Travel in Central or South America and you’ll find it hard to avoid the succulent and once- considered sacred avocado, not only because these fruits are often the size of footballs in their native territory, but because they’re loved and cherished in the regional diet.
The fleshy green fruit is native to Mexico, with archaeologists having found evidence of avocado eating in a cave in the Mexican state of Puebla dating back as far as 10,000 BC. The Mexicans knew they were on to a good thing and the fruit’s reputation must have spread, as archaeologists believe that proper cultivation of avocados began in Mexico and Central America as early as 5,000 BC.
The Aztecs, a name applied to various ethnic groups originating in central Mexico, viewed the avocado as a sacred fertility crop and young women were apparently forbidden to step outside when the fruit was being harvested. Continuing the fertility theme, the name “avocado” comes from the Aztec language, Nahuatl, where the word for avocado, “ahuacatl”, meant “testicle”, reflecting the fruit’s shape.
It wasn’t until sixteenth century Spanish conquistadors learnt of the fruit from the Aztecs and brought it back to Spain that the avocado became a hit beyond Mexico and Central and South America, but visit the Americas today and you’ll find it’s as popular as ever. South Americans in particular have explored every possible culinary use of the avocado. Mashed, smashed, diced and sliced, there’s something for every avocado aficionado. In Brazil, large scoops of avocado are sprinkled with lime (which stops the fruit from going brown) and sugar served in bowls of milkshake form, while other countries champion the versatile and healthy fruit in a variety of savoury dishes, from soups to salads and spreads.
In Venezuela and Colombia, for example, starchy white corn flour is pressed into a cake-like shape called “arepas” which are often stuffed or layered with a smattering of chicken and avocado (pollo y aguacate) and enjoyed morning, noon and night. And no visit to the Colombian capital Bogotá would be complete without a taste of the city’s most famous and loved dish, Ajiaco, a soup made with chicken, potatoes, corn and a herb called “guascas”, and served with rice and avocado on the side. Follow the locals and dip the avocado in the soup.
Avocados also come in more subtle guises in South American cuisine. Venezuela is known for an avocado-based sauce called “guasacaca”, which is made with vinegar, fresh parsley, coriander, green peppers, onion, garlic, salt and oil. The sauce is then drizzled and served over grilled meats, arepas or empanadas – a meat, cheese or veg-filled pastry that’s then baked or fried: South America’s ultimate comfort food.
Of course, guacamole needs no explanation: the staple dip at any self-respecting party. Coming from the word “ahuacamolli” (a conjunction of the Nuahatl words for “avocado” and “sauce”), guacamole is made simply by mashing ripe avocadoes with salt to which a myriad of additional ingredients can be added, from lime juice to chillies, cayenne pepper, coriander, basil or jalapenos. This popular avocado dip used to be known as “mantequilla de pobre“ or “poor man’s butter”, and was common before the arrival of dairy cattle in the Americas.
Some figure-conscious food lovers shy away from avocados as the fruit is high in fat, but actually it contains mainly monounsaturated fats, which are good for the heart. Avocados are also rich in vitamins (B, K, E), potassium, antioxidants and amino acids – and they contain essential oils that can repair damaged hair, treat sunburn and moisturise dry skin – a secret known by South American women for centuries. So even beyond the kitchen, avocado has proven itself to be a substance with many uses – though deliciousness remains its most important attribute.