By Alex La Pierre
Photographs by Joy Godfrey
In the early 2000s, a piece of pottery was uncovered during archaeological investigations at the Presidio San Agustín del Tucson, a Spanish Colonial and later Mexican adobe fortress founded in 1776 on the frontier edge of New Spain. Once used as table settings for meals, this sherd of polychrome majolica ware had been produced in the central Mexican state of Puebla and emulated an Iberian style of painted tin-glazed pottery originally from Al-Andalus, or Islamic Spain. From production centers in Puebla, it likely travelled by mule train to arrive for use on the tables of this earthen fortification in the far north of the Spanish colony, now Arizona.
Following its archaeological recovery centuries later, this fragment of a decorated dish was placed on display at the fort museum, where it happened to catch the eye of a visitor from Saudi Arabia. They insisted the design on the pottery piece was Arabic script for “Allah.”
Homer Thiel, the presidio excavation’s archaeologist, was intrigued by this and sent a photograph of the sherd to various people in multiple Arabic-speaking countries; Turkish visitors to the exhibition were also consulted. Unanimously, these Arabic speakers confirmed the design was Arabic script for “God.” While the potters of majolica in colonial Mexico may not have realized the significance of the script design mimicked from Iberian examples, this tableware legacy represents an allegory of the subtle undercurrent of Moorish heritage in Mexican gastronomic culture.
Today, Mexican gastronomy is a UNESCO-recognized intangible heritage of humanity. The honored cuisine is a deep-rooted hybrid of cooking techniques and ingredients that resulted from the Columbian exchange between the cultures of Mesoamerica and the Iberian Peninsula.
Beyond great taste, gastronomy is a useful tool because it also functions as a time machine, a sociocultural thread that inherently links contemporary society to the past. Worldwide, the diversity of traditional cuisine is as much the expression of a region’s climatic and geographic features as it is a reflection of historical cultural hybridity. These developmental circumstances are projected into the future, carried from generation to generation like a language, and expressed on the plate as an alternative lens for historical analysis.
An ideal case study to consider the complexity of this process is the existence of foods and culinary techniques traditional to the Arab world within Mexican cuisine. This is an edible patrimony of the Spanish Colonial era in Mexico and the American Southwest and echoes Spain’s Islamic heritage transmitted across the Americas over three centuries.
The existence of Moorish influences within Mexico’s culinary identity as a result of Spanish colonization can be interpreted by looking further back into history during Spain’s formative medieval period. It was during this time that the reconquista, Roman Catholic Spain’s seven-century-long territorial struggle to retrieve the Iberian Peninsula from the colonization and control of Muslim North Africans and Arabs (frequently known collectively as the Moors), took place. This process began with the disembarkation of Islamic forces near Gibraltar in 711 and ended with the fall of the final Nasrid emirate outpost of Granada in 1492. The arrival of Islamic settlers from the Middle East and North Africa during this period resulted in the anchoring of lasting Eastern cultural roots in Iberia and the introduction and incorporation of new plants, dishes, and cooking techniques.
While the geopolitical lessons accrued over these centuries by the Iberian population served as a model for colonization by the next generation’s Spanish settlers in the Americas, the multicultural setting of this dynamic Medieval borderland also set a precedent for Iberian permeability in the adoption and synthesis of new cultural traits that occurred later in Mexico between the Indigenous peoples and Spanish settlers. Due to its privileged position as a frontier between the Western and Eastern worlds in Europe, Islamic Spain emerged as a crucible of foreign influences from North Africa and the Middle East imprinted over centuries, particularly in the development of the culinary arts.
As a result, homesick Iberian settlers of colonial Mexico not only emulated the tastes of their Christian grandfathers active in the reconquista, but also faithfully adhered to the culinary examples of Muslim ancestors in the planting of a new colonial society with gastronomic standards. Rather than one over the other, the foundation of Spanish culture exported to New Spain is directly rooted in this historical melding; a mestizaje. In this way, the Colonial-era incorporation of the gastronomy of Al-Andalus serves as an artifact for better understanding the historical role between food, religion, identity, and its far-reaching impact across the Atlantic in the cuisine of Mexico.
Many groups of Islamic adherence or influence inhabited Spain during the reconquest and post-reconquest periods. These people, known as mudejares, muladis, Moriscos, elches, mozarabes, nuevos cristianos, and conversos, heralded the Moorish flavors in Iberia that came to be exported to Colonial Spanish America. With over eight centuries of cultural interaction, these groups personified the diffusion and absorption of traditional Moorish culinary practices into Spanish culture.
Spanish Muslims remaining in Christian Spain after the completion of the conquest in 1492 transitioned to become known as Moriscos, nuevos cristianos, or conversos following widespread imposed Roman Catholic conversions. Although frequently segregated, these communities of different faiths living together would barter, sell, and share new culinary products as well as agricultural and cooking techniques and accompanying taboos. Furthermore, the entrenched Islamic heritage of Spain is even evident in the language, with nearly one out of every ten words in Spanish being of Arabic origin.
There are two ways to think about this influence of Islamic Spain’s cuisine on Mexico during the Colonial era. One is that this process was a result of baptized Moriscos or cristianos nuevos bringing traditional foodways across the Atlantic despite royal restrictions forbidding passage to anyone except Old Christians (Spaniards with documented long lineages of Roman Catholic faith). Extensive records prove that, indeed, there were Moriscos who clandestinely immigrated, founding frontier colonies in the New World.
Genetics or religious beliefs aside, one must also remember that the Spanish culture imported into the Americas was enduringly pre-colonized by the early Arab world. Arab and North African soldier-settlers who were enticed to colonize Spain introduced products from their homelands such as cuttings and seeds for agriculture. Spanish expansion in the Americas echoed Al-Andalus, long a flourishing epicenter of exchange and acculturation between European, Middle Eastern, and North African cultures.
Many Spanish colonists of today’s American Southwest and Mexico fell back upon the oasis cultures they inherited from the arid Arab lands in order to best manage the challenges of colonizing a desert landscape. One area in which this is particularly true is in the frontier regions of northern Mexico and particularly in the state of Nuevo León, an arid region resembling North Africa and the Middle East.
One clear example of this imported culture is the appearance and prevalence of the iconic wheat flour tortilla (instead of corn) in these regions. The northern Mexican wheat flour tortilla has drawn parallels to the arid land Arabic flatbreads by multiple Mexican historians, and its genesis is attributed to the region’s first Andalusian women colonizers. Spanish settlers found the dry regions of northern Mexico to be ideally fertile for planting and harvesting this wheat, first brought into Spain by the Moors in the tenth century. However, the most critical role this durum variety of wheat would later play for imperial Spain was as the base for hardtack, which sustained galleon passengers across the Atlantic travelling to the colonial world.
In Nuevo León, there is also a prevalence of traditional cuisine attributed to converso Jewish heritage. In the capital city of Monterrey, the most renowned local dish is undoubtedly the open fire, spit-roasted goat barbecue known as cabrito. It is a celebrated dish of northeastern Mexican identity, one that alludes to converso roots, and a clear opposite to the pork carnitas of central Mexico’s Michoacán state. It is important to note that many of these dishes attributed to the Jewish legacy in northeastern Mexico could also reasonably derive origin from Morisco or even Mozarabic influence.
A whole category of foods representing Morisco identity or association was made apparent by Spanish writers of the seventeenth century, the epoch bridging Islamic Spain and an overseas imperial Castilian Spain. These included olive oil, raisins, figs, tripe, goat, fritters, couscous, milk, fruits, and others. Despite these Islamic connotations, almost all of these foodstuffs later became essential ingredients of the Mexican pantry. A straightforward means for identifying foodstuffs introduced in the Islamic era of Spain is by tracing the the etymologies of the corresonding Spanish words. Some classic examples include the Arabic origins of words like arroz (rice; sounds like “orez” to an English speaker), azafran (saffron; sounds like “zagrani”), naranja (orange; sounds like “naranj”), and aceituna (olive; sounds like “zaytun”), among many others.
Raisins are a critical ingredient in the sweet-savory, Moroccan-reminiscent empanadas of New Mexico. Traditional Hispanic harbingers of the holiday season in the Southwestern state, these spiced mincemeat and pine nut-studded treats are frequently sold door-to-door alongside tamales in the communities of Northern New Mexico. The turnovers tend to be fried and not baked, another culinary technique borrowed from the Arab world.
Religious culinary restrictions of Spain’s Muslims also had indirect lasting impacts upon Mexican gastronomic culture. The pervasive presence of lard as a foundational cooking element in the traditional cuisine of Mexico is likely a relic of the era when food content became religiously weaponized following the final Christian conquest in 1492. This amounted to a campaign of frequent and ambitious pork and wine use (haraam for adherents of Islam) across the culinary landscape, but especially so in the newly acquired former Muslim territories like the Nasrid emirate of Granada; it was a brutal form of gastronomic colonization.
Despite the Greek or Roman origins of olive cultivation in Iberia, even the use of olive oil in place of lard was viewed with suspicion as a Morisco trait by Old Christians. Lard or pork became a handy tool of culinary demarcation for Iberians fearful of being considered cristianos nuevos or conversos, whose faith was viewed with great skepticism. Pork inclusion as a pointed religious signifier became as extreme as its incorporation in sweets such as the lard-based cookies known as mantecados.
Lope de Vega, one of Spain’s foremost writers of the Hapsburg golden age, mused upon the act of hanging salted pork parts such as the classic jamón serrano in clear view on one’s property as a reasonable method of distinguishing religious orthodoxy for doubtful authorities during the Inquisition. Bizarre as it sounds, even the act of publicly stating a loyalty to eating pork products was frequently used as a defense in inquisitorial judicial proceedings.
America’s most frequent encounter with an ancient preservation method from the Arab world is perhaps atop the classic Mexican-American dish of nachos. Jalapeños en escabeche, vinegar-pickled peppers, are a fascinating item in the Mexican culinary repertoire because they are reflective of the three cultures that resulted in their existence. Jalapeño chiles are a Mesoamerican product, but the process of turning them into a vinegar-based pickle is a preservation technique from the Moors. This useful process incorporated into the cooking skills of Iberia during the Islamic period was brought into Mexico by Spaniards beginning in the sixteenth century. The word escabeche etymologically betrays these Eastern roots, deriving from a Spanish linguistic corruption of the Persian sik baj, referring to a “vinegar stew” or an acid-based food.
Living in a world with electric-powered refrigeration and freezers, modern society feels far removed from reliance upon preservation techniques like escabeche to make infrequent but generous harvests, whether fruit off the tree or the slaughter of an animal, last longer. Indeed, escabeche in the Mexican kitchen is not only an accompanying relish but also a main dish. Composed typically of fish, chicken, or turkey, escabeche is a common main course in the Yucatán Peninsula, a region geographically closer to Havana than the capital of Mexico City and one of the first areas to be colonized only a few decades following the fall of Granada.
Fragrant of oregano and chile, the vermillion stew of hominy, hooves, and tripe known as menudo in Mexico and the American Southwest has almost reached cult status. Fans of the dish are quick to point out its curative qualities, known to counteract the severe headaches of hangovers.
In Mexico and the Southwest, consuming menudo constitutes a special gastronomic tradition that is separate from all other dishes as it is often reserved for celebrations. It customarily appears on tables on Sundays in restaurants, perhaps after Mass, or is crafted for special family occasions and holidays in home settings.
Menudo estilo Sonora is not the only stew from the northwestern Mexican state with distinct qualities and Morisco origins. The pozole of Sonora is also divergent from the common pork and hominy soup that’s served with radishes, cabbage, lime, and tostadas in central Mexico. Sonoran pozole de trigo is not made with a base of hominy but rather wheat berries and includes garbanzo beans, vegetables, and typically beef. Its appearance during the year coincides with the wheat harvest as well as an opportunity to honor the patron saint of agriculturalists, San Isidro, taking place May 15 in the Catholic calendar.
Tracing the lineage of the Sonoran pozole for origins on the other side of the Atlantic, we find the olla de trigo (wheat berry stew) of Andalusia, which strongly resembles an Iberian prototype dish. Similar to the Sonoran version, this vegetable and wheat stew, also with garbanzo beans and meats, is flavored with wild fennel instead of cilantro and is traditional to the province of Almeria, located along the southeastern coast of Andalusia. Slowly cooked in a clay pot, it is reminiscent of dishes from the arid lands of the Maghreb in Northern Africa.
Like pozole de trigo’s association with the agricultural patron saint of Madrid, San Isidro, the olla de trigo similarly has an association with San Anton or Saint Anthony Abad, on whose feast day it is customarily cooked. While this phenomenon of attribution of a Christian saint to a particular dish may be an innocent coincidence reflecting a convergence of the agricultural and religious calendar, it may also have been a tactic to assuage inquisitorial fears of the dishes associated with Islamic origins. Another plot twist to this story is recent scholarship pointing to the Muslim background of San Isidro. The birth of this patron saint of Madrid predated the Christian reconquest of Madrid from the control of Al-Andalus, and he was likely a converted mudejar. His name may be a Spanish corruption of a traditional Arabic name, Driss.
The classic Mexican-American restaurant combination plate is incomplete without the requisite red-tinged “Spanish rice.” The name alone betrays its Iberian origins, hinting at what many consider to be the national dish of Spain, paella. Despite the saffron-flavored rice’s distinct regionality to Mediterranean coastal areas of the country with a long history of Islamic rule, paella is representative of the soul of Spanish cookery. Records show that rice cultivation took place in Spain as far back as the tenth century, a mere two hundred years after the Moors made landfall on the Iberian Peninsula. Rice’s trajectory towards the New World can be traced to the Canary Island of La Gomera as early as the fifteenth century, the traditional refueling stop and transhipment point of fleets en route to the Americas, including for Christopher Columbus.
The earliest record of rice in Mexico mentions the transfer of a “small amount” or “sack of rice” from the port of Veracruz to Hernán Cortés in the Coyoacán district of today’s Mexican capital in 1522. By the 1570s, rice cultivation had taken root in Mexico and the grain was already being exported from Gulf of Mexico coastal plantations with reports of its suitability to the new lands.
As it is known in Mexican restaurants in the United States, Spanish rice is really a misnomer, given that it actually arrived in Iberia with Islamic colonizers who introduced the pilaf style of cooking rice; the oil-frying of the grains followed by the addition of a seasoned liquid and resulting absorption process of cooking. Rather than sharing a place on a combination plate beside beans and a protein, as is common in the United States, rice originally composed what was considered the separate sopa seca, or “dry soup” course to a traditional Mexican midday meal. This concept of eating meals in courses is best exemplified by Mexico’s midday comida corrida tradition. This practice originated with someone known as Ziryab, a prominent personality of Islamic Al-Andalus who, while exiled from Baghdad, introduced Arabic sociocultural concepts to this extreme edge of the Islamic world. Ziryab’s influence can be felt particularly in the Iberian culinary arts, from the order of the arrival of food to table, as mentioned, to the serving of drinks in glassware, notions initially brought by the gourmand to this frontier of Andalusia.
Rice in the form of a traditional summer drink, horchata, also has North African roots. Similar to paella, the Spanish origins of horchata stem from the Valencian coast, an area ideal for growing an underground tuber known as chufa or tiger nuts. This small, potato-like root crop is said to have been brought by the Moors beginning in the eighth century from an arid region of Sudan known as Chuf or Chufi. It continues to be the base for the Iberian version of the drink in horchaterías throughout Spain.
One theory on the source of the name horchata comes from reconquista folklore and highlights the process of gastronomic transition from the Islamic world to eventual acceptance into the Roman Catholic Iberian realm. Apparently, James I of Aragon, the thirteenth-century conqueror of Valencia, was offered the refreshing drink after battle by a local girl, to which the ruler proclaimed in antiquated Spanish: “Aixo es or, xata” (“This is gold, girl”).
However, tiger nut cultivation in Hispanoamerica seemingly never developed, and instead another Moorish introduction, rice with cinnamon, assumed the role in Mexico for producing one of the most iconic aguas frescas of Mexican cuisine. The humid shores of the Mexican Gulf states of Veracruz, Tabasco, and Campeche, where conquistadors first landed in the early sixteenth century, along with coastal Sinaloa on the Pacific side of the country, continue to account for the majority of the country’s rice production. In addition to this Moorish origin, there are scholars who attribute the entire class of beverages known in Mexico as aguas frescas as the Mexican descendants of the sharbat-flavored waters of the Arab world, or even of West Africa, where agua de tamarindo and agua de jamaica are known as dahkar and bissap.
One example of this Moorish confectionary genealogy exists in the American Southwest, where partaking in piping-hot pillows of fried dough known as sopaipillas is a traditional way to cap off a New Mexican meal. The sopaipilla is a culinary cornerstone of Southwestern cuisine, remarkable for its dual utility as both a meal-accompanying form of bread (that is even stuffable) and as a staple dessert covered in honey.
The sopaipilla medium of wheat flour and the deep-frying cooking technique are prime examples of both foreign material and immaterial culture arriving in the Southwest from Spain as a part of the Columbian exchange. Sopaipillas are likely the Southwestern descendent of the olive-oil-fried dough called sopaipas in the Andalusian city of Cordoba in southern Spain. During the early Spanish colonization of Mexico, the trade of fried wheat dough cooking was often associated with the Moriscos. Spanish Colonial settlers to New Mexico imported a late-Medieval food culture comprised of the post-reconquista tatters of a diverse convivencia between Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Its Iberian epicenter was in Cordoba, and this cultural mixing resulted in the gastronomic grandparent of sopaipillas: sopaipas cordobesas.
The origin of the sopaipilla can be traced even further back to the tenth century, where it appears as one of the recipes in the caliphal cookbook of Baghdad. The etymology of the word is revealed in the audible similarity of the Arabic word used to describe a fritter dunked in honey: zalabiya.
Now more than ever, with the recent designations of Tucson and San Antonio as World Cities of Gastronomy by the United Nations Creative Cities Network, it is important to identify the cultural commonalities that link us together across borders, beyond modern political boundaries, and that reveal shared diverse heritages. The culinary legacy of Al-Andalus present in the contemporary cuisines of Mexico points to a unique cultural impact across an ocean. This gastronomic footprint lends credence to the cliché of history repeating itself, first with the colonization of Iberian Peninsula by Islamic forces and later followed by the colonization of Mexico by the Spaniards—one just needs to look to the resulting gastronomies for corroborating evidence.
The cultural webs connecting these historical developments, as well as the inevitable mixing stemming from both situations, resulted in timeless and distinct cultural legacies. The resilience of these diverse traditions leave clues of the past that are frequently in edible form, perhaps served on a majolica plate.
Alex La Pierre is the program director for Border Community Alliance, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in Tubac, Arizona. BCA’s mission is bridging the border and fostering community through education, collaboration, and cultural exchange. He previously worked for the National Park Service at Tumacácori National Historical Park, Pecos National Historical Park, and Fort Union National Monument in the fields of historic preservation and interpretation.
Photographer Joy Godfrey has been a freelance photographer for almost 20 years, photographing for various publications, taking “out-of-the-box” portraits, and her favorite—photographing food and drinks. To see more of her work, visit joygodfreyphotography.com.