Dine Like an Aztec Emperor

Photo: Palacio de Hierro


It is said that when Moctezuma II, Mexico’s last great Mexica (Aztec) emperor, would dine with his entourage of administrators, warrior chiefs, wives, concubines, prodigies and other assorted cohorts, there would always be at least 180 dishes prepared by his army of chefs for the occasion.

Photo: Palacio de Hierro

A voracious eater who allegedly coveted such culinary delicacies of the time as art-larvae soup and tadpole tacos, Moctezuma believed in gastronomic variety and epicurean creativity, and his kitchen staff was always ready to oblige (especially since, according to some accounts, he also liked the taste of human flesh and they didn’t want to end up on the menu as a side course).

That little detail aside, despite some assumptions that ancient Aztec cuisine might have been drab and uninviting, early Spanish conquistadores’ accounts suggest that the Mexica upper classes dined both lavishly and with great distinction on a plethora of tasty delights.

It is with the goal of trying to recreate and revitalize the delicious royal banquets of pre-Hispania that chefs and culinary historians Oscar Segundo, a native of the western Mexican state of Jalisco, and Xrysw Ruelas, from the State of Mexico, set out to investigate traditional ingredients and cooking styles employed across Mesoamerica before the arrival of Hernán Cortés.

After more than six years of diligent research and hands-on study with some of Mexico’s indigenous communities, the couple has recreated their own interpretations of some of the most tempting and ambrosial dishes that pre-Columbian chefs would have set before their king.

On Tuesday, June 21, the newly opened Zubieta gourmet restaurant inside the Palacio de Hierro Coyoacán dining arcade, launched an exclusive summer-long festival of Segundo and Ruelas’ most exquisite creations, with a sumptuous sampling of haute cuisine dishes fit for an Aztec emperor.

Photo: Palacio de Hierro

The festival, which will run through the end of August, includes a range of native delights, faithfully reproduced as they might have been served in the late 1400s and early 1500s.

“Of course, we had to make some substitutions because of the unavailability of certain ingredients (and, no doubt, to accommodate 21st century palates),” said Segundo during a press preview of the Zubieta menu.

“But we have tried to use the same cooking methods and food-preparation techniques that were used in the times of the Aztecs.”

The pre-Columbian menu at Zubieta is limited, but very delectable, with a surprising array of flavors and aromas that are as enticing today as they must have been when served in the hallowed halls of Tenochtitlan.

First up is a dish with the unassuming name of diversidad de frijoles (bean diversity).

But if the moniker of this plate is diffident, its contents are anything but.

Crafted out of four different varieties of Mexican legumes and flavored with a hint of smoked sausage, frangipani flower foam and pinto bean butter, this dish a symphony of lush, velvety salaciousness.

Ruelas pointed out that Mexico has more than 240 native varieties of beans, and the Aztecs were great connoisseurs when it came to distinguishing between the subtle differences in texture and flavor of these different species.

The starter dish being presented during the Zubieta festival includes a meticulously layered combination of white, yellow and black beans that each impart a unique essence to the finished product.

Photo: Palacio de Hierro

Perhaps for us lowly, non-regal, non-Aztec mortals, this dish offers a first-time experience in differentiating between the subtle but palpable variances of these different beans.

Next on the menu is a ceremonial taco, which, as the name implies, was consumed by the Mexica during special occasions.

And, no, there are no tadpoles to be found wrapped in the plump, golden, handcrafted tortilla that is the base of this taco.

Instead, it was stuffed with wild watercress, broiled black beans, toasted pumpkin seeds and cotija cheese — a true vegetarian delight!

And to give it a stamp of monarchial refinement, the bottom of each tortilla bears a blue-corn emblem of Aztec images.

For a main course, you can choose between a white fish fillet wrapped in a maguey cactus skin and grilled over a bed of coals with fresh vegetables and a spicy red-pepper adobo sauce or a braised pork rib in a deep-green coriander, ginger and lemongrass pipian (ground pumpkin seed) sauce.

But there were no coriander, ginger and lemongrass in pre-Columbian Mexico, you say, and you are right.

However, as Ruelas explained, Moctezuma’s favorite dish was pipian, and although he didn’t live long enough to witness it happen (the Spanish conquerors whacked him shortly after they took his empire), one of the first things that the colonists installed was a complex trade route to Asia through the Pacific.

With that trade came Eastern traditions and cookery ingredients that were almost immediately incorporated into native Mexican gastronomy, creating one of the world’s earliest fusion cuisines.

Photo: Palacio de Hierro

So while Moctezuma may never have had the chance to savor lemongrass- and ginger-infused pipian (nor probably did his two short-lived successors, who were more ornamental in nature than majestic), but some early descendants of his great empire no doubt did enjoy the spectacular flavors of East-meets-Mexica cuisine.

And with that justification, and the fact that the recipe for the Asian-style pipian is so mouthwatering that who cares if it is authentically pre-Hispanic, the Ruelas and Segundo duo have added it to their carte du jour.

For dessert, the couple take another leap of authenticity, creating an azure spirulina, salmon roe and pulque (cactus moonshine) ice cream sprinkled with crumbled corn merengue cookies.

Yeah, Moctezuma didn’t have a freezer, so he couldn’t have had ice cream, but at the Zubieta culinary time-machine, such little technical details don’t really matter.

Bottom line: The pre-Columbian menu is fantastic and, even if there are a few historic incongruencies, it is definitely worth trying.

More information:

Zubieta is located on the third floor of the Palacio de Hierro store in the Mitikah shopping mall in Mexico City’s Colonia Coyoacán. Reservations are recommended and parking is available inside the shopping mall complex.


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