Category Archives: Mexican Food and Drink

Natural Healing — Calabaza

The oldest pumpkin seed found was in the Guila Naquitz Cave in Oaxaca and dates as far back as 7000 BC.  Squash has been cultivated in the Tehuacan and Oaxaca valleys and in Tamaulipas since 6000-5000 BC. Its cultivation predates the domestication of maize and beans by about 4,000 years. 

Calabaza was a ritual offering presented in honor of the dead during the month of Miccailhuitontli by the Aztecs and is still considered an appropriate addition to the altar during El Dia de Los Muertos celebration in Mexico in the form of calabaza en tacha (candied squash).

In addition to a delightful culinary treat, calabaza has been used medicinally to treat intestinal parasites, gastric disorders, obesity, diabetes, and nervios (nerves). 

Cooked squash of any variety is good anytime to calm the nerves. If you’d like to find a way to incorporate more squash in your diet, horchata de semillas de calabaza is a refreshing beverage. Take 100 grams of squash seeds (pepitos) and 5 grams of hierbabuena fresca (fresh spearmint leaves). Add ¼ liter of milk and piloncillo (cone brown sugar) to taste. If you are using it medicinally, drink for three days in a row for stomach ailments. 

Domesticated Calabaza

There are five varieties of calabaza cultivated in Mexico today. 

Cucurbita moschata (including butternut squash) is referred to by a variety of other names including calabaza de Castilla, calabaza de casco, calabaza de pellejo, calabaza cuaresmeña, calabaza caliente, calabaza de pepita menuda, támala, calabaza de camote, calabaza torpe, ayote, Xnuk kuum, Nujuch kuum, and Xmejen kuum (Maya). The seeds, roots, flowers, and squash from the cucurbita moschata variety are used to treat urinary tract infections and skin ailments. The extracted oil has antioxidant properties. 

For parasites, one remedy calls for a concoction of 30 grams of aceite de ricino (castor oil) and a pinch of salt. This is paired with calabaza en tacha made from C. moschata without the skin served in ½ cup of milk. 

Another parasite treatment consists of a handful of toasted or raw seeds known as pepitas also from the cucurbita moschata variety of calabaza (pumpkins) and a few hierbabuena (spearmint) leaves eaten on an empty stomach. 

The flowers of the cucurbita pepo are eaten seasonally with blue or yellow corn tortillas, most often in quesadillas. To prepare the flowers, they are boiled and the water is discarded so that any toxins are eliminated. The flowers are also served as part of salads or stuffed with cheese. The roots, leaves, squash, and seeds of this variety are used to stimulate the appetite. 

Cucurbita pepo is also known as calabaza de comer, calabaza de manteca, calabaza de carrizo, calabaza mediana, Tsol, Tsool, Tzol (Maya) tempranilla, and mensejo. The grated raw peel from the cucurbita pepo is applied to burns and hemorrhoids as it is effective in wound healing. This variety, from root to fruit, is used in several areas of Mexico to improve health in general. It has a pancreatic lipase inhibition effect.

Cucurbita argyrosperma is also known as calabaza caliente, calabaza de las aguas, calabaza pinta, calabaza de casco, calabaza criolla, calabaza pipiana, calabaza tapona, calabaza rayada, pipián, or calabaza guajolota. The seeds, flowers, young stems, and tender squash are eaten. The squash is made into a pulp and applied externally to treat skin ailments. 

Cucurbita ficifolia is known as chilacayote, chilacayo, or chilaca. In Nahuatl, this variety was chilicayotli from the word tzilacayotli originally which translates to “smooth squash”. The young stems are eaten as a vegetable. When this squash is fully mature, it is fibrous and is used to make the sweet cabellos de ángel (angel’s hair) treat. Other candied squash made from this variety are dulce de alcayota, cayote en hebras, mermelada de calabaza, mazamorra de calabaza. 

In Chiapas, the seeds are toasted and set in honey to make palanquetas (a candy bar). C. ficifolia has a marked hypoglycemic effect. It also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Extract from C. ficifolia has been shown to be promising in the treatment of obesity. 

Cucurbita maxima is also known as zapallo. Its seeds are the snack pepita rusa (Russian pumpkin seeds), eaten salted and toasted. This variety includes the red or orange pumpkin most people associate with Halloween. It is native to South America. In Chiapas, this variety is called malayota because it resembles tamale dough when pulped.

C. maxima has been shown to quickly decrease high blood glucose levels. C. maxima seed oil is useful in treating an overactive bladder. Ayo-nelhuatl (cucurbita maxima) root is mentioned in Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis as part of a concoction used as an after-birth vaginal wash. 

Wild Calabaza

These five are the most commonly cultivated calabazas found in Mexico. However, there are other wild calabazas that are used medicinally as well. 

Cucurbita foetidissima (Buffalo Gourd) is a wild calabaza whose sour fruit is used medicinally after being cooked. The seed sprouts and roots are toxic and should never be ingested. The leaves and roots are used medicinally in Chihuahua.  In other states, the roots are used to make soap because of its saponin content. 

This variety is also known as calabacilla amarga, cohombro, hierba de la víbora, calabaza amargosa, calabacilla loca, calabacilla silvestre, calabaza de burro, chili coyote, calabaza hedionda, calabaza silvestre, calabaza del diablo, calabacilla de burro, Cua-cua (Chontal), chichic-amole and guelto-lana (Zapotec).

Apodanthera undulata (AKA calabaza hedionda or melon loco) is made into a pulp and used topically in the state of Guanajuato. The seeds are used to stimulate appetite in Jalisco and Zacatecas where it is known as calabaza amarga or calabaza loca.

In addition to the medicinal applications already mentioned, all calabazas varieties have antifungal and antibacterial properties. One more interesting cucurbita is the Cayaponia tayuya. The roots of this squash, native to the Amazon, have been useful in treating rheumatoid arthritis and also been proven helpful in the treatment of Epstein-Barr and skin tumors

It just goes to show that a plant we may overlook may be full of beneficial properties.

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Natural Healing–Jaripos

One day when I stopped to pick up the daily tortillas from my sister-in-law’s tortilleria, she handed me a bag of orange-red fruit and told me to make juice from it. So I did. It was deliciously sour and refreshing. To make the juice, let the berries soak in water until it turns a pinkish color. Then, strain, add sugar or honey to sweeten it and enjoy. 

Jaripos or Limillas

These little fruits are known as jaripos in Cerano, Guanajuato, but neighboring Puruándiro, Michoacan calls them limillas. Puruándiro has taken this fruit, from the Rhus microphylla shrub, into their heart so deeply that they have an annual festival in April celebrating la limilla, which can be used to flavor ice cream, atole, marmelade, artensenal bread and local brews. In English, this shrub is known as the littleleaf sumac or desert sumac. 

The Rhus species has over 250 varieties. Although little study has been done on Rhus microphylla, other varieties have anti fibrogenic, antifungal, antimalarial, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antioxidant, antimutagenic, antithrombin, antitumorigenic, and antiviral properties. Additionally, flowering plants belonging to the Anacardiaceae family are cytotoxic, hypoglycaemic and leukopenic. 

Sumac berries contain malic acid, tannic acid, and gallic acid. Not all sumac varieties are edible. However, Rhus glabra, Rhus typhina, Rhus aromatica, Rhus copallina, Rhus integrifolia, Rhus microphylla, Rhus ovata and Rhus trilobata are.  Sumac berries which are safe to eat are red when ripe and covered in a soft fuzz

In Chihuahua, la limilla is used to treat leukemia. Rhus glabra, Smooth sumac, boiled fruit has been used as a treatment for painful menstruation. The roots and berries were made into a wash for sores. In Monterrey, Rhus Virens, Evergreen sumac, bark is boiled to make a tea used to treat diabetes. 

Rhus Trilobata produces a similar berry to the Rhus microphylla but is known as agrillo. The shrub has an intense smell which is the reason for one of its names, skunkbush. Among different indigenous groups, the bark, fruit, leaves, and roots were used medicinally traditionally. Rhus typhina, Staghorn sumac, leaves protect against oxidative damage

Hopefully, there will be more studies done in the future to ascertain the health benefits from the sumac berry. Meanwhile, while in season, I’ll enjoy an occasional glass of jaripo juice.

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Natural Healing — Pitahayas

Pitahaya AKA Dragon Fruit

With things being what they are these days, we have to take our joys where we find them. This week our big highlight was our cactus produced pitahayas, one for each of us. We planted it two years ago from a cutting from the neighbor. I’m hoping that this is just the beginning of a long productive spell. 

Hylocereus polyrhizus cactus

The Hylocereus cactus that produced our pitahayas (as opposed to pitayas which come from the cactus stenocereus) is the Hylocereus polyrhizus. It produces fruit that has a pink covering with a reddish, seedy (and delicious) interior known as pitahaya roja. It’s native to Mexico but found in many tropical regions nowadays. In our region, this fruit is also called tuna tasajo. Tuna is the generic term for cactus fruit while I assume tasajo is from an indigenous source, possibly Purépecha, but I couldn’t find an English or Spanish translation for the word. Another term used generally for the fruit from the Hylocereus cactus is pitahaya orejona.

Hylocereus polyrhizus is a viney cactus. Ours has snaked its way up the wall, but I’ve also seen it locally wind itself around mesquite trees. It has a night-blooming flower, so it is dependent on night pollinators like moths or bats. The gorgeous white flower usually wilts within a day or two.  

The betalain that gives this yummy fruit its red color is also found in beets, Swiss chard, and amaranth. Betalain not only makes a natural food coloring but also is rich in antioxidants. The seeds contain linoleic acid which is a functional fatty acid.

This seedy fruit helps the digestive process through prebiotics. It has a preventative effect against breast and colon cancer. It has been shown to aid in reducing cholesterol levels. The lycopene content that gives the fruit its red color is effective in neutralizing heavy metals and toxins including MSG and herbicide ATZ. Furthermore, the antioxidant and fiber content of this fruit may be useful in the prevention and treatment of diabetes.

Traditional Mexican remedies include a diet rich in pitahaya to stimulate appetite and improve digestion. The fruit can be eaten raw, juiced, or made into ice cream or syrup.

Two or three fruits eaten an hour before breakfast for two or three days are prescribed to help with constipation. To treat intestinal parasites, the seeds of several fruits can be separated out and chewed thoroughly before swallowing.  

The flowers can be cooked and eaten like vegetables. Dried flowers can be used to make tea which is used to treat nervous disorders and insomnia. An infusion made from the flowers is also used to treat gum pain and tooth infection. 

Dysentery was treated with a section of root boiled in a covered cup over a slow fire. The concoction was allowed to cool with the top still on and sweetened with honey, then left overnight to be drunk in the morning before breakfast. This process was repeated every day for seven days for maximum results.  

Pitahaya blanca from the Hylocereus undatus cactus.

There are several other varieties of sweet pitahaya available in Mexico. Hylocereus undatus has white fruit and pink skin. This is the type most grown commercially and known as pitahaya blanca. It originated in the southern part of Mexico. Pitahaya blanca is sweeter and has a higher sugar content than either the red or yellow varieties. 

The name reina de la noche (Night Queen) refers to the bloom of this variety. H. undatus has been shown to have wound healing properties when used topically and useful in treating oxidative stress and aortic stiffness in streptozotocin-induced diabetes. The peel has antibacterial properties effective against Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli, and Salmonella typhimurium among others.

Hylocereus megalanthus has a yellow fruit and white exterior which is called pitahaya amarilla. The seeds from H. megalanthus fruit have the largest amount of polyunsaturated fatty acids when compared to the other varieties. Hylocereus Purpusii produces fruit with purple skin and pulp. 

Hylocereus ocamponis is native to the states of Jalisco and Nayarit. It’s pinkish on the outside and a darker red inside.

Have you tasted pitahayas? Which color?

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Learn more about traditional herbal remedies in Mexico!

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