When Maya Santamaria was growing up, her mother would often feed her a breakfast of an egg, Mexican rice and plantains.
To Santamaria, now the owner of El Nuevo Rodeo in Minneapolis, it was a meal steeped in tradition — the heritage of her Mexican family.
“It never occurred to me then,” she said, “that it was African food my mother was giving me.”
So when Santamaria heard that Obsidian Arts Center was interested in partnering with the Mexican Consulate of St. Paul and her business to produce an educational dinner discussing African influence on Mexican cooking, she was in.
El Rodeo Nuevo and chef Emilio Maldonado are hosting the five-course feast — La Bamba: An Afro-Mexican Dinner and Dance — on Oct. 20, making an effort to celebrate a blended culture that isn’t familiar to many.
Dora Elena Careaga-Coleman, from Albuquerque, N.M., will prepare the meal along with Maldonado.
“Most Mexicans that don’t live in a predominantly African area of Mexico would probably never think there was any African influence on Mexico at all,” Santamaria said. “We’re all Mexican-Indian and Spanish and that’s it. But the reality of the situation is that the African blood is very much mixed in and spread far.”
Mexico never relied on slavery in the way the U.S. did, but the country did turn to slaves in the 1500s and 1600s after the indigenous population declined due to infectious disease, Santamaria said.
When African slaves were transported to Mexico, they brought with them recipes and some foods. But without the same ingredients to rely on — certain root vegetables and okra, for example — Africans adapted their diet, just as they would do in the United States.
The result is a Mexican cuisine tinged with heavy doses of African influence. For example, menudo — a tripe soup — is one of the most traditional Mexican dishes. But tripe wasn’t something Mexicans or Spaniards ate in pre-colonial years.
“It was not something that was on the tables of Mexican people until the Africans influenced a certain area,” Santamaria said.
Other “traditional” Mexican ingredients that originated in Africa? Sesame seeds, watermelon, yams, black beans and tamarind.
“All thanks to African descent, as well,” Santamaria said.
Maldonado, along with Careaga-Coleman, will cook some of those ingredients and more on Oct. 20 as they discuss the origins and fusions that took place.
Tickets are $50; for more information, visit obsidianartscenter.org.