Before the conquest, chia (Salvia hispanica/Salvia columbariae) was one of Mexico’s basic food sources along with maíz (Zea mays), frijol (Phaseolus vulgaris), and huaútli (Amaranthus). Bernardino de Sahagún recorded in the Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España detaled the production, comercialization, and uses of chia.
Chia was so important to the Aztecs that there are words for the process of making oil from chia (chiamachiua), one who makes the oil (chiamachiuhqui), the process of polishing something with chia oil (chiamauia), one who sells chia oil (chiamanamacac), the process of extracting oil from chia seeds (chiamapatzca), one who extracts oil from chia seeds (chiamapatzcac), chia oil (chiamatl), to become stained with chia oil (chiaua), to describe something greasy (chiauacayo) or oily (chiauac), a marzipan-like paste made from chia seeds (chiancaca), and a place where chia seeds are found (Chiapan modern-day Chiapas).
The seed was known as chiyantli, chien, chian, chia, or chiantli. A sprig of chia was centzontecomatl. As a verb chiya or chia meant to wait for, in reference to the tedious process of extracting oil from the seeds. Chianzotzolatoli was a drink prepared with toasted maíz and chia.
Pinolatl is a beverage made from maíz and toasted chia seeds. Pinolli was ground chia (or maíz) seeds made into flour now known as pinole. The Purépecha make small tamales made from pinole which are placed on the Día de Muertos alters each year.
Chia was associated with the diety Chicomecóatl, the feminine aspect of Centéotl. Both were deities of fertility and abundance. Corn, beans, and chia were included in the offerings made during their celebratory months.
Medicinally, the seeds, roots, leaves, and flowers were used by indigenous groups for skin infections, gastrointestinal ailments, fever, respiratory issues, urinary tract infections, eye diseases, and disorders of the nervous system.
Raw or toasted, chia is added to beverages, soups, oatmeal, yogurt, and salads regularly in Mexico. When the seeds are soaked, they release mucilage which is a gelatin-like liquid.
Chia contains polyunsaturated fatty acids, omega-3, omega-6, dietary fiber, protein, and phytochemicals (compounds found in plants that benefit human health). Regular ingestion has shown to be useful in the treatment of obesity, hypertension, diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular diseases. It has antioxidant, hypotensive, hypoglycemic, immunostimulatory, and antimicrobial activities. Salvia columbariae has compounds scientists believe can be used to treat strokes due to its anti-blood clotting properties. Chia is also antiatherosclerotic, neuroprotective, hepatoprotective, antidepressant, antianxiety, analgesic, laxative, and anti-inflammatory.
Conjunctivitis is treated by placing a single seed in the eye. The mucilaginous substance that forms allows the eye to be wiped clean. Raw seeds are chewed as a digestive aid. For a fever, a drink made from limones (Citrus aurantiifolia), sweeted with miel (honey), and chia seeds is prescribed.
Interested in natural remedies? Uncover herbal remedies from traditional Mexican sources for healing and wellness in the Exploring Traditional Herbal Remedies in Mexico series.