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/ARTS WEEKLY/CULTURE: Mexican Food Vying for World Cultural Heritage

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Oct 11 2005 (IPS) - Mexican cuisine is such an integral part of the country’s centuries-old cultural traditions that the government believes it should be included on UNESCO’s list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

With the enthusiastic endorsement of cultural authorities, tourism representatives, food experts and social activists, Mexico submitted the country’s traditional cuisine for the consideration of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), based on the conviction that it is a unique cultural tradition that should be preserved and shared with the rest of the world.

UNESCO will make its third proclamation of intangible heritage masterpieces on Nov. 25, after a panel of 19 experts has evaluated the candidacies submitted by Mexico and other countries.

A total of 47 masterpieces were designated in the first two proclamations, made in 2001 and 2003.

While those promoting Mexico’s candidacy expressed optimism, they recognised that they are facing a challenge, since this is the first time that a country has nominated its national cuisine as an example of intangible cultural heritage.

“I think it’s an excellent initiative, and I hope it is successful, so that people will become more aware of the importance of our ancient and traditional cuisine and its indigenous heritage,” said Fortino Rojas, the chef at Don Chon, a Mexico City restaurant specialising in pre- Hispanic dishes.

Mexico’s application to UNESCO stresses that in addition to the foods themselves, the recipes to prepare them and food-related customs, Mexico is home to “a complex cultural system of agricultural practices, traditions and symbolisms imbued with religious meaning and steeped in ritual.”

It notes that corn, which is native to the area now occupied by Mexico and is a staple of the local diet, “is linked to the creation myths of Mesoamerica, the harmonious management of the environment, and centuries- old expressions of social ties: festivities, calendars for sowing and harvesting, funerary uses and other indigenous customs that provide for nutritional balance and an enormous variety of characteristic dishes.”

Mexican cuisine is “concept and practice, simultaneously traditional and groundbreaking, profoundly original, and preserved throughout hundreds of years,” states the application.

The government of President Vicente Fox believes that UNESCO recognition would contribute to fostering national identity, educational programmes focusing on national cuisine, and the preservation of native plant species and indigenous traditions.

These goals are backed by campesino (peasant farmer) activist groups and environmentalists, who consider the defence of culinary elements like corn as fundamental to Mexico’s national identity.

The future of this traditional staple food crop is currently threatened with contamination by genetically modified strains imported from the United States, they maintain.

Innumerable dishes are made with corn, which has been raised in Mexico for over 9,000 years, including the flatbread known as the tortilla that accompanies almost every meal.

“We face an enormous threat from junk food and other foreign foods that are taking over our culture, which is why UNESCO could help greatly by supporting our traditional cuisine,” Rojas told IPS.

At the restaurant where he works, in Mexico City’s historic centre, Rojas prepares dishes that date back to pre-Hispanic Aztec indigenous culture, with ingredients like crickets, “escamoles” (ant larvae), iguana, field rat and chrysanthemums.

He laments the fact that city-dwelling Mexicans have become increasingly accustomed to fast food and largely turn up their noses at traditional dishes based primarily on insects, roots and herbs. “Lots of protein and very low in fat,” he stressed.

Rojas and Don Chon have earned numerous national culinary awards for creations like chrysanthemums stuffed with escamoles in guava sauce.

The restaurant, a Mexico City landmark for over 30 years, offers a wide range of unconventional menu selections including iguana, armadillo, deer, puma, badger, frog, snake and even “xoloitzcuintle”, a dog bred by the ancient Aztecs.

Patrons can also sample roasted crickets, a popular appetiser, “ahuahuatles” (fly larvae), or tacos prepared by stuffing a corn tortilla flatbread with “huitlacoche”, a fungus that grows on corn and is considered a plant disease in other countries.

“Beyond the merely culinary aspect,” Mexican cuisine is a “focal point of our national identity” and a “cultural system” whose roots reach back thousands of years, the government’s application to UNESCO highlights.

The Mexican ambassador to the U.N. agency, Pablo Latapí, said that the declaration of Mexican cuisine as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity “would serve as a basis for those of other countries to receive similar recognition.”

In Latin America, this designation has already been granted to the carnivals of Oruru, Bolivia and Barranquilla, Colombia, the Day of the Dead festivities in Oaxaca, Mexico, and the oral traditions of the Wajapi indigenous ethnic group of Brazil and the Zápara of Ecuador, among other cultural traditions in the region.

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