000 years later in the Andes. At the time of the European conquest, different species of corn were being grown and consumed by farming groups from North America all the way to south-central Chile, as reflected in the many different terms used for this plant: “Maíz” is a Taíno word from the Antilles that is used in Latin America to this day to denominate the corn plant; the Aztecs used the word “elote”, from the Náhuatl word elotl, to refer to the corncob and grains of corn; and in many parts of South America this cereal is called “choclo” or chuqllu, a Quechua word that came into common usage throughout the Andean region during the Inca Empire. Highly versatile, corn was the base ingredient for many staple foods that have remained virtually unchanged since ancient times. Corn flour has been used to make pastries, tortillas, bread, tamales and humitas, and as a common ingredient in stews (combined with beans and/or meat). In the Andes, corn is toasted, dried and ground up to produce chuchoca. Since pre-Hispanic times it has also been fermented to produce slightly alcoholic beverages, called “tepache” by the Aztecs, “chicha” in the Andes, and “muday” by the Mapuche people of south central Chile. These beverages were used in religious ceremonies and ritually consumed by leaders entering into important political agreements.

    Along with vanilla, corn was one of the first American products to reach Europe: by the end of the 16th Century it was already being cultivated in Spain, but only as animal feed. Ignorance of its food value for humans delayed its introduction into the Old World diet: when it was eaten alone, without being combined with plant or animal protein as was the custom in the Americas, people suffered severe nutritional ailments. It would take another hundred years before corn became a common food in Europe. After this, it spread to Guinea and Asia Minor, and ultimately Africa, where it helped to alleviate hunger in a region where food was scarce.

  • Peanuts

    For their part, peanuts (Arachis hipogea), called maní and cacahuete in Latin America, are an important source of vitamins and essential oils. They appear on countless gold and silver accessories and adornments attributed to the Moche culture of Northern Peru, indicating that they were revered some 1500 years ago.

    Peanuts are thought to have originated in the warm lowland region of Bolivia, where there is evidence of their cultivation around 5000 years ago. Despite the fact that these legumes had spread to Central America by the time the Spanish arrived, they were not a staple food. In the centuries after the Conquest, European merchants brought them to Africa and Asia, where they flourished in the tropical climate; from there, they were reintroduced as a food crop in the Americas during colonial times, arriving with the African slaves who were brought by the Spanish and Portuguese to the coasts of South America.

    In the preparation of sweets and pastries, peanuts now occupy the same position in Europe as almonds do in the East. The word “maní” may have come from the Guaraní word manduví, while the term “cacahuate” comes from the Náhuatl word tlalcacahuatl, which means “cocoa bean of the ground”, referring to the fact that these legumes grow underground.

  • Potato

    The first news about the existence of the potato (papa or patata, scientific name solanum tuberosum) came from the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro when he arrived in the high Andean valleys of what is today Peru. Domesticated forms of this root vegetable originated in the Central Andes, however, as early as 8000 years ago. Today, Peru has more varieties of potato than any other country in the world, with eight domesticated species, including the oca (Oxalis tuberosum) and more than half of the approximately four thousand varieties that exist in Latin America. It should be mentioned, however, that the cold valleys and forests of southern Chile also contributed several edible potato varieties, which differed from the Andean ones and were domesticated in later pre Columbian times. Details of their early presence, farming methods and their importance to local cultures have been found in the archeological record and in early Spanish chronicles, and even in the culinary traditions of contemporary South American indigenous peoples that have preserved the ancestral ways. The pre Columbian agricultural peoples of the Andes developed special methods to grow potatoes in the cold Altiplano. They also learned how to preserve and store a certain variety of bitter potato by making potato flour (called chuñu) by freezing, dehydrating and grinding these potatoes.

    In Europe, the introduction of potatoes put an end to mass famines that had periodically devastated the region and made this root vegetable the most widely cultivated American food on the planet. In the late 1500s, potato plants, with their beautiful white flowers, were given as ornamental gifts to successive kings of Spain, but it was not until two centuries later that the potato came to be valued as a food item on the Old Continent. Its eventual acceptance may have been the result of its successful adaptation in other climates, coupled with the pressing need for an easy-to-grow crop that could relieve the hunger that Europe’s poorest people suffered at the time. After becoming a popular crop in Spain by returning conquistadors and members of religious orders who grew potatoes in their monastery farms, the plant was introduced in Germany and then in Russia, where it took very well to the cold steppes. It even was introduced in Holland, where today potatoes account for four-fifths of all vegetables grown.

  • Quínoa

    Another American cereal is quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa),a grain that is less incorporated into Old World culinary traditions but was very important for its nutritional value, being high in protein and carbohydrates. Only recently has quinoa become more popular outside of the Americas. In the pre-Hispanic Andes, however, quinoa was one of two main staple foods, along with potatoes. Although many points of origin of quinoa have been identified in the Andes, one of the most ancient records of this grain comes from a site in the central Altiplano and dated at 6000 years BP. Evidence of a nearly farmed species of quinoa has also been found in northern and central Chile. Quinoa had important religious significance for the Inka, who called it the “life source” or “mother seed”, as its grains were consumed directly and its flour was used to make bread, soup and stews, and even a kind of “chicha” (fermented beverage). Because of its medicinal properties, it was also used to reduce inflammation and heal wounds; its high saponin content also made it useful for making soap.

  • Tomato

    The tomato or jitomate (Solanumly copersicum), also called tómatl and xictomatl in the native Aztec language of Náhuatl, was domesticated hundreds of years ago in the Americas. Although some still believe that this plant originated in the Andes—based on the discovery of seeds of one tomato variety in tombs dated around 8,000 years ago in Peru—it was in ancient Central America, and particularly Mexico, that the full range of colors and varieties of tomatoes were found. In this region, many different varieties of tomato–red (jitomate), green (tomate or tomatillo), yellow, small and sweet–were part of the everyday diet and were used in stews and sauces or mixed with chili peppers. Although the tomato was first introduced in Europe in the early 16th Century and took easily to the Mediterranean climate, it was some time before it became part of the Old World diet, mainly because it was considered an ornamental and/or medicinal plant that could cause indigestion or even illness. When the tomato was brought to Italy as the pomid’oro, it was an exotic curiosity from the Indies, a decorative plant for gardens and an object of still life paintings. Europeans only began to approach the tomato as a food in the late 18th Century, but from then on it quickly became a basic ingredient in Italian and Spanish cuisine.

  • Vainilla

    Vanilla, called tlixochitl in the Náhuatl(Aztecan) language, is an orchid native to the warm lowlands of Mexico that was baptized with the name for its aromatic fruit’s resemblance to a seed pod. There are many varieties of vanilla, but only a few were used as flavoring in European pastry-making. For a long time vanilla beans had to be imported directly from the Americas; it was not until the 19th Century that a method of growing them in Europe was developed that could replace the unique Mexican bees that pollinated the vanilla flowers one by one.

    Which American products are the main protagonists of European cooking, past and present? Without a doubt, in order of importance these are the potato, the tomato, corn and chocolate.