The amaranth species is used for its seed and its leaves are eaten as a green vegetable. The popped grain is popularly used (both in the past and in modern times) to make a sweet treat called “alegria” (happiness/joy).
The amaranth species of quelite is a valuable plant and was held in high esteem by the Azteca. It was one of four grains (the others being maize (corn), frijoles (beans) and chia) that was considered acceptable as tribute from their vassal states. Amaranth grain was second in importance only to that of corn. It has been estimated that prior to the arrival of the Spanish more than 20,000 tonnes of amaranth was cultivated annually. The leaves of the amaranth are a nutritious vegetable in their own right and are commonly known as bledo or quintoniles in México. The Nahuatl word huaútli was the original name for amaranth and michihuautli (fish amaranth) was the name of the variety commonly used to make tzoalli. Tzoalli (also zoale), these days called alegria (happiness) is made from the popped amaranth seed (it is commonly called a grain but botanically speaking it is a seed) which is mixed with piloncillo (brown sugar), maguey syrup or honey.
Amaranth occupied a prominent place in Aztec sacred ritual. The use of amaranth was actively suppressed by the Spanish as its usage conflicted with some of their religious beliefs. It was the confection known as tzoalli that so incensed the Spanish as the practice of making effigies of gods from amaranth seed and consuming them as part of religious festivals resembled the practice of holy communion too closely for them to feel comfortable about its use. Claims were made that the heresy of the tzoalli was particularly heinous due to the fact that human blood was used to bind the mixture (some sources indicate that quail blood was used). Hernan Cortés bemoaned that these idols made from ground seeds of which they ate were mistreated with the blood from the hearts of human bodies before they were eaten. The blood was either mixed with the dough or smeared on the finished statue (some were larger than a man) and that sometimes the blood of children was used. There does appear to be evidence of the use of human blood in these rituals but I am aware that religions often resort to fairy tales so as to justify their own crimes as actions of righteousness. There is no doubt however of evidence of sacrifice and ritualised cannibalism throughout Mesoamerica. The use of blood is somewhat dubious as, generally speaking, blood was the food of the Gods not of men. Morena (etal 2012) mentions the use of the red pulp of the fruit of the nopal, the tuna, being used. This would bear symbolic relevance as this fruit was representative of the human heart in various rituals.
The Spanish imposed cruel and uncompromising punishments for growing huaútli, including cutting off the hands of those who dared to plant it. Indigenous beliefs were stamped out quickly to make way for the god of the invaders.
Festivals involving the consumption of tzoalli were relatively frequent and involved many of the gods from the Aztec pantheon. The primary god Huitzilopochtli was celebrated in the month of panquetzaliztli (Feast of the Flags of Precious Feathers). A large effigy of the god was made from amaranth, honey and maize (and some say blood) which was then adorned and paraded around the streets of Tenochtitlan. The procession ended in front of the sacrificial temple and the sculpture was torn apart and pieces of the “bones and flesh” of the god were given to the faithful to eat. Those eating of the god pledged to serve him for one full year. This ritual destruction of the effigy is also echoed in a ceremony held for Tlaloc (a water/rain god) in the 16th month of atemoztli where the effigy was put to death by being ceremonially decapitated before being eaten by the faithful.
Festivals were also held for Chicomecoatl (a corn goddess) in hueytozoztli (the 4th month) and Xiuhtecuhtli (a fire god) in Izcalli (the 18th month). This festival was called uauhquiltamalcualiztli and the tzoalli tamales eaten during the festivities were known as uauhquiltamalli or chalchiuhtamalli. Another festival called the feast of the mountains was held in tepehuitl (the 13th month) where models of mountains were made of huauhtli. Human sacrifices were made at this ceremony. Tzoalli made for these ritual purposes were known as “teixiptla” (teoixiptla) or ixiptla.
A teixiptla IS the being whom it embodies, it is neither an impression nor a representation of that being. A teixiptla cannot exist apart from the being it embodies. (Basset, p135-136). By ingesting the tzoalli the Mexica “affirmed their identity with Huitzilopochtli” (or the god concerned). They testified to be his living manifestation in the world. This was important as the destiny of the god corresponded to the destiny of his people.
The tzoalli sculpture as displayed above does bear a striking resemblance to the Mexica greenstone carving of Huitzilopochtli shown below which is currently on display at the Musée du Quay Branly, Paris.
A ritual involving tzoalli was described by Diego Duran in 1574 and he noted that;
“The priest brought down a small idol made of this dough. Its eyes were small green beads, and its teeth were grains of corn…[The priest] descended the steps of the temple as swiftly as possible and climbed to the top of a great stone…Still embracing the image he ascended to the place where those who were to be sacrificed stood, and from one end to the other he went along showing the figure to each one saying, ‘Behold your god!’”
These rituals were unacceptable to the Spanish. Sahagun himself thought that the cult of the tzoalli was “a child’s game, for people without brains rather than for men of reason”. (Le Clezio, p71)
This came from a man who, without doubt, had knelt before a catholic priest to receive communion, the ritual of transubstantiating (1) bread (and wine) into the body (and blood) of the son of (a) (2) god before consuming it.
- Transubstantiation : the change of substance or essence by which the bread and wine offered in the sacrifice of the sacrament of the Eucharist during the Mass, become, in reality, the body and blood of Jesus Christ. (according to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church)
- Belief systems differ
In 1626, in response to a rebellion against the acceptance of Christianity occurring amongst indigenous groups who were re-enacting tzoalli ceremonies (one would like to assume without human sacrifice or the use of human blood), Ruiz de Alarcon railed against the idolatry of the tzoalli cult as “ample proof of the very great yearnings and efforts of the devil in continuation of his first sin” which was “his arrogance in wanting to be similar to our Lord God” as the devil was urging these unfortunate people to allow themselves to be possessed by him by eating him in those small idols that imitated so realistically the “very singular mystery of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, in which Our Lord, ordered that we should actually eat him” (Esteban Hernández Bermejo, p94-96)
Modern ritual use of huauhtli remains. In Temalcatzingo, a Nahuatl community in Guerrero, they still make use of tzoalli for ritual purposes. During the Copal festival, aimed at requesting rains (from Tlaloc?) children make amaranth figures which are eaten at the end of the ceremony.
On the streets of México today you can easily find alegria. Made of toasted and popped amaranth seed mixed with piloncillo or honey (and sometimes with peanuts, pepitas, sunflower seeds or raisins mixed in) they are sold in stores and on the street. In October and November during Dia de los muertos you can find tzoalli skulls for sale.
Dulce de Alegria
- 250 gr of popped (or toasted) amaranth grain
- Juice of 1/2 a lime
- 1 cone of panela (piloncillo) (rapadura sugar can be used as a substitute)
- 250ml water
Place the sugar and water in a heavy bottomed pot and cook, stirring frequently, until the syrup has reached the hard ball stage, 250-265°F (125-133°C) on a candy thermometer.
Cold Water Test: Hard ball: when the syrup is dropped into cold water it may be formed into a hard ball. The ball will hold its shape in your hand but it is still flexible enough that you can squish it easily with your fingers.
Add the lime juice, remove from the heat and add the amaranth immediately, stirring it in with a wooden spoon or paddle.
Before it cools down, place it in square moulds pressing it down to about 3cm in thickness
Cool the mixture until partially set, and cut it into squares. Wrap the pieces individually in cellophane and store in a tin for up to one month. For Dia de Muertos shape the mixture into skulls by hand or press into a skull mould.
You can add pumpkin seeds (or peanuts or any nut you like) or raisins into the warm mixture before placing it into the mould or alternatively you could press some nuts into the top of the mixture after it has been placed in the mould.
If you don’t have sugar you could use warmed honey or agave syrup to sweeten and bind the mixture.
In Tlaxcala you can find alegria water. It is a fresh beverage (an agua fresca) similar to horchata (1) prepared with amaranth, cinnamon and sugar.
The use of the seed in México really hasn’t changed much since pre-Columbian days.
- Horchata (or orxata) is the name of several kinds of beverages, made of ground almonds, sesame seeds, rice, barley, tiger nuts (chufas), or melon seeds. In Mexico and Guatemala, horchata is made of rice, sometimes with vanilla and always with cinnamon. It is a sweet, creamy drink.
The following recipe uses the seeds of the amaranth.
Horchata de Amaranto
- 250g whole amaranth seed (don’t use the puffed variety)
- 12 cups (3 litres) of cold water
- 2 cups (500ml) milk
- Honey (Option – If you do not have honey, you can substitute sugar as a sweetener)
- Blend or grind the amaranth seed as fine as you can
- Mix the amaranth flour with half the water and let stand for ten minutes.
- Strain the seed/water mix and place in a large jug
- Add the milk, the rest of the water (or as much or as little as you prefer) and sweeten with honey. Refrigerate.
- Serve this drink icy cold
Horchata de Amaranto de Tlaxcala (Adapted from a recipe by Edgar Cruz D)
- 10g amaranth flour
- 15g amaranth (whole)
- 800ml milk
- 200ml evaporated milk
- Honey (to taste)
- in a large jug place the amaranth flour and grain pour over the milks.
- mix well and allow to soak for 30 minutes
- Blend mix well. Strain (if you so desire) and sweeten to your liking. Maybe use agave syrup or maple syrup instead of honey.
- 1 1/3 cups uncooked long-grain white rice
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 4 cups water
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 2 x 5cm cinnamon sticks
- 1/3 to 1/2 cup of caster sugar (or to taste)
- 1 1/2 cups cold water (or you could use milk – optional)
- In a large jug or bowl add the rice, the water, and the broken up cinnamon sticks.
- Allow to soak overnight
- Blend the mixture (in batches) about for 2 minutes or until the rice and cinnamon sticks are well ground.
- Strain the rice mixture through a fine mesh strainer, into a jug and discard the rice. Strain the mixture until all the grit is removed. You want this drink to be smooth and creamy
- Stir in the extra water (or the milk), vanilla and sugar (sweeten to your preference).
- Chill until ready to serve. Stir well before serving and serve over ice.
Options : you can add ½ cup of chopped almonds to the rice before soaking to add extra creaminess (particularly if you do not want to add milk)
Leche de Amaranto (Amaranth Milk)
Amaranth seed can also be used to produce a nutritious milk in a vein similar to nut milks such as almond milk.
- ¾ cup of amaranth seed. Use the whole seed and not the puffed or popped variety.
- 4 cups water
- ¼ teaspoons salt
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon honey or agave nectar
- Soak the amaranth in the water for 1 hour, or until it’s soft.
- Heat the mixture in a pot. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer until it thickens slightly and the amaranth darkens a couple of shades.
- Allow to cool, grind or blend well and strain.
- Once strained, add the vanilla, salt and honey. Mix well
For a recipe on cooking amaranth greens see my post on Quelites.
Atole is a traditional mexican corn based beverage which has been thickened using masa (although these days masa harina is often used). It may be sweet or savoury and can vary in thickness from watery to a thick gruel. Generally speaking it should be smooth textured. There is a variety called xocoatolli (sour atole) made with partially fermented masa.
Atole de amaranto
Another version of this drink is made with the puffed seeds of the amaranth plant.
- 3 cups of puffed amaranth
- 3 cups of water
- 2 cups of milk
- Piloncillo (to taste)
- 5cm Cinnamon stick
- Pinch of salt
- Boil the water with the pinch of salt and cinnamon
- Blend together the milk with the puffed amaranth and pour into the boiling water mixture
- Let boil for about 10 minutes and add sugar to your taste. This drink can be as sweet as you like it to be. Continue boiling for another 5 minutes until it thickens up a little. Stir constantly so the mixture does not stick to the pot and burn.
This drink can also be made from amaranth flour.
- 1 litre milk
- 1 (5cm) stick cinnamon
- ¼ cups sugar
- ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1-⅔ cup amaranth flour
- ½ cups puffed amaranth
- Place the milk, cinnamon and sugar in a pot over medium heat; bring to a boil stirring constantly. Add the vanilla.
- Slowly add the amaranth flour and whisk carefully. Reduce heat and cook until it thickens and starts to boil again.
- Remove from heat and discard cinnamon.
- Pour into serving cups and top each cup with puffed amaranth.
- Bassett, Molly H. : The Fate of Earthly Things “Aztec Gods and God Bodies” : University of Texas Press : 2015
- Boone, Elizabeth H. (1989). Incarnations of the Aztec Supernatural: The Image of Huitzilopochtli in Mexico and Europe. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society (New Series), 79(2), i–iv+1-107. doi:10.2307/1006524
- Early, D.K. 1990. Amaranth production in Mexico and Peru. p. 140-142. In: J. Janick and J.E. Simon (eds.), Advances in new crops. Timber Press, Portland, OR.
- Kauffman, C.S., and L.E. Weber. 1990. Grain amaranth. p. 127-139. In: J. Janick and J.E. Simon (eds.), Advances in new crops. Timber Press, Portland, OR.
- Le Clezio, J.M.G. : The Mexican Dream “Or, The Interrupted Thought of Amerindian Civilizations” : University of Chicago Press : 1993
- Flores Farfán, José Antonio & Elferink, Jan : The Aztec communion: tzoalli in religion and medicine of the Aztecs
- RUIZ DE ALARCÓN, H., ANDREWS, J. R., & HASSIG, R. (1984). Treatise on the heathen superstitions that today live among the Indians native to this New Spain, 1629. Norman, University of Oklahoma Press.
- Sauer, Jonathan Deininger (1950). The Grain Amaranths: A Survey of Their History and Classification. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, 37(4), 561–632. doi:10.2307/2394403
- Sauer, J. 1967. The grain amaranths and their relatives: A revised taxonomic and geographic survey. Ann. Missouri Bot. Gard. 54(2):103-37.
- Sauer, J. 1977. The history of grain amaranths and their use and cultivation around the world. Proc. First Amaranth Seminar. Emmaus, PA
2 thoughts on “Amaranth and the Tzoalli Heresy”
So interesting, I had no idea. Good stuff.
The history of this seed is quite amazing. It is usually overshadowed by its “cousin” quinoa as a superfood but I find it to be a far more versatile and undervalued ingredient in the kitchen. Its history and the way it was treated by the Spanish and the Church is fascinating (and more than a little horrifying).