Spirulina or “Aztec cheese” is Mexico’s pre-Hispanic superfood
Anyone visiting Mexico City recently may have noticed spirulina popping up on every menu, from smoothies to traditional dishes like tortillas and tlayudas (crispy tortillas stuffed with refried beans and other toppings).
Centuries before it was considered a “superfood”, brightly colored cyanobacteria (or blue-green algae) growing in the lakes and warm alkaline ponds and rivers of central Mexico were a staple of the pre-Hispanic diet.
The Aztecs harvested protein-rich food from the surface of Lake Texcoco. The waters of the lake had the perfect balance of salinity and alkalinity for spirulina to thrive. The Aztecs called it “tecuitlatl” (“stone excrement”).
Tecuitlatl, an ancient Mexican food
Legends say that Aztec messengers and runners ate dried spirulina with corn, tortillas, and beans on long journeys. Spirulina contains 60-70% protein and contains essential amino acids, iron, manganese, and vitamins.
This was strange to the Spanish conquistadors. In 1568, Bernal Díaz del Castillo wrote about a kind of bread made from mud or silt collected from the surface of a lake and consumed in a way that tastes like cheese.
The world rediscovered this nutritious ingredient in the 1940s when a French psychologist studying the seaweed noticed some ethnic group of Lake Chad in Africa was harvesting spirulina and turning it into dried loaves.
In the 1960s, the owners of the Sosa Texcoco Company, which was producing soda ash and calcium chloride in a large pond on the remains of Lake Texcoco, noticed a weird green substance that was ruining the work.
The owners of the Sosa Texcoco Company approached French researchers, who concluded that the found green substance was the same organism that had fed the inhabitants of the African Lake Chad region for generations.
In Mexico City, chefs are getting even more and more creative, adding spirulina to tlayuda topped with avocado and escamole (ant larvae) or using it to add a touch of green to smoothie bowls cheesecakes, and even cocktails.
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