In Mexico, Indigenous recipes are improving backyard farming

A new cookbook reignites pride in tradition, native seeds and sense of place

Women and their families present their traditional recipes at a community cook-off in Chiapas state, Mexico. Kevin Ferrara, DAI
15 October 2019
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This article was contributed by Rare in celebration of World Food Day 2019.

In southern Mexico, foods like chipilín (leafy greens), chayote (mirliton squash), yerba santa (sacred herbs) and maize (corn) used to convey poverty. But for the 200 women of the Cárdenas community within Chiapas state’s Cintalapa municipality, they now conjure feelings of pride.

These fruits and herbs, endemic to southern Mexico, historically formed an essential part of traditional diets in the small farming village. But over time, growing and eating these foods grown in backyards became undesirable, seen among locals merely as what a poor person had access to. But an Indigenous cookbook is changing the women’s beliefs and perceptions about what it means to embrace and preserve their culinary heritage.

“I am 93 years old. Sharing my recipe is the most beautiful thing that has happened to me,” says Consuelo Santos Cruz.

The cookbook, Recetario Colonia Agrícola General Lázaro Cárdenas (Recipe Book for the Cárdenas community), was published in mid-2019 and comprises 48 recipes, each submitted by a community member. Created by and for the community, it is a first-of-its-kind and serves many purposes.

It’s a resource that promotes traditional and typical cooking methods, ingredients, and dishes—recipes that have been in families for many generations but weren’t being passed down any longer.

It’s a physical manifestation of pride in cultural heritage, with each recipe naming its author and spotlighting Indigenous crops.

And it’s a visual tool that normalizes the use of agroecology and native seeds within the community, alerting smallholder farmers to the benefits and beauty of more sustainable agricultural practices.

“Chipilín mole is traditional in our town. I felt proud to see it in the recipe book. I felt just like a professional chef,” says Aurora Gálvez Cruz.

Consuelo, one of Lazaro Cardenas’s female elders, holds the cookbook. With the cookbook, women hope to pass on their knowledge about using traditional plants to the next generation. Kevin Ferrara, DAI
Consuelo, one of Lazaro Cardenas’s female elders, holds the cookbook. With the cookbook, women hope to pass on their knowledge about using traditional plants to the next generation. Kevin Ferrara, DAI

The cookbook was the brainchild of the Mexican nonprofit Desarollo Alternativo e Investigación A.C. (DAI), which works to improve the lives and soils of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Chiapas state by promoting traditional agricultural systems, crop diversification, agroecology and native seeds. Maintaining the ubiquity of traditional knowledge is also a pillar of DAI, which sees it as a cornerstone for rural development, gender equity, bio-cultural diversity, conservation and the sustainable management of agroecosystems.

For example, DAI executive director Kevin Ferrara, who won the Food Security & Nutrition Impact award from Rare’s 2017 Solution Search: Farming for Biodiversity competition, encourages farmers from Cárdenas to increase the use of milpa – a traditional crop mixing of maize, beans and squash – in home gardens. This has been shown to result in better family incomes, food security and food sovereignty for farming communities across Chiapas.

“The smallholder farmers often have only one hectare to come up with good strategies to fulfill household needs,” says Ferrara. “There is massive potential in the local and traditional knowledge systems, such as backyard production, that we can use to tackle these challenges.”

Farmers exchange their Indigenous maize varieties at a seed fair. Kevin Ferrara, DAI
Farmers exchange their Indigenous maize varieties at a seed fair. Kevin Ferrara, DAI

Local and Indigenous knowledge systems provide a foundation for locally appropriate sustainable development and has been proven to improve access to local food and livelihood security in areas composed mainly of smallholder farms, such as Cárdenas. Both the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the 2019 IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services recognize that Indigenous communities play a fundamental role in safeguarding biodiversity, enhancing food security, fighting poverty and hunger and promoting sustainable agriculture practices. Agroecology itself directly contributes to some of the most significant Sustainable Development Goals.

The Solution Search award seeks to find local solutions to global problems and lift them up to be used more widely. To do so, the award’s founding organization Rare – which uses behavioral science to boost environmental conservation in communities around the world – couples the solutions such as DAI’s with relevant insights into local attitudes and behaviors as well as trainings for developing social marketing campaigns and other communication tools, to see the solutions recognized and used more widely.

Chiapas, home to a high number of endemic species and Indigenous villages, is the Mexican state with the highest poverty rate. Kevin Ferrara, DAI
Chiapas, home to a high number of endemic species and Indigenous villages, is the Mexican state with the highest poverty rate. Kevin Ferrara, DAI

Through this process, Ferrara says he learned that educating farmers about better ways to plant their crops was not enough; he also had to understand the barriers that prevent farmers from adopting more resilient seed systems and motivate them to overcome these. Armed with these new insights, Ferrara formed a campaign to inspire pride among Cárdenas’s farmers about native seeds and elevate women’s roles as champions of native seed cultivation.

DAI has now printed 65 cookbooks for the community and has fielded requests to publicize and share the cookbook in San Cristobal de las Casas, one of the biggest cities in Chiapas. The women are already planning a second cookbook with new recipes to share.

For Kevin, watching the cookbook create pride in local and Indigenous agriculture has motivated him to focus future campaigns on inspiring pride in traditional seeds and farming techniques across Mexico, thereby spreading the practices more widely. DAI is advancing additional campaigns in four communities, engaging 634 farm households in agroecology and seed dissemination, and training local youth to support farm households.

“We are committed to continue elevating the importance and cultural richness of products generated by the communities and keeping traditional knowledge alive,” says Ferrara.

Recipe: Tamal with Chipilín and Cheese

Makes 40 Tamales

Ingredients:

2 kg. of maize
1 bunch of chipilín (leafy greens native to southern Mexico and Guatemala)
Salt to taste
1 onion
2 kg. of tomatoes
1 head of garlic
1 lt. of oil
1 teaspoon of thyme
500 gr. of cheese
Banana leaves

Preparation:

  • Start off by cooking the maize with cal (calcium hydroxide). Wash and drain the maize, and then grind it to create dough. You can also buy prepared dough, known as Maseca Tamal, from your favorite Latino grocery store.
  • Make the tomato salsa (chirmol de tomate) by frying the garlic, onion and tomato together and adding the thyme last. Then, blend all the ingredients together with some water and put back on the stove to boil until the sauce is the desired consistency.
  • Once everything is prepared, take the dough and add a bit of water, oil, salt and chipilín. Knead dough until it is mixed and ready.
  • Steam the banana leaves until they are softened.
  • Prepare the tamales by taking a portion of the dough and pressing it on the banana leaf. Then, fill the tamales with cheese and tomato salsa. Wrap the tamale with the same banana leaf, and place in a steam cooker until cooked.

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