Mystery is the lure of the ancient past. It’s foggy, obscure—it’s a world that’s out-of-reach, and something that we can never fully know. But there are windows that illuminate the secrets of ancient civilizations. Food is often a window.
In the ancient past, traditional foodways were a staple of the Aztec community. Today, foodways—which are the intersection of food in culture, traditions, and history—continue to solidify Tucson’s community and identity. Traditional Mexican foodways also continue to
remind us of Arizona’s extraordinary culture and rare history.
It’s crazy to think that there is a connection between what was eaten in the Aztec’s prehispanic world with the Mexican food that’s eaten today. Seriously, it’s been thousands of years, and Mexican food is still very much based in a traditional Aztec diet (of course it’s evolved, but still). How?! No doubt it’s the tastiness of those ancient ingredients.
The primary ingredients of traditional Mexican food include corn, beans, and chiles—all foods that the Aztecs easily cultivated in their gardens. Simple, hearty, flavorful. The Aztecs definitely did food right. Squash, tomatoes, limes, avocados, and potatoes were also staples of the Mexicas (people of the Aztec Empire). We see these ingredients in many Mexican dishes today. But contemporary Mexican food is obviously very different from the Aztec diet… so, what changed?
Well, thousands of years of history might have something to do with it.
The Aztecs had over 3,000 years of established agricultural systems and dietary habits, then boom! The Conquistadors arrived. Naturally (or unnaturally, however you want to look at it), a major shift in those practices occurred. I.e., when the Spanish invaded Tenochtitlan (the Aztec capital) in 1521, they also brought their European diet. The Mexicas were introduced to chicken, beef and pork, cheese, garlic and onions, and rice. Of course these ingredients were mixed in with the typical Aztec cuisine, and are now considered some key additions to traditional Mexican food.
One of the few places in the U.S. to find authentic, traditional Mexican food is in Arizona (particularly Tucson, given its rich foodways history). Calle Tepa is one place you kind find various traditional Mexican dishes that incorporate some basic Aztec staples, and key ingredients introduced by the Spanish. From calabacitas to tacos, our menu pays homage to Mexican food’s layered and complex history.
Did someone say “tacos”?
Tacos literally encapsulate the mix of typical Aztec cuisine and Spanish staples. The Mexicas graced the world with tortillas. Typically, they were made of ground corn (aka masa) and used as a utensil (the Aztecs would spread beans on them or used as a spoon for stews). Tortillas are still used as a utensil (um, cool). A taco is simply a tortilla folded around a filling. You can thank the Conquistadors for those fillings, since they are often meat. Carne asada, barbacoa, chicken asada, chicken adobada, carnitas, and chili verde are some of the traditional choices. What’s a taco without toppings? Yes to fresh cilantro and juicy pico de gallo! Do you hear the tacos calling