Edible flowers as a Mexican cultural heritage
We are interested, on this occasion, in focusing on the flowers that we can consume as food, either as a main ingredient or as a condiment. Many of the recipes with flowers are the heritage of different cultures around the world, others are the product of human appropriation in Mexico.
"Everything that crawls, walks, runs and flies goes into the pot" is the well-known Mexican saying that reflects the food use in Mexico of an immeasurable diversity of animals. The saying falls short, as there is also a wide diversity of wild and cultivated plants, which are given a common name, managed in the mountains, hills and deserts, and various forms of preparation for consumption. For all these reasons, it is part of Mexico's intangible heritage.
One of the oldest flowers, as far as its use and cultivation is concerned, is saffron (Crocus sativus), known as the "red gold", which has been cultivated for about 3 thousand years, of which, only the stamens of the flower are used, due to its high content of colorant; it is also an essential ingredient of the Spanish paella, since it provides a particular flavor; it is a very expensive spice.
Other flowers used as spice or condiment in the kitchen of the world are the cloves (Syzygium aromaticum), buttons or primordial flowers (unopened flowers), which are carefully collected before the flower opens and dried in the sun; the clove is an essential ingredient of various desserts. On the other hand, orange blossom - citrus flower (Citrus spp.), mainly orange and lemon - is used in baking recipes, for example, to aromatize and flavor the famous pan de muertos (bread of the dead) in Mexico.
Capers are also flower buds (Capparis spinosa), of Mediterranean origin, and are consumed as pickles. The artichoke (Cynara scolymus), also of Mediterranean origin, is widely used in cooking and consumed in various ways. It is compulsory to mention broccoli and cauliflower, quite popular vegetables that actually correspond to tiny flowers; they can be found in various shapes and colors, all of them of the species Brassica oloreacea.
In Peru, capuchins (Tropaeolum majus) are consumed, their petals are used in salads and nowadays they are used in other ways in several places in the world. The flower of Jamaica (Hibiscus sabdariffa), almost conceived as part of Mexican culture because of the popular flavored waters, is of African origin and apparently arrived in Mexico on the Nao de China, a ship that exchanged thousands of products between the Philippines and New Spain during the conquest.
In the world there are about 70 to 100 types of flowers that are used in gastronomy, many of them are cultivated and commercialized; of this total, in Mexico, we can find 50 types, in addition to a variety of native flowers and of local use of which little is known.
Nowadays, flowers have become fashionable, they decorate diverse gourmet dishes, they can even be the main protagonist of recipes. The incorporation of flowers in the dishes improves the aesthetics of the food, provides unusual flavors, as well as freshness, bright colors, and aromas. Nowadays we talk about "florifagia", as the action of consuming flowers as food, which is becoming more and more popular.
Edible flowers in Mexico
The flowers were already consumed before the arrival of the Spaniards, in fact, they are mentioned by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún in his work Historia General de las cosas de Nueva España and the codices Florentino and de la Cruz-Badiano, as well as in different texts and chronicles of the 16th century. In addition, flowers also constituted ceremonial elements, associated with the gods and fundamental elements of festivities, many of them of wide medicinal use and to extract colorants.
The Aztecs added flowers to the cocoa drink; for example, itzcuinyolloxúchitl (magnolia), eloxochicuáhuitl (magnolia), teunacaztli (guanacastle), tecomaxuchitl (golden cup). Others were consumed in salty dishes such as pumpkin or ayoxochitl, izote or yucca flower, maguey flower also called gualungo, gualumbo or quiote, huauzontles, cempaxúchitl, biznaga flower, nopal flower, nopalxochitl or pocha, tule or bulrush flower, bean flower, colorín or pichoco.
This custom persists today, in the different indigenous cultures, as well as on various social levels in the cities. Wild plants and flowers in Mesoamerica were and are food sources, and can be staple foods or dietary supplements, as is the case in other African countries and tropical areas of Latin America.
In Mexico, some flowers are considered "quelites", a word that comes from the Nahuatl "Quilitl" and means vegetables or tender plants. The quelites are of traditional and local use that, for lack of knowledge, are little valued or used. A great variety of quelites has been used since pre-Hispanic times until the present day.
The flowers are collected from wild plants in the mountains or forests and hills or deserts, however, some flowers are grown for consumption such as pumpkin and huauzontle. Most of these flowers are seasonal, with their flowering concentrated in the rainy season. With the arrival of the Spaniards, other types of flowers began to be consumed, such as roses, bougainvilleas or camelinas, chrysanthemums, and orange blossoms, among others, which were incorporated into the recipes.
Today we can find several edible flowers such as those already mentioned - pumpkin and huauzontle - but there are also others not so commercialized in the country, some very local; there are even restaurants that offer delicious dishes with these flowers. In total, we can find 23 types of edible native flowers from Mexico, some used since pre-Hispanic times, and others recently introduced, and possibly the number is even higher.
What are the flowers made of?
80% of the structure of the flower corresponds to water, so they are low-calorie foods. Some flowers contain bioactive substances, phytochemicals with therapeutic activity -such as phenolic compounds, carotenoids, alkaloids, steroidal saponins-, vitamins, and minerals, which allow them to be classified as a functional food, since, in a natural or processed way, they contain components that exert beneficial effects that go beyond nutrition.
The color of the petals of the flowers is due to the contents of substances such as carotenoids that generally give the yellow colors; in addition, they are precursors in the biosynthesis of vitamin A; on the other hand, the anthocyanins are the substances responsible for the blue and purple colors, both compounds have antioxidant properties. The aromas are a consequence of essential oils, in addition, they possess minerals like phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and iron.
At the same time, some flowers possess compounds that can be toxic, such as alkaloids and saponins; however, people have used techniques to reduce or eliminate them, mainly by cooking or exposing the flowers to the sun. They may also contain compounds that are called anti-nutrients, which interfere with the absorption of nutrients.
Pumpkin flowers that are cultivated and flowers that are collected as quelites on the hill or mountain (the wild ones) generally have high fiber contents, even similar to those of spinach leaves.
How are the flowers prepared and where are they found?
The traditional methods of preparation coincide in, first, making cooking of a few minutes, with which the contents of antinutrients and toxins like alkaloids and saponins are reduced, others are used directly, that is, raw. Even though most flowers do not have the amounts of protein to function as nutritional food on their own, the preparation includes ingredients such as cheese, eggs or even meat, which adds quality protein to the recipe.
The preparation coincides with many of these flowers, being the most popular Mexican style, although they can also be roasted on the comal, fried with onion and garlic, in pancakes with caldillo, stewed with egg or added to quesadillas. Some flowers are incorporated into traditional drinks, such as curado de pulque with cempasúchil and rosas de cacao in téjate. Others are prepared in sauces, tamales, such as cuchunuc flowers and in pickles such as biznagas, cabuches and cacayas.
Pumpkin flowers and huauzontle have come to be positioned in national supermarkets and multinational corporations, as well as in traditional markets and tianguis. The other flowers are more difficult to get, you have to wait for the flowering season, mainly during the rainy season, and go to the markets and tianguis, where they are usually sold by people who extract them from the forest.
The flowers are the reproductive part of the plant, these will become fruits with seeds that will give rise to new plants. Over-exploitation of these resources can have negative consequences, hence the importance of evaluating the effect of extraction, the economic and cultural importance of these activities, and establishing appropriate management and conservation strategies.
By Carmen Julia Figueredo-Urbina, Pablo Octavio Aguilar, María Teresa Pulido Silva