A recent trip to the Mexican supermercado in my home city recently had me imagining the lives of ancient Mesoamerican people.
At the checkout aisle, I made an impulse buy, but it wasn’t the “harmful” kind which homemakers’ magazines often warn us about. I bought a disc of toasted amaranth grains bound with honey; it was the size of my outstretched palm. I thought it would make a good snack, just like so-called energy bars.
I made the purchase in the interest of history: the amaranth intrigued me, and since the brand of the product was “Tolteca,” I also decided then and there to do some research on the Toltec people.
What is amaranth? It’s a tiny, ancient pseudograin, the size of a grain of sand. The seeds are borne by a plant about four feet high, and looking like this:
The word amaranth is from the Greek amarantos, which means “unfading.” The plant self-seeds and therefore comes back year after year. It is now found in many countries with warm climates, whether year-round or only on certain months. It is considered a weed in certain areas.
There are many species of amaranth; leaf and flower colors range from red to green. Besides the seeds, Aztecs also ate the young leaves. This plant product is also consumed in modern times in the Philippines, India, Malaysia, China, and various countries in Africa. Amaranth has been hailed as a food for the future due to its ease of cultivation and the high nutritional content of both seeds and leaves.
Aztecs of pre-Columbian Mexico called it huauhtli and consumed it in such great quantities that it represented majority of their daily caloric intake. It was important not only to their daily lives, but it also figured in their religious rituals. Each December, they honored their god Huitzilopochtli, named after the hummingbird that fed on amaranth flowers. Amaranth fell into disuse after their Spanish conquerors reportedly outlawed cultivation of the plant.
Who were the Toltecs? Why is this “new” old snack named after them?
The Toltecs were a predecessor culture to the Aztecs, who interacted with the Spanish adventurers of the 16th century. The Toltec center of activity was Tula, which is north of modern-day Mexico City.
Aztecs considered the Toltecs as the peoples who bequeathed them great intellectual and cultural riches. Note here the latter’s temple ruins in Tula.
Aztecs described the way of life in Tula as the height of civilization. This reverence could be the reason for the choice of “Tolteca” as the brand for this beloved treat of amaranth grain mixed with honey.