Gifts from Mexico: Essential Ingredients from Pre-Hispanic Mexico

Can you picture a world where there are no tomatoes? They add flavor to salsas, pastas, and other dishes, or you can eat them raw in a delicious salad. And what about corn? Maize is one of the most important crops in the world and, the same as today, it was an important part of the Prehispanic diet and cultural development of Mesoamerican people before the Spanish arrived. Maize is high in fiber and a good source of protein.

Hundreds of plant species, flowers, and fruits that grew on Mexican territory are now used in many parts of the world. Other countries' cuisines would not be what they are today without these ingredients. That's why in today's blog, we talk about pre-Hispanic foods that live on in Mexican kitchens and are essential for creating Mexican dishes. Let's not waist time and jump in!

Mexico has gifted the world with numerous foods: annatto, avocado, amaranth, peanut, cocoa, pumpkin, sweet potato, capulin cherry, chayote, chia, sapodilla, chile, chipilin, cherimoya, epazote, ant eggs, beans, turkey, soursop, jicama, tomato, agave, corn, mamey, nance, prickly pear cactus, pitahaya, hawthorn, vanilla, and sapote. However, today we want to focus on the essentials for Mexican cuisine, starting, of course, with the sacred Corn.


Corn is one of the most important foods we eat and it was a sacred crop for Pre-Hispanic people. Even though it has been domesticated and grown for thousands of years, Maize was the first crop that people in the Americas grew and raised. You can find it in almost every Mexican dish (or at least, our favorite ones): from tlacoyos and tamales to tacos, esquites, gorditas, quesadillas, sopes, and even pozole and huatape.


Chile was paramount for ancient civilizations in Mexico. For instance, in cities like Teotihuacán, Tula, and Monte Albán, traces of extensive chile consumption have been discovered among their inhabitants. The Aztecs created a culture around chiles; many of its components are still around today. But the exact place where chile was first grown as a domesticated crop is not a point but a region: the central-eastern part of Mexico, from south of Puebla to north of Oaxaca and southeast of Veracruz. Chile, or "chili" in Nahuatl, has been a part of Mesoamerican cultures for a long time. Today, it has become a staple of Mexican cuisine, perhaps an element that distinguishes us from other Latin American dishes. 


Beans, also known as frijoles, are essential on Mexican tables, present in most Mexican snacks, such as sopes, panuchos, tlacoyos, and, of course, enfrijoladas. Together with chile and maize, they form the immaculate trifecta of the Mexican diet. Besides their countless nutritiuous benefits, they're also central in many famous dishes like frijoles puercos or charro beans.


The tomato is one of the most widely used fruits in international cuisine, essential for kitchens like Italian and Mexican. While its origin stretches from Mexico to South America, its domestication occurred in no other place than in Mexico. The Aztecs and other Mesoamerican cultures used tomatoes in their cuisine long before the arrival of Spanish colonizers.


Can't stop thinking about a tasty guacamole... Avocado is one of the best things that pre-Hispanic food brought to the rest of the world, and I don't think we need to say much more than that when mentioning the delicious taste that a piece of avocado brings to any dish. As if its flavor wasn't enough, avocado is the perfect food because it controls lipids, which lowers the risk of heart attacks and stops fat from building up. It also has Omega 3, vitamins A, C, D, E, K, and the B complex. Today, avocado thrives in Mexico and has become a global culinary phenomenon.


It's easy to forget that cacao was used in food in pre-Columbian Mexico. Cacao has been an important part of Mexican culture for a very long time. During the time before the Spanish came, it was used as currency, as medicine for different illnesses, and as the primary ingredient in ceremonial beverages. Today, this precious bean can be used to make numerous products, the most important and well-known of which is chocolate. Today, cocoa derivatives are used in products like cosmetics and medicines. Cocoa is used in modern Mexican kitchens to make things like hot chocolate and mole sauce, which is a rich, tasty sauce.

Chewing Gum

Chewing gum was in use in Mexico before the arrival of the Spaniards. The original and natural gum, which led to the development of the industry, comes from the sap extracted from the sapodilla tree, mainly found in the Yucatán Peninsula. Chicle (From the Nahuatl word "tzictli") was used by the Maya to freshen breath before rituals, quench thirst during dry spells, and increase saliva production.


This familiar flavor in sweets, desserts, and distinctive sweet aroma in perfumes comes from the exotic pods of the Vanilla planifolia plant, also known as ixtlilxóchitl (black flower). It's an endemic orchid of Mexico, cultivated since pre-Hispanic times in the Totonac region of northern Veracruz and Puebla. Today, Mexican vanilla is regarded as one of the most precious ones and is used in the making of ice creams, cakes, bread, cookies, chocolates, drinks, liquors, and in the creation of the most traditional Mexican sweets and desserts like our favorite: arroz con leche.

Nopal (Prickly Pear Cactus)

Nopal has always been a part of the everyday Mexican diet and represents more than just food. It's associated with the foundation of our territory and is even depicted on the Mexican flag. It's not only rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals but also delicious and an essential ingredient in many dishes. (Want a recipe? look no further than here).

Maguey (Agave)

Maguey is a succulent plant native to Mexico. The maguey was used in many ways by the people of Mesoamerica in the past. They used the stalks to build the walls and floors of their homes. Later, they used the pencas to cover roofs and walls. They also used them to carry water, make plates, make paper for books, and decorate their gods. Today, it famous for the various alcoholic beverages it makes like mezcal, tequila, and pulque. It's also used in cooking, such as in mixiote, and the leaves (pencas) are used as fodder for animals.


Chia, or Salvia Hispanica as it is known in the scientific community, is a plant that has been cultivated by the Aztecs since before Hernan Cortés arrived in Mexico. Although its use diminished significantly, lately it has been "rediscovered" as a superfood, highlighting its nutritional benefits which has helped propel it to prominence in the Western diet.


So, returning to our original question, can you imagine your favorite dishes without these ingredients? Mexican cuisine has developed and evolved in different periods, offering an explosion of flavors, colors, and seasonings to satisfy all kinds of palates. The next time you sit down to a meal and discover any of these flavors in your food, take a moment to honor the memory and creativity of our ancestors, from whom we've inherited a diverse and fascinating cuisine.

Tell us, which one of these ingredients is the most essential one for you? Is there one which origin surprised you? Let us know your thoughts about this list and which one you would like to learn more about; we love reading your comments! 


We invite you to explore our mercadito, where you can shop authentic artisanal crafts and other wonders filled with culture and symbolism from Mexico! From home décor, stunning textiles, kitchenware, shoes, candy, and sterling silver, we continue to grow our hand-picked selection of Mexican crafts! And don't forget to subscribe if you'd like to stay on the loop for these and many more interesting content and special discounts!

Mexican food & authentic recipes


Mercedes Garcia

Mercedes Garcia

I never realized that so many of today’s foods date back to our ancestors. I love to read your blogs , I learn so much from them. I would like to know more about the Maguey. I remember my grandparents talking about this plant. I also would like to learn more about Chia. Thank you



Great article…….have your read the book Indian Givers? If not, you’ll LOVE it.

Leave a comment