Spanish & Mesoamerican Foodways

I wrote this paper in grad school back in 2007, but I have used it many times in my culinary classes.

give The foodways of Spain in the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries experienced significant change through the introduction of New World foodstuffs. The influx of new foods was a fluid thing as existing Spanish practices were modified with New World ingredients at the same time as New World dishes were changed to suit Spanish tastes. Unlike in English cooking, where non-European comestibles were simply identified with their closest English counterpart and then used accordingly, Spanish cooks showed more creativity in their acceptance and usage of foreign culinary practices.

Spanish cookery was already heavily multicultural in origin. Part of this was due to the legacy of hundreds of years of Muslims, Jews, and Christians living in close proximity; the other mitigating factor was the deeply regional nature of the Iberian Peninsula. Consequently, an influx of new and exotic foodstuffs and practices was not quite as revolutionary an event in Spain as it was in other European countries.

The culinary traditions of the Iberian and Yucatan Peninsulas in the pre-Contact period were radically different in many aspects, yet they shared some similarities. Both had distinctly upper-class cuisines different from those of the common people, including class-specific foodstuffs whose consumption was indicative of privilege (either through its sacred connotations or its expense). Interestingly, some of the stratified patterns of consumption survived the transition across the Atlantic, chocolate in particular. Chocolate was a food of the elite in Mesoamerica, with religious overtones. While the religious aspect was lost, its consumption remained a sign of privilege in Spain until it became more widely available.1

In terms of culinary technology, both cultures used similar practices for much of their cuisine. Neither culture used cook surfaces much more advanced than the open hearth, although Spanish cookery made use of tiled cook-surfaces and clay bake ovens as well. Figure 1 shows a Spanish woman frying eggs in a ceramic pan, much as had been done for centuries. It was a cooking practice that would not have been entirely unfamiliar to her New World counterpart. Continent-specific foodstuffs made the primary difference in pre-Contact cuisines.

Figure 1 - Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez, “Old Woman Frying Eggs,” 1618. Source: The Web Gallery of Art, [http://www.wga.hu/]

Figure 1 – Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez, “Old Woman Frying Eggs,” 1618. Source: The Web Gallery of Art, [http://www.wga.hu/]

Attempting to describe Spanish cuisine at the time of contact is a misleading proposition. There was no such thing as a universal “Spanish” culinary tradition, though the foodways of the Iberian Peninsula did share some common practices. For the purpose of this paper, the term “Spanish culinary patterns” or “Spanish patterns of cuisine” will be used. There is a dichotomy inherent in saying “Spanish foodways,” for that implies a greater unity than was actually present. Iberian foodways can be broken down into two categories: regional and religious/ethnic cuisines. The cuisine of different regions of Spain was largely dependent upon the climate of that area and the crops that would or would not flourish under those conditions. Arid Extremadura supported herds of free-range pigs, and its traditional dishes often involve pork. Galicia, a region with strong ties to the sea, frequently features seafood on its tables. One over-arching peculiarity of Spanish cooking is its heavy use of salt, perhaps because of the abundance of that mineral and the subsequent salt mines.

While regional differences account for some of the variation in Spanish foodways, the other and perhaps more important factor is the effects of so many different cultures leaving their influence over time. While the foodways of cultures such as the Basques tended to stay localized to the geographic area of those cultures, other groups’ foodways impacted large portions of the peninsula. Roman, Islamic, and Jewish culinary practices had shaped the dietary preferences of the residents of the Iberian Peninsula centuries before the New World added its influence. These cultures brought new agricultural practices and methods of cooking which were eventually adopted outside their original religious or ethnic communities.

The Romans occupied what is present-day Spain from 218 BC until the fifth century AD. During this time, they implemented Roman customs and institutions, including Roman recipes and patterns of diet. The foodways of the Hispano-Romans relied more heavily on vegetables than on meat, using meats for flavoring.2 Items such as fava beans, lentils, and cabbage were popular ingredients. However, Roman cuisine was altered by Spanish foodways at the same time as it was changing them. During its time of occupation and later via trade, Rome came to rely heavily on the production of Spanish wheat and olive oil.3 There are no surviving complete Hispano-Roman cookbooks, so it is difficult to ascertain how much of an impact was left on Spanish patterns of cuisine.

Another important influence in trans-regional Iberian foodways was the legacy of Jewish culture. While the Jews themselves were forced to convert or be expelled at the time of New World contact, the vestigial remnants of kosher cooking could still be found in some Spanish dishes of formerly Jewish origin. Jewish foodways survived in the form of dishes such as adafina or empanadas de pescado. Adafina was a meat dish that was originally prepared according to Jewish religious practice by preparing it the day before the Shabbat and burying it in hot coals overnight, so as to avoid the rabbinical prohibition on work on the Shabbat.4

A Jewish Dish of Chicken. Clean the chicken and pound its entrails with almonds, breadcrumbs, a little flour, salt, and cut-up fennel and cilantro. Beat it with six eggs and the amount of a quarter ratl of water. Then expose the chicken over the fire a little and place it in a clean pot with five spoonfuls of fresh oil, and do not stop turning it on the fire in the oil until it is well browned. Then cover the contents of the pot with stuffing prepared earlier and leave it until it is bound together and wrinkled. Ladle it out and put the stuffing around it, garnish with cut rue and fennel, eyes of mint, and toasted almonds, and present it, God willing.

– “A Jewish Dish of Chicken,” from the 13th Century Cookbook Manuscrito Anonimo. Translated by Charles Perry.

Although the “Jewish Dish of Chicken” here included survived in an Islamic cookbook, the Muslim author probably had been in frequent contact with Jews, showing that the transmission of foodways was going between Moor and Jew as much as between members of those faiths and Christians. Spanish empanadas de pescado are the descendants of Jewish fish pie dishes.5 Even after the Jews themselves were expelled, elements of their foodways remained.

The discovery of these Hispanicized kosher practices was often grounds for trial by the Inquisition on suspicion of being secret Jews. Interestingly, these trials often revealed that actual Spanish Jews were not correctly following the kosher laws (or had created local customary variations as to their observation) or that Christian families were still using kosher practices without knowing their actual meaning. Secret Jews in 16th century Spain do not seem to have followed the rabbinical ban against eating meat with milk, for the prohibition was not found in testimony.6 However, since there are no surviving medieval Jewish cookbooks (though a few recipes listed as of Jewish origin can be found in the 13th century Andalusian cookbook Manuscrito Anonimo), it is possible that the supposed violations of kosher law could have been due to ignorance or misreporting on the part of the informants or the nature of the testimonies themselves.

Perhaps the strongest influence was that of the legacy of the Islamic presence. Although both the Moors and the Jews had either been expelled or forced into the periphery by the period of New World contact, Islamic agriculture and cookery left a much more indelible impression on Southern Spain than Jewish or Roman foodways. On the subject of the Islamic legacy in Spanish cuisine, Jane Grigson says it best:

Experts at irrigation, the Moors introduced the cultivation of rice, now a staple food, and growing with them figs and citrus fruits, peaches and bananas and many of the Eastern spices, including cumin and aniseed, which are used so much in Iberian cooking today. They used almonds a great deal in the cooking of both savoury and sweet dishes. The huge groves of almond trees along the Levante coast and the Algarve were originally planted by the Moors. Today, in all the areas of the peninsula where the Moors once ruled, rich and varied rice dishes, little cakes and confections made from eggs and almonds, cinnamon, butter and honey, as well as crystallized fruit and the special turrones, sweet nougats, are part of the Iberian legacy from the East.7

Ingredients such as almonds and citrus are still particularly common today in Spanish desserts, but they originated in late medieval Islamic cooking.8 The Spanish love of egg-rich custards and flans was also an Islamic love to begin with.9 The rukhâmiyya recipe listed below is a good example of an originally-Muslim dessert popular throughout formerly Islamic lands. Variations on this dish are still found from Spain to Israel. The legacy of Muslim foodways in Spain can also still be seen in the usage of spices such as mint, sesame, and caraway. The Muslim influence introduced a number of new sweets and spices into the mainstream of Spanish culinary patterns.

Rukhâmiyya, a Marble Dish

Take white sugar, dissolve it in a little water and put it on a gentle fire. Remove the froth and when it is almost bound together, throw in peeled almonds, pounded somewhat coarsely until they become like semolina, in the quantity of two thirds of the sugar. When it is finished binding together, remove it from the fire and cut it with some camphor, spikenard and clove dissolved in rose water. Pummel it and turn it onto a marble slab greased with oil when it is still warm. Lay on it a smooth greased plank until the surface is smooth. Then cut it with a knife in the shape of reeds or whatever shape you want, and set it aside.

-“Rrukhâmiyya,” from the 13th Century Cookbook Manuscrito Anonimo. Translated by Charles Perry.

The culinary legacy of the Moorish kingdom became firmly entrenched into trans-regional Spanish foodways. Initially-exotic recipes and ingredients were taken up and fused with the culinary practices of contemporary Spanish cooks, becoming “traditional” Spanish dishes as they descended between generations. (One such Andalusian dish, still popular in Cuba, is a beans and rice dish called moros y cristianos – Moors & Christians.) However, as with the Jewish recipes, the nature of these recipes’ transmission to the present day (or until their first appearance in print) allows for error. There are several 16th century recipes that list “Moorish” dishes that yet include bacon as an ingredient. The 1529 Catalan cookbook Libre del Coch, one of the earliest cookbooks written in a language other than Latin, suggests making Moorish Eggplant “with good bacon,” noting the dish can also be made “with sweet oil, because the Moors do not eat bacon.”10 While it is difficult to ascertain the extent to which non-Muslim Spanish cooks modified these recipes, the fact remains that there are many dishes that were popular in this time period that were of Islamic origin. This sort of gastronomic metamorphosis set the stage for the relatively easy adoption of New World foodstuffs in later centuries.

At the same time the Spanish patterns of diet were undergoing the mixing and tempering of exposure to different foodways, the New World peoples were experiencing much the same. The areas the Spanish occupied were home to the Maya, Aztec, and Inca civilizations. Most of Mesoamerican society was dependent upon maize as the chief crop.11 It was easy to grow and extremely versatile. Beans came a close second in terms of importance. Mesoamerican foodways were still fairly close to their hunter-gatherer past. While agricultural cultivation was practiced, the peoples of Central America ate a number of things Europeans did not consider food – algae, dogs, and insects such as mayfly larvae, caterpillars, beetles, and ants.12 The 16th century Spanish bishop of Yucatán, Diego de Landa, noted that the indigenous peoples “eat well when they have food but when they do not they endure hunger very well and survive on very little.”13 Despite the similarities between Mesoamerican foodways, there were regional differences within these diets. The Aztec and Maya diets were fairly close. Both were heavily vegetarian, though they supplemented their diets by wild game. The Inca were different. While the Aztec and Maya relied almost exclusively on maize, the Inca raised potatoes and quinoa. Inca cultivation of the potato gave them an easily-stored, frost-resistant crop, an important consideration in high-altitude agriculture. The Aztecs and Maya did not domesticate any large animals, but the Inca did.14 Regional differences aside, the foodways of Central America were much less heavily reliant upon meat than the Spanish cooks were.

While the foodstuffs were novel to Spanish eyes, many of the cooking practices were not. Mesoamerican cooks typically served a variety of soups and stews, accompanied by flatbreads baked on tiles. Meats were roasted. The style of eating, however, was different. Bishop de Landa observed that the men “were not accustomed to eat with the women; they ate on the floor or, at most, off a mat for a table.”15 For descriptions of contemporary Mesoamerican foodways and culinary practices, we are dependent upon observers such as Bishop de Landa, for no period Central American cookbooks or culinary texts have survived. Ironically, it was men such as Bishop de Landa who ordered the burnings of indigenous texts for fear that the indecipherable (to the Spanish) books were a form of promoting idolatry under the Spaniards’ very eyes. Knowledge of traditional Mesoamerican foodways has been obtained through archaeology and through examination of surviving culinary practices among the descendents of the Maya, Aztec, and Inca peoples.

The contact with the New World had immediate repercussions in Spanish kitchens. Initially, foodstuffs brought back were high-priced novelty items. Chocolate is perhaps the best known of these. Originally a sacred drink in Central America, it maintained its position of importance in Europe. It was a costly item to begin with, and the recipes for making it palatable were highly guarded secrets.

Antonio de Pereda, Still Life with an Ebony Chest, 1652. Source: The Hermitage Museum, [http://www.hermitagemuseum.org]

Antonio de Pereda, Still Life with an Ebony Chest, 1652. Source: The Hermitage Museum, [http://www.hermitagemuseum.org]

(Figure 4 shows a still life including several round boxes such as chocolate was shipped in. Note its clearly upper-class setting and its placement among decorated – and therefore more expensive – dishes, a far cry from the simple redware and pewter shown in still lifes of more common foods.) However, the chocolate brought back to Spain was not the cacao of the Mesoamericans. Spanish cooks modified the beverage to fit Spanish tastes, at the same time making it more exotic and more familiar. Marcy Norton explains that the reason for chocolate’s success with Europeans “was not that they could insert it into existing flavor complexes and discursive categories, masking indigenous flavors with sugar and Mesoamerican symbolism with medical excuses,” but that European palates developed a taste for it as it was.16 Although the chocolate drink of the Americas was later described as having “a brutish quality and a very savage taste,” and that the “more industrious” Spaniards “[corrected] the bad flavor of this liquor,” certain key components of the original American recipes were retained.17 Elements such as the flavors of vanilla and pepper, the color red, and a foamy froth on top of the beverage were kept in the recipes even when original Mesoamerican ingredients were impossible to obtain.18 Norton argues that chocolate became popular among New World Spaniards because the Spanish were being acclimatized to New World cultures just as much as the indigenous peoples were taking on Old World traits. In the Spanish chocolate recipe listed here, note the frequent places where the author recommends substituting Spanish ingredients for unpalatable or hard-to-get items. Spanish cooks seem to have approached New World foods with curiosity, experimenting until they found dishes they liked.

To every 100 Cacaos, you must put two cods of the long red Pepper, of which I have spoken before, and are called, in the Indian Tongue, Chilparlagua; and in stead of those of the Indies,
you may take those of Spaine; which are broadest, and least hot. One handfull of Annis-seed Orejuelas, which are otherwise called Vinacaxlidos: and two of the flowers, called Mechasuehil,
if the Belly be bound. But in stead of this, in Spaine, we put in sixe Roses of Alexandria beat to Powder: One Cod of Campeche, or Logwood: Two Drams of Cinamon, Almons, and Hasle-Nuts,
of each one Dozen: Of white Sugar, halfe a pound: Of Achiote, enough to give it the colour. And if you cannot have those things, which come from the Indies, you may make it with the rest.

– Antonio Colmenero, tran. Don Diego de Vades-forte. “A Curious Treatise of the Nature and
Quality of Chocolate.” Published in London in 1640, in Spain before 1631.

A similar case of cultural and culinary acclimatization can be seen in the Caribbean colonies. While Spanish patterns of cuisine back in Europe were eagerly absorbing new foodstuffs, the Spanish colonists in the New World approached cautiously at first. Archaeology conducted on the site of the early Spanish colony of La Isabela, occupied only from 1493-1498, reveals cookware predominantly medieval in design and frequently showing Islamic influence.19 While the La Isabela colonists did partially adapt some native New World culinary practices, they did not do so in sufficient time or to an adequate extent. Records show that the colony repeatedly requested resupply of foodstuffs from Spain such as wheat flour and dried meat and fish, despite the abundance of local fisheries and the versatile cassava.20 The colony at La Isabela failed, but by the sixteenth century the colonial Spanish cooks seem to have been more receptive to local practices. Archaeology at colonial sites all over the Caribbean reveal that later colonies’ kitchens were filled with native-style cookware, indicating a shift in patterns of preparation and consumption towards indigenous foodstuffs which enabled them to survive and be viable.21

Detail from Francisco Barrera’s “Still-life with Flowers and Fruit,” 1643. Source: The Web Gallery of Art, [http://www.wga.hu]

Detail from Francisco Barrera’s “Still-life with Flowers and Fruit,” 1643. Source: The Web Gallery of Art, [http://www.wga.hu]

Ultimately, New World foodstuffs made the successful transition into Old World kitchens. They were blended into pre-existing patterns of cuisine so entirely that they became “traditional” ingredients themselves much as the old foodways of the Romans, Jews, and Muslims had become. By the 18th century and later, New World foodstuffs such as tomatoes and chili peppers had become so thoroughly integrated into Spanish cuisine that their usage in a dish is considered a key part of the recipe’s “Spanish-ness.” Empanadas, meat pastries most commonly associated with Galicia but found across Spain and Latin America, are frequently filled with green and red peppers and spiced with New World chilis.22

The transitions between New World and Old went both ways – spicy dishes infusing both “traditional Spanish” patterns of cuisine and New World ingredients can be found all over both Spain and its former holdings. The Spanish history of multicultural foodways made it easier for the new American foodstuffs and dietary patterns to be accepted into Spanish frameworks of consumption, both pre-existing and new.

Primary Sources:

  1. Acosta, José de. The naturall and morall historie of the East and West Indies Intreating of the remarkable things of heaven, of the elements, mettalls, plants and beasts which are proper to that country: together with the manners, ceremonies, lawes, governments, and warres of the Indians. London : Printed by Val: Sims for Edward Blount and William Aspley, 1604. (Reproduction of the original in Cambridge University Library available through the online Early English Books Collection, UNH Library.)
  2. Alpert, Michael, trans. Two Picaresque novels. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.
  3. Cervantes, Miguel de. Selections from Don Quixote.
  4. Colmenero, Antonio; tran. Don Diego de Vades-forte. A Curious Treatise of the Nature and Quality of Chocolate. Published in London in 1640, in Spain before 1631. (Reproduction of the original in Cambridge University Library available through the online Early English Books Collection, UNH Library.)
  5. de Landa, Diego, trans. A. R. Pagden. The Maya: Diego de Landa’s Account of the Affairs of the Yucatan. J. Philip O’Hara: Chicago, 1975.
  6. de Nola, Ruperto, trans. Robin Carroll-Mann. Libre del Coch. Originally published in 1529. Available online at [http://www.florilegium.org/files/FOOD-MANUSCRIPTS/Guisados1-art.html]. Accessed May 14, 2007.
  7. Lavedán, Antonio. Tratado de los usos, abusos, propiedades y virtudes del tabaco, café, té y chocolate. (1796; facs. ed., Madrid, 1991).
  8. Monardes, Nicolás. Ioyfull nevves out of the newe founde worlde […] also the portrature of the saied hearbes, very aptly discribed: Imprinted at London : In Paul’s Churche-yarde, by Willyam Norton, 1577. (Reproduction of the original in Cambridge University Library available through the online Early English Books Collection, UNH Library.)

Historical monographs

  1. Alexander, Rani T., and Kepecs, Susan, eds. The postclassic to Spanish-era transition in Mesoamerica: archaeological perspectives. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005.
  2. Aranda, Antonio Garrido. Cultura alimentaria Andalucía-América. México : Universidad Nacional Autonóma de México, 1996.
  3. Brooks, Andree. “Jewish Recipes of the Spanish Inquisition,” New York Times, April 16, 1997.
  4. Bolens, Lucie. La cuisine andalouse, un art de vivre: XIe-XIIIe siècle. Paris: Albin Michel, 1990.
  5. Casas, Penelope. The Foods and Wines of Spain, Alfred A. Knopf: New York. 1982.
  6. Chabran, Rafael. “Medieval Spain,” in Regional Cuisines of Medieval Europe, Melitta Weiss Adamson, ed. New York: Routledge, 2002.
  7. Crosby, Alfred Jr. The Columbian Exchange. Westport CT: Praeger, 2003.
  8. Davidson, Alan, ed. Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1999.
  9. Grigson, Jane, ed. World Atlas of Food. Mitchell Beaszley: London, 1974.
  10. Gómez, L Jacinto García. Carlos V a la mesa: cocina y alimentación en la España renacentista. Toledo: Ediciones Bremen, 2000.
  11. Honour, Hugh. The New Golden Land. New York: Pantheon Books, 1975.
  12. Muñoz, José V Serradilla. La mesa del emperador: recetario de Carlos V en Yuste. San Sebastián: R & B, 1997.
  13. Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz. The Food of Spain and Portugal: The Complete Iberian Cuisine. Atheneum: New York, 1989.
  14. Plasencia, Pedro. Episodios gastronómicos de la conquista de Indias. Madrid: Mileto Ediciones, 2001.
  15. Scholberg, Kenneth R. Spanish life in the late Middle Ages. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966.
  16. Smith, Michael E. The Aztecs. Blackwell: Oxford, 1996.
  17. Thibaut i Comelade, Eliana. La table médiévale des Catalans. Montpellier: Presses du Languedoc, 1995.
  18. Defourneaux, Marcelin; Branch, Newton (trans.). Daily life in Spain in the golden age. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1971.

Journal articles

  1. Brandes, Stanley. “Ritual Eating and Drinking in Tzintzuntzan: A Contribution to the Study of Mexican Foodways,” in Western Folklore, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Apr., 1990), pp. 163-175.
  2. Andree Brooks. “Jewish Recipes of the Spanish Inquisition,” New York Times, April 16, 1997.
  3. Deagan, Kathleen. “Colonial Transformation: Euro-American Cultural Genesis in the Early Spanish-American Colonies,” Journal of Anthropological Research, Vol. 52, No. 2 (Summer, 1996), pp. 135-160.
  4. Norton, Marcy. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics,” in The American Historical Review Vol. 111, Issue 3.
  • 1Marcy Norton. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics,” in The American Historical Review. Vol. 111, Issue 3.
  • 2 Rafael Chabran. “Medieval Spain,” in Regional Cuisines of Medieval Europe, Melitta Weiss Adamson, ed. New York: Routledge, 2002.
  • 3 Alan Davidson, ed. Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1999. (p. 741)
  • 4 Rafael Chabran. “Medieval Spain,” in Regional Cuisines of Medieval Europe, Melitta Weiss Adamson, ed. New York: Routledge, 2002.
  • 5 Rafael Chabran. “Medieval Spain,” in Regional Cuisines of Medieval Europe, Melitta Weiss Adamson, ed. New York: Routledge, 2002.
  • 6 Andree Brooks. “Jewish Recipes of the Spanish Inquisition,” New York Times, April 16, 1997.
  • 7 Jane Grigson, ed. World Atlas of Food. Mitchell Beaszley: London, 1974. (p. 170)
  • 8 Davidson 1999:741
  • 9 Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz. The Food of Spain and Portugal: The Complete Iberian Cuisine. Atheneum: New York, 1989. (p. 264)
  • 10 Ruperto de Nola, (Robin Carroll-Mann, trans). Libre del Coch. Originally published in 1529. Available online at [http://www.florilegium.org/files/FOOD-MANUSCRIPTS/Guisados1-art.html]. Accessed May 14, 2007.
  • 11 Michael E. Smith, The Aztecs. Blackwell: Oxford, 1996. (p. 65-6)
  • 12 Davidson 1999:396
  • 13 Diego de Landa, trans. A. R. Pagden. The Maya: Diego de Landa’s Account of the Affairs of the Yucatan. J. Philip O’Hara: Chicago, 1975. (p. 67)
  • 14 Davidson 1999:396
  • 15 de Landa 1975: 67
  • 16 Norton, “Tasting Empire.”
  • 17 Antonio Lavedán, Tratado de los usos, abusos, propiedades y virtudes del tabaco, café, té y chocolate (1796; facs. ed., Madrid, 1991), 214.
  • 18 Norton, “Tasting Empire.”
  • 19 Deagan 141
  • 20 Deagan 142
  • 21 Deagan 143
  • 22 Penelope Casas. The Foods and Wines of Spain, Alfred A. Knopf: New York. 1982. (p. 52)
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