Ancient Recipe: Tlahco (tacos) (Aztec, prehistory – 16th century CE)

img_2942-e1505310168777.jpg“The good cook is honest, discreet, one who likes good food; an epicure, a taster. She is clean, one who bathes herself, prudent; one who washes her hands, who washes herself, who has good drink, good food.” ~ An Aztec quoted by Bernardino de Sahagún in La historia universal de las cosas de Nueva España (The General History of Things of New Spain”, also called the Florentine Codex), 1569

When Hernán Cortés and his men arrived in what is now Mexico in 1519, they discovered a civilization as complex and developed as their own. By the time of the Spanish conquest, the Aztecs had already accomplished great things in art, literature, urban planning, government, and yes, food.

In several reports to the King of Spain written in the year 1520, Cortés acknowledges the grandeur of the Aztec capital, despite incorrectly recording the city’s name as Temixtitlan instead of Tenochtitlan (ten-otch-teet-lan). Built in the middle of a lake like a North American answer to Venice, the city contained some 30,000 inhabitants, making it “as large as Seville or Cordoba” in Cortés’s time. The future conqueror, writing about a city he would lay siege to and destroy in the next two years, notes that “every thing that can be found throughout the whole country is sold in the markets,” and while there are many animals and plants he recognizes, alongside them are “articles so numerous that to avoid prolixity and because their names are not retained in my memory, or are unknown to me, I shall not attempt to enumerate them.”* From cornfields and mountainsides, steaming jungles and bitter salt lakes, the Aztecs gathered nature’s resources to develop a unique and complicated cuisine. Yet among all this variety, there was one notable thing missing from the Aztec diet: fat.

The lack of fat is the major thing which separates indigenous from modern Mexican cuisine, and indeed, from almost all cuisines. It’s hard enough to imagine the Aztecs making the first tacos and tamales without limes, cilantro, or cheese (all brought to Mexico by the conquerors), but how could they have also done it without oil and lard? But no archaeological evidence has uncovered in Mesoamerica a cooking vessel capable of frying. In the Aztec chef’s repertoire, the closest equivalent to frying in fat was the technique used to make sweets like tzoalli, toasted seeds tossed over heat in a honey-based syrup. In her book America’s First Cuisines (1994), Sophie Coe reports that “the distaste of the American Indians for the fat of European animals is recorded over and over.” As late as 1937, a Mayan of Mexico’s isolated Lacandon people is recorded to have spurned an offer of coffee, out of fear that being a European drink, it might contain grease.

This aversion to concentrated fat would become a cultural preference, but it springs from a matter of practicality. There were few large land animals known to the Aztecs. Between the dog, the peccary (a small, lean pig), the deer and the jaguar, there was no creature that produced consumable milk or had large deposits of fat. The only other option would be the human, and while the Aztecs did engage in cannibalism, it was an occasional practice reserved for religious rituals, not a dietary staple. There were also only a few plants in pre-colonial Mexico that could produce oil, namely avocado, cacao and pumpkin. The Aztecs ate these plants in many forms and seem to have been aware of their fat content (small quantities of oil might have been used as medicine or incense, and avocado was used to fatten up dogs raised for meat), but for the most part they simply made do without. Oil was not produced in large quantities from native Mexican plants until after the conquest, when Europeans craving greasy food began to experiment with local flora.

Unable to fry, the Aztecs cooked their food in other ways. Roasting over an open flame or boiling in a pot were common, as was steaming, used to produce the ubiquitous corn dough tamalli. But most Aztec dishes were cooked (ungreased) on a flat, round pottery griddle called a comalli (Spanish comal), still used in rural Mexico today. It was with the comal that the Aztecs made one of their greatest contributions to the modern food landscape: the thin corn flatbread that they knew as tlaxcalli (tlash-cah-lee) and their conquerors as tortilla, Spanish for “little cake”. In Nahuatl (the Aztec language), tlahco means “middle”, and the best way to enjoy a tortilla was with something in the tlahco of it. The word tlahco for a filled tortilla is believed to be the origin of our modern “taco”.

16th-century Spanish chronicles such as the Florentine Codex (an ethnography of the Aztecs by Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún) describe a dizzying array of possible taco fillings, all of which were also available as filling for tamales. A famished Aztec in the markets of Tenochtitlan could choose between vendors selling tacos filled with vegetables (beans, squash, tomato, nopal cactus), meat (dog, rabbit, turkey, eggs), or the stranger bounty of the lake itself (water-insects, amphibians, algae). All of these would have been spiced with the favorite seasonings of the Aztecs (salt and chili), plus indigenous herbs like pungent epazote and bittersweet hoja santa.

In developing this recipe (which I have served at my Aztec food class at Brooklyn Brainery), I aimed to recreate one of the more simple variations on an Aztec tlahco filling. I also followed the original Aztec cooking method by using no added fat or oil. Some notes on ingredients:

  • The Aztecs raised turkeys for meat and eggs, but they were much leaner than our modern turkeys and belonged to a different species: the beautifully iridescent ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata). I used regular store-bought ground turkey, which has a higher fat content and a milder flavor than pre-Industrial fowl.
  • Both tomato and chili pepper were known to the Aztecs, as was Kunth’s onion, but these and many other vegetables have changed and developed over time through selective breeding, making the 16th-century (or earlier) version quite different from the one we know today. Tomatoes, for instance, are described in accounts from the conquest era as sour and unsuitable for eating raw.
  • Fresh epazote is strong and skunky (the Nahuatl name epazotl literally means “skunk sweat”), but dried it has a slightly bitter flavor reminiscent of tea. I would have preferred to use the fresh herb for the sake of both authenticity and flavor, but wasn’t able to find them. I hear you can get live epazote plants in some of NYC’s authentic Mexican grocery stores, so I will have to search another time.


IMG_2903Ingredients: corn tortillas (store-bought or homemade), 1 pound of ground turkey, 2 large tomatoes, 1 onion, 3-4  serrano peppers (fresh), 2 poblano chilis (fresh), 1 tablespoon of dried epazote, pinch of salt, dried chilis or chili flakes (optional)

IMG_2956Core the tomatoes and peppers and peel the onion. Slice the vegetables into large pieces. Lay them flat-side down on a stove-top grill or on a bare burner with the heat turned low. Turn them with tongs occasionally until they become soft and you start to see charred black spots on the outside of the vegetables.

Transfer the charred veggies to a cast-iron pan over medium heat. Break them up with a wooden spoon. Add the turkey, salt and herbs. Continue cooking and breaking things up with the spoon until the turkey has cooked through.

Next, cook your tortillas. The simplest (and most Aztec) way to do this is on a bare stove burner with the heat turned all the way down, flipping the tortilla constantly with tongs until black spots start to show on both sides, just like you did with the vegetables. Each tortilla will take only about 45 seconds total to cook, so be careful not to burn them. As you can only safely cook one or two tortillas at a time in this way, wrap the cooked ones in a towel or tinfoil so they stay warm while you are cooking the others.

Serve the tlahco by spooning the meat mixture into the center of a tortilla. Add dried chilis and more salt if desired.


This dish is not quite as moist or flavorful as a modern taco full of oil and spices, but there’s enough moisture from the vegetables and meat that it certainly isn’t dry. Those spices I did use give it a little bit of bitterness, while the tomatoes make it slightly sour. I’ve also made this with tomatillos in addition to tomatoes. VII out of X.

*Further evidence of Cortés’ apparent difficulty with the Nahuatl language. Lucky he had La Malinche to translate for him….


Ancient Recipe: Tzoalli (amaranth candy) (Aztec, prehistory – 16th century CE)

3“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.

THE RECIPEtzoalli 1

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).

tzoalli 2


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.