When Hernan Cortes first landed in Mexico in 1519, he brought with him an African slave he’d bought in Cuba. Thousands more would follow in the coming centuries, forever changing the face, the rhythms and the flavor of Mexico.
Mexico is commonly thought of as the meeting place of the Spanish and native Mexican worlds. But in the Caribbean states--and particularly in Veracruz, where the conquest of Mexico began--the African slaves and their descendants have played a significant role.
It was in this lush and steamy paradise that the Spanish first settled and where they built their first port. They named it La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz (The Rich Town of the True Cross), and it soon became the only way for goods (including food) to come and go between the Old and New Worlds.
Veracruz is still the most important port in Mexico. Huge cargo ships, ocean liners and fishing vessels crowd its harbor, and the boardwalk is always abuzz with strollers and sailors. Visitors immediately sense a different Mexico--exuberant, extroverted and joyful-with a distinctive tropical flair, a legacy of commerce and communication between Veracruz and Cuba, where the Spanish had established their first outpost.
The land in Veracruz is fertile, with temperate and tropical zones. These, combined with plentiful rainfall and a generous climate, make it ideal for growing not only the cornerstones of New World food-corn, chiles, tomatoes, tomatillos, squashes, avocados and tropical fruits-but Old World plants introduced by the Spanish: citrus fruits, rice, coffee, plantains, pineapples and sugar cane. With the Europeans also came foreign diseases, and the native people--once they had been subjugated and made to work the fields--died off in alarming numbers. To replace them, slaves were imported from Africa. To discourage uprisings, the Spanish were careful to separate tribal communities and families, and dispersed the slaves all over the prime sugar cane-growing area in what is now central Veracruz.
A tragic consequence of this enforced separation is that within a few decades much of the original African culture was lost, which probably explains why there seems to be little sense of a black identity in Veracruz. The slaves married Europeans and native Mexicans, creating a community that proudly calls itself jarochos. An Afro-Cuban influence can be felt in all aspects of jarocho culture--music, dance, improvised poetry and, most particularly, the food.
(Though the Spanish achieved their goal for the most part, in 1608 an African prince named Yanga led a group of slaves and disgruntled natives, and staged a successful coup against the authorities. They were granted the right to establish the first free slave community in the Americas, San Lorenzo de los Negros, now called Yanga.)
A lively mestizo (mixed-blood) cuisine evolved in Mexico. The Spanish had brought Old World ingredients such as wheat, onions, garlic, olives, capers and almonds, as well as herbs--thyme, marjoram, bay leaves, cilantro and parsley--and spices, such as cloves, canela (true cinnamon) and black pepper. They brought cattle and dairy products, chickens and eggs, pork and cooking fats such as lard and olive oil. The Spanish also introduced cooking techniques, including frying and sauteing, that had been unknown in the New World.
An exciting exchange took place, and a new cuisine was born.
When native tomatoes and chiles (sometimes given the Moorish treatment of pickling) were paired with onions, garlic, olives, bay leaves and other herbs, all gloriously redolent of olive oil, the result was the classic salsa veracruzana . It swiftly rose to stardom when paired with huachinango (red snapper) and other local fish. Soon moles (pureed main-dish sauces) were fragrant with spices and enriched by slow cooking in lard, and corn masa antojitos (snacks) were being fried and topped with cream and cheese.
Peanuts would be on anyone’s list of great African gifts to the Veracruzan kitchen, where they grace everything from sweets to drinks to savory sauces. Ironically, they are native to the New World, not Africa. The Portuguese took them from South America to West Africa, where there was already a long tradition of eating and cooking with several native species of “ground-nuts” (principally Voandzeia subterranea ). Because their thinner shell meant they were easier to crack and their higher fat content made them infinitely more satisfying, peanuts received an enthusiastic welcome in Africa.
Though the peanut had undoubtedly been known in Mexico before Cortes arrived, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of it being a major player in the pre-Hispanic diet. Africans, on the other hand, added peanuts to stews of meat, dried shrimp, fish and vegetables or pounded them with ginger into a paste that they slathered on meats to be grilled (somewhat like the Indonesian satays ). They also pureed them with chiles and onions to make sauces that were probably very similar to traditional Mexican pepianes (seed-based main-dish sauces).
Now peanuts are a key ingredient in the classic mole poblano (from the state of Puebla) and in the Veracruzan encacahuatado served with chicken, pork or as a sauce for enchiladas called encacahuatadas .
Peanuts appear in other guises, too. One specialty of the Sotavento region (the heart of jarocho country) is the powerful, knock-down drink called toritos (little bulls), a sort of peanut butter/cane liquor milk punch. In gorgeous Tlacotalpan--the jewel of this area, where the making of sweets is a major cottage industry--peanuts are combined with sugar (another legacy of the African slave trade, slaves having been imported to the Caribbean to work on the sugar plantations) and turned into all sorts of sweetmeats. And peanut ices are the rage all over the state.
But my favorite peanut concoction is the addictive salsa macha of central Veracruz, made by grinding peanuts with garlic, comapa chiles (a floral local variety) and plenty of olive or vegetable oil.
Plantains also came with the Africans (via the Canary Islands) and grow all over Veracruz, where every part of the plant is put to good use. Plantain trees, called tutores (tutors), provide shade for delicate coffee plants in the misty hills of central Veracruz. The leaves make a fragrant wrapper for barbacoas (slow-cooked marinated meats) and tamales (including the gigantic sacahuil of the Huasteca region, made on a frame of banana trunks).
And the fruit is eaten at every degree of ripeness. Besides making great fried chips, green and ripe plantains can be cooked and mashed with garlic, jalapeno chiles and lard for machuca de platano. Both green and ripe plantains are mixed with corn masa and turned into tortillas or sweet or savory gorditas infladas (like Indian puris) , a beloved breakfast dish. Ripe plantains add body (and sweetness) to the famous mole ziqueno (mole from the town of Xico) and even show up in omelets along the Costa Esmeralda.
Now as in the early days of the colony, plantains and other starchy tubers including yuca , malanga , taro and sweet potatoes (collectively called viandas ) recall the comfort food of African slave kitchens. These, as well as some West Indian pumpkins, took the place of the yams the Africans had eaten back home. These vegetables needed little tending, were dense and satisfying when cooked and nourished not just the body but also the soul.
Now they can be found in kitchens at every level of society. The most important native tuber is yuca , also called manioc or cassava ( Manihot esculenta ). Yuca al ajillo (in garlic sauce) is rich and delicious, and I’ve also had crisply fried yuca croquettes swimming in a spicy tomato caldillo (thin sauce).
Fritters are also made with shaved coconut and malanga, a type of taro that is also used to make atoles (porridge-drinks) and dessert tamales. Sweet potatoes are mixed with corn masa and made into the wonderful layered garnachas de masa cocida or slow-cooked with pineapple (another plantation product) and caramelized sugar for a classic dulce de cazuela .
Peanuts, plantains and tropical roots give a unique color--unique in Mexico, unique in the world--to this cuisine. Like the music and exuberant street life of Veracruz, it derives from the rich cultural heritage of three continents that meet here.
For me, the dish that brings home the special and magical melding of Spanish, native Mexican and African traditions is the puerco con calabaza (pork stewed with pumpkin) that I discovered in the Lake Tamiahua area, a place where there are many people of African descent. The sauce has a nice kick from small dried chiles (called serrano seco in Veracruz--in this country I use chile arbol or something similar) but is also perfumed with coriander seeds and cumin that recall the spices of North Africa. The pork was the contribution of the Spanish conquistadores .
With every bite I feel I am reliving the encounters that created the modern Veracruz culinary melting pot.
Martinez is co-author of the newly published “Zarela’s Veracruza” (Houghton Mifflin, $35) and star of the companion PBS series. She is also a restaurateur in New York City and has just opened Danzon, which is devoted to the cuisine of Veracruz. She will be teaching Sept. 25 at Let’s Get Cookin’ in Westlake Village (818) 991-3940. The class is $70.
Plates from Sur La Table stores.