Dining with the Aztecs

Aztec DiningIn preparing and cooking their food, the Aztecs displayed their usual ingenuity, though many of their dishes were of a very simple character. Maize, or Indian corn, when in the milk, was eaten boiled; when dry, it was parched or roasted, though it usually came to table in the shape of tortillas, then, as now, the staple food of all Spanish America. What poi is to the Hawaiian, what rice is to the Hindoo, and what bread is to most civilized nations, the tortilla was and is to the inhabitants of Mexico.

Among miscellaneous articles of food may be mentioned the ant, maguey-worm, and the fly of the Mexican lake, which were dried, ground, boiled, and eaten in the form of cakes. There were also eggs of turkeys, iguanas, and turtles, roasted, boiled, and in omelettes; reptiles of various kinds; shrimps, sardines, and crabs; wild amaranth seeds and tule roots; honey of bees, of maize, and of the maguey, and portions of maguey stalks and leaves, which were eaten roasted. All articles of food, whether cooked or uncooked, were offered for sale in the market-places of the larger towns, and near them were eating-houses, where the delicacies and substantial fare of the Nahua cuisine were served up to their patrons.

The Nahuas appear to have restricted their indulgence in rich and highly seasoned dishes to festive occasions, and at their homes to have contented themselves with the plainest fare. The poorer classes had in their houses no cooking utensils, except a hollowed stone, called metate, for grinding maize, and a few earthen dishes for cooking tortillas and frijoles. They ate thrice a day, at morning, noon, and nightfall, using the ground for table, table-cloth, napkin, and chair, conveying their food to the mouth with their fingers, and drinking only water or atole. The repasts of the rich, however, were served on palm-mats, often richly decorated, and napkins and low seats were provided for their use.

When dinner was announced, all took their seats, according to age and rank, on mats or stools, placed close against the walls. Servants then entered with water and towels, with which each guest cleansed his hands and mouth. Pipes, or rather smoking-canes, were then presented in order, as was supposed, to stimulate the appetite. The viands, kept warm by chafing-dishes, were then brought in on artistically worked plates of gold, silver, tortoise-shell, or earthenware, and each person, before beginning to eat, threw a small piece of food into a lighted brazier, as an offering to the god of fire. Many highly seasoned dishes of meat and fish were partaken of, and when the tables were cleared, the servants, in company with the attendants of the guests, feasted on the remains of the banquet. Chocolate was then handed round, together with water for washing the hands and rinsing the mouth.

From: A Popular History of the Mexican People, by Hubert Howe Bancroft. New York: The History Company, 1887.

AboutDave Dewitt

Dave is known in the media as "The Pope of Peppers" because of the 36 books he's written on chile peppers and spicy food around the world. He's also co-producer of the National Fiery Foods & Barbecue Show and editor and publisher of the Fiery Foods & Barbecue SuperSite at His latest book, with chile breeder Dr. Paul Bosland, is The Complete Chile Pepper Book.

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