“The priest brought down a small idol made of this dough. Its eyes were small green beads, and its teeth were grains of corn…he ascended to the place where those who were to be sacrificed stood, and from one end to the other he went along showing the figure to each one saying, ‘Behold your god!'” ~ Aztec amaranth dough ritual described by Diego Durán in 1574
The Aztecs had a way with words. They described the world around them with amazingly poetic turns of phrase and names so grandiose and ominous they sound straight out of a Dungeons & Dragons sourcebook. Just take the name of Huitzilopochtli (weet-zeel-oh-potch-tlee), one of the most important Aztec deities, which translates to “Left-Handed Hummingbird.”
A mighty war-god crowned with feathers, Huitzilopochtli was associated with the sun and with a special kind of grain cultivated by his worshipers. We know it today as amaranth, but the Aztecs called it huauhtli (wow-tlee), which is unusual for a Nahuatl word because it comes from a root that can’t be connected with any other. The same people who called warriors “eagle-jaguars” and human sacrifice “the flowery death” and worshiped Left-Handed Hummingbird alongside his sister, Face Painted With Bells, seem to have had a lapse in creativity when it came to describing amaranth. Perhaps huauhtli was considered so sacred and important that it could only be referred to as itself.
In the Aztec diet, amaranth was second in importance only to corn. Every part of the plant is edible, but the Aztecs valued the tiny seeds the most, which are packed with essential amino acids and twice the iron content of wheat. As with corn, amaranth grains could be toasted and eaten whole or ground into flour to make the familiar base of every Aztec meal: tortillas and tamales. During the holy month of Panquetzaliztli, the Raising of the Banners (analogous to December in our calendar), toasted amaranth grain would be mixed with honey to form a special dough called tzoalli. This substance was shaped into idols of Huitzilopochtli and other divinities, which were paraded through the streets and displayed in the temple before being “sacrificed”; priests broke the candied offerings into tiny pieces and distributed them among the crowd to be eaten.
The association between amaranth and Huitzilopochtli is likely due to the brilliant fuchsia color of amaranth flowers, which makes them a favorite of Huitzilopochtli’s namesake, the hummingbird. The ritual of group tzoalli consumption represents the life-giving power of the gods and calls to mind sacrificial rituals in many other cultures. When the Spanish conquered the Aztecs and established their colony of Nueva España, they noticed a parallel between this ritual and their own Christian Communion ceremony, in which a gathering of worshippers also consume the flesh of God. The Spanish were so affronted by this pagan Communion that they outlawed the cultivation of amaranth in New Spain, despite the grain’s centrality in the Aztec diet. But the Aztecs continued to cultivate amaranth out of sight of the colonial government, and the ritual of shaping and sharing tzoalli survived in a new form. Today, Mexicans still make a sticky amaranth sweet for the Day of the Dead and other holidays that is nearly identical to the original Aztec recipe. Sometimes cut into simple squares, it can also be sculpted into skulls or other shapes that recall the idols of Huitzilopochtli. The modern Spanish name even has some of the creative flair of an Aztec name: it is called alegrìa, meaning “joy”. Having tasted it, I can understand why.
As with many historical recipes, the precise procedure for making tzoalli is unclear, and there were probably many variations. I based my version on modern alegría, which uses whole, toasted amaranth grains rather than amaranth flour. The binding agent in alegría is molasses and/or raw sugar, which were unknown to the Aztecs. Some secondary sources claim the Aztecs mixed amaranth with human sacrificial blood for their tzoalli, an unlikely exaggeration (while human sacrifice did accompany the Panquetzaliztli celebration, first-hand accounts like the one quoted above make it clear that the dough idols were made before anybody was sacrificed). Most sources describe the use of honey, which the Aztecs knew in two forms: bee honey imported from their Mayan neighbors to the south, and locally-produced maguey honey, the boiled-down sap of a species of agave plant.
First, we need one and a half cups of toasted amaranth grain. I was lucky (or lazy) enough to find pre-toasted amaranth grain at Kalustyan’s in Manhattan, which carries a staggering array of spices from all over the world and has served me well for many an ancient recipe. You can toast your own amaranth in a covered pan over medium-high heat for about 30 seconds, one tablespoon at a time. Once the grain is toasted, melt three-quarters of a cup of honey, just enough so that it flows like water. I microwaved my honey in a bowl for 15 seconds, stirred, then microwaved 15 seconds more. You can also melt it in a pot over the stove on low heat while stirring constantly.
When your honey is warm and melted, all you have to do is combine the warm honey and amaranth in a bowl and mix well. At this point, I also added half a cup of ground pumpkin seeds to the mixture. Modern alegría often contains pumpkin seeds, and they were well-known to the Aztecs, so I didn’t see why not. Spread the mixture into a 9 x 13 inch pan lined with wax paper and press it down flat with moistened hands (it’s pretty sticky). Let it chill for abut two hours in the refrigerator, after which the tzoalli can be cut into bars and served. You could, of course, shape it into little statues of a left-handed hummingbird, but it didn’t seem right to me without all the attendant ceremony (and sacrifice).
The grain itself has the mild flavor of puffed rice, with just a hint of something else I can only describe as….planty. Have you ever bitten into a live twig? That’s the flavor I’m talking about: that generic “plant” taste, clean, organic and faintly bitter. But mostly the tzoalli crunches and tastes like honey, with a hint of nuttiness and salt from the pumpkin seeds.
This might be the best-tasting ancient recipe I’ve ever made. I can understand how special it must have seemed as a rare holiday treat, especially to an ancient Aztec who was breaking a religious fast and unused to eating concentrated sugar. In the future I’ll try making it with maguey honey, which has a distinctive taste. X out of X.
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