Food and language – my two passions
You may not know this about me, but I’m pretty into food. I guess you could call me a foodie. I studied food security in university and I now work for an organic produce distributor. And you know that I am also a language nerd, so when you put food together with language and culture I get very very excited.
In my last blog post I promised a post about Oaxacan food, but it turns out that it won’t fit in just one. I have decided to create the blog series “Oaxacan Food from A to Z” – some blog posts will cover foods that begin with one letter of the alphabet and others a section of letters, to showcase foods that are only found in Oaxaca (or that have a specific food culture in Oaxaca). I am excited to share the magic of Oaxacan gastronomic culture with you, and I hope that one day you can experience this rich food culture first hand.
Today we begin with the letter A – amaranto and asiento.
Another fact about me that you may not know is that I do not eat meat, and I can’t have gluten. Despite my dietary restrictions, I have never eaten better or felt healthier than I did while living in Oaxaca.
One of the major contributors to my diet there is amaranth (amaranto), a gluten free ancient grain that is high in protein, vitamins and minerals. The greens of the plant are also edible and they are very high in iron and other minerals, although less commonly eaten.
There are a number of organizations that work in Oaxaca and the south of Mexico to promote the cultivation, consumption and marketing of amaranth for both community sustainability and health. One such organization, Puente a la Salud Comunitaria promotes food security and does workshops in local communities about growing amaranth and other food crops.
In Oaxaca and around Mexico its most common use is in alegrias which are sweet bars made with puffed amaranth, honey and sometimes chocolate or seeds. The following video by Puente showcases a women’s cooperative that makes alegrias in the Mixteca region of Oaxaca.
The word asiento comes from the verb asentar meaning to settle and in Oaxaca it refers to the settled fat that can be obtained after frying and cooling pig lard (and is often a by-product of chicharrón). It has a very distinct flavour, and is an essential ingredient in memelas and tlayudas, a very small amount of this pig lard is spread on the corn tortilla and then followed by bean paste, cheese and other toppings.
A favourite snack in my wife’s family are embarradas (from the verb embarrar which in Mexico means ‘to spread’) and is literally just a tortilla or tlayuda (a large Oaxacan tortilla) with asiento. Being vegetarian I do not eat asiento so when everyone is eating embarradas I make myself un taco de sal (a warm tortilla with salt).
There is not a lot of information online about asiento, however I did find this description on Pruébalo in Spanish, explaining how Oaxacan communities began making and using asiento after the conquest with the consumption of more animal products.
In recent years a number of people have started to make asiento de ajonjolí out of sesame seeds as a healthier alternative. Last month at the Pochote market I asked the lady at my favourite memela stand how to make asiento with sesame seeds, thinking that maybe I could make it but it turns out that I would need a metate to grind the sesame seeds over a fire…which unfortunately does not seem possible in my Canadian kitchen.
Stay tuned for another post about Oaxacan food!