Centuries before spirulina was deemed a “superfood”, the vibrantly coloured cyanobacteria (or blue-green algae) was a pre-Hispanic dietary staple.
f you’ve spent any time dining in Mexico City recently, you may have noticed spirulina cropping up on menus in everything from the usual smoothies to more traditional dishes such as tortillas and tlayudas (a crisp tortilla base with refried beans and other toppings). But don’t assume this is some symbol of encroaching hipster health food globalisation: in fact, centuries before it was deemed a “superfood”, the vibrantly coloured cyanobacteria (or blue-green algae) – which grows primarily in warm alkaline lakes, ponds and rivers in the tropics and subtropics – was a pre-Hispanic dietary staple.
Even without modern science, the Mexica could recognise the nutrient density
The Mexica – or Aztecs, as they were later known – harvested the protein-rich substance from the surface of Lake Texcoco, an expansive body of water in central Mexico that was later largely drained by the Spanish to make way for the construction of Mexico City. Here, the waters exhibited the perfect balance of salinity and alkalinity for spirulina to flourish. The Mexica called the foodstuff tecuitlatl, a Nahuatl word that roughly translates to “rock excrement”, though they held it in decidedly higher esteem than its name suggests.
“Oral traditions say that the Mexica couriers and runners in ancient Tenochtitlan would eat dried spirulina cakes with corn, tortillas, beans, chillies or mole as fuel for long-distance travel,” said Denise Vallejo, an indigenous first-generation Xicana chef who runs the vegan Los Angeles pop-up Alchemy Organica.