Shining a Light on Healthy Ancestral Mexican Cuisine
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Shining a Light on Healthy Ancestral Mexican Cuisine

Angie Marcos

CSU professors Catriona Rueda Esquibel and Luz Calvo wrote a cookbook to showcase the delicious, healthful foods of the rural Mexican diet — from corn, beans and squash to chiles, nopales and wild greens. 

Shining a Light on Healthy Ancestral Mexican Cuisine

​Through ongoing studies, a website and a cookbook, CSU professors Catriona Rueda Esquibel and Luz Calvo are exploring the ways in which what we eat connects us to our ancestors, culture and communities. Photos couresty of ​​Tracey Kusiewicz , Foodie Photography


​​​​​​​When you think of Mexican food, chances are good that "healthy" isn't the first word that comes to mind.  

California State University professors Catriona Rueda Esquibel, Ph.D., and Luz Calvo, Ph.D., want to change that perception, through both their research and their vegetarian cookbook, "Decolonize Your Diet: Plant-Based Mexican-American Recipes for Health and Healing."

"There is a misconception that Mexican food is inherently unhealthy," laments Dr. Esquibel, an associate professor of race and resistance studies at San Francisco State University. "However, the diet of rural Mexico is rich in fruits and vegetables. Corn, beans, squash, chiles, nopales, and wild greens are all central to the rural Mexican diet."

Drs. Esquibel and Calvo developed the "Decolonize Your Diet" project, which included the creation of the cookbook and a website, with the goal of celebrating the healthfulness and flavor of traditional Mexican recipes.​

Esquibel and Calvo, a professor of ethnic studies at CSU East Bay, encourage their Latino/a students and readers to embrace the foods of their ancestors, along with teaching non-Latino/as to appreciate all the culture has to offer in the kitchen.

"We're ethnic studies professors in the business of teaching culturally relevant history to Cal State students," explains Esquibel.

"We wanted to emphasize how the native foods of America had a profound influence on cuisines all over the world. All the chiles, tomatoes, corn, potatoes, squash, many of the berries, most of the beans in the world, all originated in indigenous American cultures."

And what does it mean to "decolonize" your diet, exactly? Esquibel says it is connecting to ancestral knowledge passed down for thousands of years in the Americas.

Below are three of Esquibel's and Calvo's favorite recipes. So gather some veggies from your garden or the local farmer's market and discover these flavorful plant-based Mexican dishes with deep roots in Latino/a culture.


Cauliflower Ceviche

Working in batches, use a food processor to mince cauliflower, cilantro, onion, chiles, and garlic. Don't try to process too much in one batch. Process until vegetables are pea-sized, or use a sharp knife to mince. Transfer to a salad bowl and toss with tomatoes, lime juice, salt, and pepper. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour before serving. ​Serve on tostada shells, with tortilla chips, or in lettuce cups. Top with cubes of avocado.


Ingredients (makes 12 servings):

1 large head cauliflower

1 bunch cilantro

1 small white onion, coarsely chopped

1–3 fresh jalapeno chiles, to taste

2 garlic cloves, peeled

3 tomatoes, diced

1/3 cup (80 mL) lime juice

3/4 tsp sea salt

1/8 tsp white pepper

12–14 Healthy Tostada Shells (in cookbook)

A large bag of tortilla chips or 12–14 butter lettuce leaves

2 avocados, peeled, seeded, and cubed



Soldadera Beans

In a large frying pan on medium heat, melt coconut oil. Add onions and cook for about 5 minutes. Add bell peppers and cook for 5 minutes. Add garlic, cumin, and coriander and cook until fragrance is released, about 1 minute. Pour in beer and stir in oregano, bay leaves, liquid smoke, and chipotle. Bring up to a slow simmer. 

Transfer mixture, along with beans and water, to slow cooker. Cook beans on high heat for 4–6 hours or on low 6–9 hours, or until skins are soft and insides are creamy. Add tomatoes, cilantro, and salt. Reduce heat to low (if necessary) and cook 1 hour to allow tomatoes to soften and seasonings to meld.


Ingredients (makes 8 servings):

1 tbsp extra virgin coconut oil

2 white onions, peeled and chopped

1 orange or yellow bell pepper, diced

1 head garlic (about 14 cloves), peeled and chopped

1 tsp cumin seeds, toasted and ground

1 tsp coriander seeds, toasted and ground

1 12-oz (355-mL) bottle lager beer

1 tbsp dried oregano, preferably Mexican

2 bay leaves

1/4 tsp liquid smoke concentrate (optional)

1 tbsp minced Chipotles en Adobo or canned

2 cups (500 mL) heirloom beans (pinquito, bolita, vaquero, Good Mother Stallard, or pinto)

1 qt (1 L) water

4 Roma or plum tomatoes, chopped or 1 14.5-oz (411-g) can fire-roasted chopped tomatoes

1/2 cup (125 mL) chopped cilantro

2 tsp sea salt


​ ​

Nopales "de Colores" Salad

Heat a grill (or grill pan) to medium-high heat. Lightly coat nopal paddles and poblano chiles in coconut oil. Shuck and clean corn. Place nopales, poblanos, whole bell pepper, and corn on grill. Cook for about 5 minutes and then turn. Continue to cook until each vegetable is cooked through, about 15–20 minutes. Remove corn when just slightly charred on all sides. Poblanos and bell pepper need to be thoroughly charred. 

When vegetables are sufficiently cooked or charred, remove from grill and set aside. Place poblano and bell pepper in a covered bowl and allow to steam for 20 minutes. When cool, slip them out of their skins and remove seeds and stems. Cut into ¼-in (6-mm) wide strips and then cut strips about 2–3 in (5–8 cm) long. Cut nopales to same measurement. Using a sharp knife, cut corn kernels from cob. 

To make vinaigrette, place garlic and salt in a mortar and use pestle to grind to a smooth paste. Add vinegar and pepper and let rest for about 10 minutes, while preparing salad. To finish vinaigrette, whisk in olive oil. In a salad bowl, gently combine nopales, bell peppers, poblanos, corn kernels, and onions with pomegranate seeds. Pour vinaigrette over salad and toss to combine. 

Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve salad at room temperature, garnished, if desired, with crumbled queso cotija.


Ingredients (makes 8 servings):

6 nopal paddles, cleaned, spines removed

2 fresh poblano chiles

About 1 tbsp extra virgin

Coconut oil

2–3 ears of corn, to make 2 cups (500 mL) kernels

1 orange bell pepper

1/2 red onion, finely diced

seeds of 1 pomegranate (optional, if in season)

4 oz (115 g) crumbled queso cotija (optional)


1 garlic clove

1/4 tsp sea salt

2 tbsp red wine vinegar

1/8 tsp white pepper

4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil​​​​​​​


Recipes reprinted with permission. Photos reprinted with permission of Tracey Kusiewicz , Foodie Photography​.