The Aztecs thrived in the area corresponding to Mexico between the 14th and 15th centuries until they were overthrown by Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés in 1521. This complex Mesoamerican culture revolved around growing and consuming food, particularly maize (what is now known as corn) - but what else did the Aztecs eat? What did they grow? What did they eat for dessert? How did they cook their food?
Originally a nomadic tribe of hunter-gatherers, Aztecs decided to settle along Lake Texcoco in 1325, where they founded their capital city Tenochtitlán. It was here that they developed the agricultural practices that allowed them to grow into an empire. The Aztecs constructed artificial farming islands called chinampas, made by building up mud from the bottoms of lakes or swamps. Canals were then put in place around these chinampas to make them accessible and to keep water flowing around them.
In addition to these agricultural processes, the Aztecs exploited the local flora and fauna around them, even breeding some animals for food. Aztec society was extremely stratified, and while the upper tiers and royalty enjoyed rich and meaty foods, the lowest ranks were forced to adhere to mostly vegetarian diets. Despite this fixed social structure, Aztec cooking and farming techniques from all classes provided the basis for Central American cuisine enjoyed around the world to this day.
The Aztecs can be thanked for their contributions to the development of chocolate. To these ancient people, what they referred to as chocolatl was considered a "food of the gods."
Chocolatl as the Aztecs knew it was much different than the chocolate of modern times. It wasn't sweet or formed into bars. In fact, the Aztecs made a drink out of the cacao seed in lieu of transforming it into the treat it makes today.
Bernardino de Sahagún explains in the Florentine Codex the context through which chocolatl drinks were swilled:
This cacao when much is drunk, when much is consumed, especially that which is green, which is tender, makes one drunk, takes effect on one, makes one dizzy, confuses one, makes one sick, deranges one.
There's been a lot of speculation over how the chocolatl drink caused intoxication, but the cacao tree had religious significance to the Aztecs, and the drink was used in various rituals.
These flatbreads originated in Mesoamerica, and Aztecs used their plentiful supply of maize to make this staple. Tortillas were as diverse in size, shape, and function then as they are now, and everyone in the Aztec empire consumed them.
The flour used by Aztecs to make tortillas came from corn that went through a process called nixtamalization. Kernels were boiled in water and ashes from juniper wood and then soaked overnight until the hard outer part of each kernel had detached. The remaining corn was ground into flour.
There existed different terms for the tortillas eaten by lords and the tortillas eaten by commoners, and they were mixed or filled with a variety of ingredients. The Florentine Codex goes into great detail about the many tortilla options available to food shoppers in Tenochtitlán:
[The food seller] sells folded tortillas, thick tortillas, coarse tortillas. He sells tortillas with turkey eggs, tortillas made with honey, pressed ones, glove-shaped tortillas, plain tortillas, assorted ones, braised ones, sweet tortillas, amaranth seed tortillas, squash tortillas, green maize tortillas, brick-shaped tortillas, tuna cactus tortillas; broken, crumbled, old tortillas; cold tortillas, toasted ones, dried tortillas, stinking tortillas.
The amaranth plant possessed a religious significance for the Aztecs, and its seeds and young leaves were used in various types of cuisine. Amaranth seeds could be cooked, combined with sweeteners like maguey (agave) to make dough, or added to other dishes.
It was cooked in tamales - corn flour steamed in husks and filled with various foods - for lords and upper classes, especially around festival days. During these celebrations, it was still possible for commoners to get their hands on these specialties.
The 16th-century Florentine Codex, written by a Spanish monk in Mesoamerica, describes the preparation of "tamales made of maize flowers with ground amaranth seed and cherries added" and "tamales stuffed with amaranth greens."
The upper classes in the Aztec empire enjoyed flavorful sauces, stews, and casseroles. The Florentine Codex pinpoints one casserole devoured by lords, a "kind of casserole of fowl made in their fashion, with red chile and with tomatoes, and ground squash seeds, a dish which is now called pipian."
Also known as pepián, this dish has evolved through the centuries and is now a quintessential Guatemalan stew. These days, the dish still carries many of its original traits. According to one writer, "Pepián is normally served with one meat, but you can have a full three-meat version. It always contains vegetables and fruits - such as pear, squash, carrot, potato and corn on the cob."
Pepian is "thick and rich, with a wealth of roasted spices blended together."