In celebration of Mexico’s Dia de la Independencia (September 16), we asked famed chef & restaurateur Zarela Martinez to share some of the history of peanuts in Mexican culture and cuisine, as well as some of her favorite recipes.
Guest post by Zarela Martinez with Anne Mendelson
Food photography by Stephen Klise and food styling by Elle Simone Scott (unless otherwise noted)
“Me importa un cacahuate” – “it means a peanut to me” – is the Mexican way of telling someone “I could care less.” But whoever invented the saying obviously didn’t know how much the humble peanut means to Mexican cooks.
It’s true that unlike corn, chiles, and some of our other traditional foods, peanuts aren’t rooted in the pre-Hispanic cuisines of indigenous peoples like the Aztecs and Maya. They didn’t reach Mexico until the age of Spanish colonial rule. But they’ve more than made up for it since. The smell of peanuts roasting on large comales (griddles) fills our marketplaces. We nibble them plain when we go to the circus. We also eat peanuts as savory or sweet snacks, or freshly ground into rich-textured sauces, or candied with sugar in a heavy pan (garapiñados). They’ve become a full-flavored substitute for pecans in polvorones, the buttery shortbreads sometimes called “Mexican wedding cookies.” We even enjoy them in frozen ices and punches.
All this bounty has a bitter side in Mexico’s colonial history. Peanuts reached “New Spain” during the first wave of the heinous trade that kidnapped African people and enslaved them to work on New World sugar plantations. Portuguese explorers had originally found the peanut plant growing in South America and carried it to West Africa. Europeans couldn’t understand the concept of “nuts” like peanuts that grow underground instead of in trees. But African peoples at once adopted the peanut as a flavorsome stand-in for their “groundnuts,” a similar but starchier legume. Peanuts became so ingrained in African culture that they were a common ration for newly enslaved Africans on slave ships. Sometimes it was the only thing they had to eat for the whole voyage.
In research travels several decades ago for my book Zarela’s Veracruz, I marveled at the skilled use of peanuts throughout the state and its eponymous port city. My favorite recipe of all is a peanut-enriched version of the ubiquitous chile-and-garlic table sauce called salsa macha. (It was new to me then, but now I find it becoming trendy in US Mexican restaurants!) But I also fell in love with local moles where peanuts play a role in complex combinations of nuts and fruits, or simpler peanut-based sauces to be eaten with braised chicken or pork.
Don’t think, however, that the love of peanuts is limited to Veracruz. Over time, they spread from coast to coast of “New Spain” because of the same qualities discovered by the enslaved. The almonds and walnuts known to the Spanish invaders were tree nuts that had to be planted and tended for years before they started bearing, while peanuts could be harvested in four or five months. The oil content made them richly satisfying with the simplest roasting on a griddle. No wonder they became a favorite street snack all over Mexico, commonly called botana de cacahuates. Every town zócalo (plaza) has its peanut vendor selling some version from a cart, freshly roasted or quick-fried and usually filled into newspaper cones. Chiles in some form always go with them. The combination of peanut flavor and chile heat is magical, whether it’s a dusting of ground chiles over each serving or a scattering of tiny dried chiles roasted or fried along with the nuts. To me the best of all versions is one that I encountered long ago in Oaxaca. The peanuts and chiles are cooked together with whole garlic cloves and finished off with coarse salt and fresh lime juice.
More help in popularizing peanuts across Mexico came from the many convents that the Spanish founded throughout the colony while they were trying to convert indigenous peoples to Christianity. Spanish “convent sweets” had been famous for centuries. They were actually a legacy of the Moors who had brought sugar and almonds to Spain. Since almonds were an expensive luxury in New Spain, the resourceful nuns began finely grinding peanuts to mix with sugar and work into a new version of marzipan, the multi-purpose almond paste that is used to form a hundred different decorative shapes in European confectionery. Today people in every state love commercial brands of mazapan de cacahuate – but it’s almost shockingly easy to make at home from peanuts and confectioner’s sugar.
No exploration of peanuts in Mexican cuisine and culture should fail to note their marriage with the distilled cane liquor – aguardiente – made in all parts of Latin America where sugar plantations were founded. This brings me back to Veracruz, where I first tasted the addictive local drink called toritos. To be authentic, it must be made with a combination of evaporated and condensed milk – remember, canned milk was universally loved in the Latin American tropics before anyone had refrigerators – and smooth rather than grainy peanut butter. These are all blended with the aguardiente and a touch of vanilla, which happens to be a native Veracruzan specialty. Served cold, the innocent-tasting creaminess of toritos conceals a powerful kick.
These examples barely hint at the uses that inventive Mexican cooks have found for peanuts. I keep finding surprises. Just recently I was having brunch at a popular café in Oaxaca when I was blown away by the chef’s take on “avocado toast” – a large, sturdy toasted roll piled around the edges with guacamole and hollowed out to accommodate a version of salsa macha unfamiliar to me, lavishly studded with whole peanuts that had been imbued with the haunting piquancy of local smoked chiles. For some reason, peanuts always seem to bring out something new and original in Mexicans’ creative culinary imagination.
As part of our commemoration of Día de la Independencia de México 2021, Peanut Butter & Co. has made a donation to Smithsonian Latino Center.