Traditional Foods of the Yaqui People of Northwestern Mexico

To date, the Yaqui diet is still largely traditional; prepared in the usual way and with local ingredients by a group of indigenous women, as well as their proximal and chemical composition.

Traditional Foods of the Yaqui People of Northwestern Mexico
Traditional Foods of the Yaqui Indigenous People. Image: CIAD

The Yaqui indigenous population, one of the largest in the region according to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI), is concentrated in the south of the state of Sonora, in northwestern Mexico; their economy is based on the fact that more than 90% of the irrigated land is rented to farmers who do not belong to the tribe. As a result, even with the impact of globalization on their diet, their traditional dishes are heavily influenced by the crops still grown in the Yaqui Valley, such as wheat, safflower, sesame, and corn.

The Yaquis have linked their food to their festivals and ceremonial rituals, as well as to the agricultural region they inhabit. It is well known that the indigenous people identify with a series of socio-cultural benefits related to the harvest and traditional foods. The promotion and consumption of this type of food can stimulate the adequate supply of nutrients and savings in the economy of families, in addition to being of great cultural interest.

The rapid dietary changes that indigenous populations are experiencing are a risk factor for the development of chronic non-communicable diseases. In the case of the Yaquis, historically, before the arrival of the Spaniards, they have known how to use natural resources as a means of subsistence, rooted in their proximity to the Yaqui River, the Sea of Cortés, and the sierra. In other words, nature taught them to know and take advantage of the available resources and to carry out activities such as hunting and gathering plants, roots, leaves, and wild fruits that they used to make atoles, tortillas, and pinoles.

After the arrival of the Jesuits, they began to use other foods such as chickpeas, beans, and wheat flour tortillas, which became part of their traditional diet. One of the important changes in the diet was the so-called green revolution, in the sixties of the twentieth century, clearly influenced by technological advances in agriculture, which hurt the traditional diet of the Yaquis, making available processed foods high in energy, especially those coming from fats and refined carbohydrates.

To date, the Yaqui diet is still largely traditional; this is why it is important to study the typical elaboration of their dishes, which were prepared in the usual way and with local ingredients by a group of indigenous women, as well as their proximal and chemical composition.

Recipes and their analysis

Some recipes were prepared for fourteen dishes selected by indigenous women from the community. The women were volunteers with ample experience and knowledge of the subject. The frequency of consumption was considered, as well as the importance from the cultural perspective of the Yaqui. The wheat and corn used came from the same harvests in the Yaqui Valley area; the rest of the ingredients were acquired in local stores (Vícam, Sonora), or were collected from the place where they grow wild (purslane, igualamas, and sayas).

All the dishes were prepared traditionally at home and the usual utensils were used, such as clay pots, pewter pots, wooden spoons, and the adobe stove with mesquite firewood. During preparation, all the ingredients of each recipe were weighed. Food composition was studied using official methods. The energy content was calculated by applying the following metabolizable energy values: fat 37 kJ/g, protein 17 kJ/g, and carbohydrates 16 kJ/g. To express the results in kcal, it was taken into account that 4,184 kJ is equivalent to 1 kcal. The sodium (Na), potassium (K), calcium (Ca), and iron (Fe) contents were also measured by atomic absorption spectrometry.

Most of these preparations are combinations of legumes and cereals, which is typical of the agricultural zone inhabited by the Yaquis, which, as is well known, complements their amino acid composition. Two dishes, guacabaque and meat with chili and potatoes combine ingredients of animal and vegetable origin and provide 344 and 168 kcal/100 g, respectively.

Dishes composed of plant-based ingredients are wheat atole, wheat/bean pozole, whole wheat flour tortilla (unprocessed whole wheat flour), "de agua" flour tortilla (refined flour), corn atole, corn (whole grain)/bean pozole, nixtamalized corn tortilla, chickpea tamale, and corn pinole. The energy content of these combinations varies from 58 to 357 kcal per 100 g.

The fat content varied from 0 to 19 g/100 g, depending, logically, on the ingredients used in the preparations of the different traditional recipes. For example, purslane, although of vegetable origin, contains butter in its formulation, so it is a dish whose energy intake from fat is around 55% fat, although, in origin, it is a good source of fiber and low in fat.

Other dishes such as guacabaque, meat with chili, and chickpea tamale also provide about 55% of energy from fat. The mineral content of foods in their natural form is adequate in terms of sodium, potassium, calcium, and iron. However, in the finished dish, the sodium contribution is very high due to the discretionary use of table salt. Considering the daily consumption recommendation, these dishes are well above it, so, given the public health implications, together with the high consumption of saturated fat, it is advisable to reduce salt consumption.

The Yaqui diet has characteristics similar to those of the Sonoran diet; for example, the presence of beans, wheat flour tortillas, and corn tortillas, basic preparations that are important sources of energy (fat, carbohydrates, and protein), iron, and dietary fiber. While these foods confer extremely important positive characteristics in terms of minimum intake safety, how some traditional dishes are prepared results in excessive amounts of fat and sodium.

It is necessary, through educational methodology, to establish support programs in traditional cooking and health that tend to optimize the relationship between nutritional composition/value and health, without affecting traditions. This can result in well-being for the community, resulting in healthier children and adults and, consequently, more usefulness to society as a whole.

Source: Article originally published in volume 43, number 6, period November-December 2020, of Cuadernos de Nutrición. Authors: Ma. Isabel Grijalva Haro, Mauro E. Valencia, Pablo Wong González, Julián Esparza Romero, Lucía González García and Alma E. Robles Sardín, CIAD researchers.