Immigrant cooking in Mexico: The Afromestizos of Veracruz

articles Food & Cuisine

Karen Hursh Graber

Mexican Kitchen

This month we’ll continue to take a look at the cooking of the immigrants who contributed to the modern Mexican culinary repertoire. Unlike other groups discussed previously — including the Mennonites of Chihuahua, the Italians of Chipilo and the Lebanese of Puebla — this group undoubtedly did not come willingly. Their arrival was a product of what was perceived as economically beneficial by the European conquerors of Mexico, but during the post-Conquest years they have added an important, vibrant contribution to the country’s culture and cuisine.

During the Colonial era, approximately 200,000 African slaves were brought to Mexico, the first six by Cortes in 1519 and the majority of them during the years1580-1650. Transported from the West Coast of Africa to work in the sugarcane fields and as domestic servants, a large number of them came in through the port of Veracruz and were sold at the slave market in Antigua, now the site of an elementary school.

Another large group entered the country through the port of Acapulco, and still inhabits the Costa Chica, a portion of the Pacific coast of Guerrero and Oaxaca. However, the people of the Costa Chica did not mix with the European and indigenous people to the extent that the slaves in Veracruz did, and have retained a distinctly African identity.

Possibly because tribal and family groups were separated to a greater extent in Veracruz, much of their original culture was absorbed into the regional identity that has come to be known as jarocho, a term by which the people of the state, and the port city in particular, define themselves. The mixing of races in Veracruz was one reason why the people who came to be known as afromestizos had a more profound gastronomic impact in Veracruz than on the Costa Chica. It was not uncommon for Spanish, indigenous and African cooking techniques and ingredients to come together in the same household kitchen.

Another reason was the fact that nearly all the food imported from Spain came into Mexico through Veracruz, so that a wide variety of ingredients was available there from the beginning of colonization. This created a perfect setting for the formation of a tri-cultural culinary melting pot. Of all the African influences — including the music and dance known as Afro-Cuban brought by the slaves who came to Veracruz via the Caribbean — the influence on the region’s cooking has been one of the deepest and most far reaching.

Spanish olives, olive oil, wheat, onions, garlic, herbs and many varieties of fruit and vegetables, along with the native corn, tomatoes, chiles and chocolate, formed a mestizo cuisine which, in Veracruz, took on another dimension with the incorporation of African ingredients. This has been called the influence of the tercera raíz, or “third root,” referring to the African presence in Mexico.

One of the most important contributions of African cooking was the widespread use of the peanut in dishes both savory and sweet. Although it was present in the New World before the Conquest, it was not widely used by the indigenous people of Mexico. Originating in the Americas and brought to Africa by the Portuguese, the peanut was brought back with the Africans, 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 seed-based Mexican pipians. Salsa macha, the table salsa found in nearly every restaurant and home in Orizaba and other Veracruz towns with higher elevations, is a direct descendent of African cooking.

The colonial slaves who escaped from the Europeans often fled into the hills, and their culinary influence is particularly noticeable in the mountainous western portion of the state, extending into the Sierra that divides Veracruz from Puebla. The Sierra region of Puebla does, in fact, have several peanut-based dishes, and the peanut is an important ingredient in mole poblano. Peanuts are now used throughout the country in desserts, baked goods, in drinks, ices and ice cream, and in sauces for chicken and pork. (For more on the peanut, see Los Cacahuates: The Humble Peanut Stars in Mexican Cuisine.)

Another significant part of African cooking that became incorporated into Mexican regional cuisine was the use of plantains, which came with the Africans via the Canary Islands. They are found throughout the state of Veracruz and used to make dough for gorditas, tortitas and empanadas. These are now appreciated all over the country, and plantain empanadas are among the most popular menu items at Mexico City’s El Bajio, considered by many to be the best regional food restaurant in the city.

Plantains are also sliced and fried to make chips, and mashed with seasoning ingredients to make machuca de plátano. They are used in the famous mole of Xico, in the coffee growing part of Veracruz, where the plantain trees shade the coffee plants. Their leaves are used to wrap meat for barbacoa and to enfold Veracruz-style tamales.

Tropical roots, collectively called viandas, were other ingredients in the African kitchen that became important in jarocho cuisine. Yuca, malanga, taro and sweet potato have traditionally provided readily available nourishment, since they are inexpensive and easy to grow, requiring no expensive fertilizers. They are also versatile and can be used in dishes ranging from croquettes in garlic and tomato sauces to dessert fritters and sweet tamales. They combine with tropical fruits, such as coconut and pineapple, to make delicious desserts.

The West African sustenance crop name (from which comes the word “yam”) was replaced in the New World by the West Indian pumpkin. This member of the squash family resembles the familiar bright orange pumpkin in shape, but is yellow-orange to dark green on the outside and yellowish within. It was, and still is, an important food in Mexico, where it is most appreciated for its seeds. However, the Africans used the squash’s flesh, often in combination with meat. Indigenous squash and chiles, European meat products and African cooking techniques all come together in the meat and squash dishes of Veracruz. Happily, they can be duplicated north of the border by substituting butternut squash in areas where there are no Latin grocery stores selling West Indian pumpkins.

Visitors to Veracruz will notice the African influence in its people, cuisine and music, and in the names of many towns like Matamba, Mozomboa and Mandinga. The town of Mandinga, about forty five minutes south of Veracruz city, is particularly known for the restaurants that line its main street.

But going to Veracruz is not required in order to taste the delicious dishes created by the afromestizo people and their descendents. Try the peanut salsa or the mashed plantains (recipes follow) the next time you serve cocktail nibbles. Use creamy peanut butter instead of fruit pulp in the rum drink called a toro or, affectionately, torito. Many of the afromestizo recipes have become part of the national cuisine and all of them can be easily prepared at home.

Published or Updated on: September 1, 2008 by Karen Hursh Graber © 2008
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