It’s often said that necessity is the mother of invention. Food, from the Iberian Peninsula to Hokkaido, Japan, demonstrates this idea more clearly than anything else. Consider, because of the need to preserve fish and rice so that they could have access to food throughout the year, early Chinese and Japanese invented what is now sushi. The classic French dish Coq au Vin started as a way for the poor to eat, when all they had was a rooster on its last legs and a bottle of old wine. It’s more accurate, perhaps, to say that necessity is the mother of great food.
Many of the most famous Hispanic foods were born out of necessity, specifically the necessity that comes during wartime. From the Western Roman Empire to Occupied Spain to war torn Mesoamerica and South America, battle gave rise to some of the most delicious recetas filling Hispanic cookbooks across the world.
How War Created and Spread Some of the Most Famous Hispanic Foods
- Flan Was Created Under Roman Rule, Spread in the Age of Expansion
- Invasion Brings New Flavors, Gives Birth to Arroz con Pollo
- A Need for Battle Rations Leads to Tamales
As written by the food historian the Holiday Cook, flan, the sweet, savory custard dish that has become a staple of Mexican cuisine, got its start sometime between the second and fourth centuries. Thanks to their revolutionary domestication of chickens, Romans had a surplus of eggs. By using the knowledge passed on from the Greeks, the Romans mixed these eggs with sugar to create the first flan.
As the Romans expanded westward, flan moved with them. By the time the Western Roman Empire fell in 476 CE, flan had become an essential part of Spanish culture, and when the Spanish expanded into South America and Mesoamerica, conquering the peoples there, flan was again adopted into the local food culture.
Arroz con pollo was born under Moorish occupation of the Iberian Peninsula. As the popular New York City eatery Agozar! highlights on its blog, Moors from North Africa invaded what is now Portugal and Spain in the early eighth century, bringing with them the architecture and food culture that was typical of Islamic cultures of the time.
Part of this cultural exchange included new forms of rice, not to mention the introduction of cumin, saffron, and coriander, to Iberia. Under Moorish rule, chicken, rice, and the new African spices were combined for the first time, and arroz con pollo was born.
Of all the foods on this list, tamales are the most ancient. Said to have originated sometime around 5000 BCE, tamales were created in order to fill the bellies of the constantly warring Inca, Mayan, and Aztec peoples. As war became more frequent, Pre-Columbian cooks couldn’t keep up with demand for food, so they began to package pockets of cornmeal, meat, and vegetables inside corn husks. While the preparation methods for tamales may have been refined over the millennia, the basic form of this classic dish remains the same.
Do you know the dark history of other classic Hispanic dishes? Tell us a tale or two in the comment section below.