You could say that the Aztecs were the original vegans, or almost (among other ancient cultures). At the very least, they ate as healthy a diet as anything that one might aspire to today and no dairy (this was introduced to Mexican cuisine by the invading Spaniards), no meat, just wild turkey (cows, sheep and goat also introduced by Europeans). The original Mexican cuisine was that of the Aztecs and Mayans, replete with recipes using corn (maiz), beans, chocolate and just a little later, tomatoes, chiles, mushrooms,vanilla, avocado, papaya, pineapple, squash, sweet potato, peanuts, fish and turkey and herbs. These ingredients are still the foundation of so much that is Mexican cooking. In fact, more people are preparing foods that are traditionally served today in many Mexican homes, and find themselves following a very healthy diet. Under each food group, you’ll find a link to recipes incorporating these ingredients (from Tres Señoritas Gourmet), each with local shopping resources in the Mission district for stocking your Mexican pantry.
- Tortillas are inherently lower carb/calorie than bread and consumption, as well as innovation, is on the uprise. “As Americans’ definition of wellness has evolved to become more nuanced, tortilla brands have innovated formulas to include everything from omega-3 fatty acids to whole grains to fiber to low sodium”, says David Browne, senior analyst at market research firm Mintel. “The challenge for the sector, however, is that some of these offerings simply don’t taste as good as traditional tortillas…. A reduced sodium tortilla might taste less savory, and multigrain or whole wheat can be heartier, but many of these applications do not have drastic effects on taste. Consumers are accepting these changes for the health benefits.” says Browne, in fact, half of adults say they have eaten flour tortillas during the past month, while 39 percent have eaten corn tortillas, according to a February 2011 custom Mintel consumer survey. For more on How to heat tortillas, and What to do with leftover tortillas (they do come in huge bags!), follow links.
Avocados are rich in oleic acid, which has been shown to lower “bad” cholesterol. They are also full of vitamin K and a good source of potassium. (Note- this is true of real avocado instead of the processed guacamole found in many American-style Mexican restaurants). Here’s a link for making great guacamole.
- Beans are a great source of protein and fiber, and certain types provide antioxidant benefits. (Again- not the greasy type served at Taco Bell). To learn how to make clay-pot beans, and what to do with the leftovers, click here.
- Chiles contain an ingredient called capsaicin, which boasts anti-inflammatory and pain-relief qualities. Chilies also have cardiovascular benefits (they aid in lowering bad cholesterol), and they are high in vitamins A and C. Here’s a simple recipe using Poblano Chiles and corn.
- Corn is a staple in traditional Mexican cooking and it has amazing health qualities. Corn is high in folate and vitamins B and C, and is a good source of dietary fiber. It is a heart-healthy food that aids in digestion and can help stabilize blood sugar levels. Try corn tortillas with dinner in place of bread rolls.
- Tomatoes- Mexican food is famous for salsa, no matter which region you are visiting, and fortunately, tomatoes are the main ingredient. Tomatoes are rich in potassium and vitamins C and A, and they include lycopene, which is an antioxidant that has cancer-fighting properties.
Be aware that what we are talking about is not American-style Mexican food, which is usually high in fat, sodium and calories, and it uses less of the fresh, nutrient-packed ingredients that traditional Mexican food includes. According to website AskMen, “Americans have super-sized and super-fattened nearly every dish that we consider Mexican today — in fact, many Mexican dishes were created in the U.S., so they don’t even exist south of the border”. Their research includes the following rather discouraging information:
Chipotle’s: Beef Burrito –1,026 calories and 46 grams of fat.
Baja Fresh: Steak quesadilla –1,450 and 86 grams of fat.
Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill: Carne Asada Taco with rice and beans — 710 calories and 22 grams of fat.
Mind you, if you make any of these dishes at home, the fat and calories count will be any where from 25% (first two items, above) or half for Carne Asada, rice and beans.