Last updateFri, 27 Feb 2015 4pm

Aztec ‘superfood’ makes comeback

My neighbor, Rodrigo Orozco, is growing something green and slimy in four big vats in his back yard. Because he is also raising 5,000 tarantulas (to outfox poachers) I wondered what sort of swamp creatures I might see crawling out of those vats, but Rodrigo assured me he was simply helping to reintroduce to Mexico a sort of food supplement used by the  Aztecs and other Mesoamericans before the Conquista and known to them as Tecuitlatl, which, I hate to say, Rodrigo translates as “rock poop.”

Now, before you turn the page to another article, keep in mind that it was the indigenous peoples of Mexico who enjoyed the many benefits of amaranth and chía, two amazing superfoods that have only recently been rediscovered and made available commercially.

Well, here’s a third. It’s called Spirulina and although it looks like algae, it’s something even more primitive. “I will explain everything,” said Rodrigo Orozco as he sat me and my wife down on a bench under a tall oak behind his house.

“Spirulina,” he began, “is a cyanobacterium, one of the oldest living things that exist on the planet and because it’s able to do photosynthesis, it’s green in color. It also produces oxygen, but, curiously, can only live in a very alkaline environment. Thousands of years ago, people in Africa and Mexico noticed it. In Mexico, the Aztecs, especially the runners, consumed it regularly. They harvested it by sticking long poles into certain very alkaline lakes and coating the poles with thick Tecuitlatl. This goo they made into little flat cakes which they dried. These cakes were common food in those days and are described by Diaz del Castillo in his book, ‘The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico.’”

Orozco continued: “The Spaniards didn’t like the look of this blue-green slime and drained many of the alkaline lakes where Spirulina grows naturally. So, like many other good native Mexican customs, eating Tecuitlatl came to an end after the Conquista and was forgotten.”

Orozco went on to describe how a curious event brought Spirulina production back to Mexico centuries later. In the 1970’s, he said, when a company called Sosa Texcoco, the world’s biggest producer of sosa cáustica (caustic soda or lye), was working in the Lago de Texcoco, some employees complained to other colleagues in the business at an international convention that they that they were having problems separating the lye from a pesky green substance growing in the highly alkaline lake. Hearing this, a Japanese scientist looked at them and said, “You are fools! That green stuff is much more valuable than lye. It’s Arthrospira maxima, commonly called Spirulina.”

In the early 1970’s Sosa Texcoco gave birth to the company Spirulina Mexicana, which quickly ended up becoming the world’s largest producer of Spirulina. But the company was a co-operative and suffered from organizational and other problems and eventually went broke. “And that,” said Orozco with a wry look, “was the end of modern production of Spirulina in Mexico.” Today, he said, the biggest producers are in the United States, South America and Europe.

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