The Seri Indians—or comcáac (people) as they call themselves in their language—are indigenous people living in the villages of El Desemboque del Sur and Punta Chueca, on the coast of the Gulf of California, surrounded by the rocks and ancient cacti of the Sonoran desert in Mexico.
For centuries the Seri have lived in a habitat that receives less than 100 mm average annual rainfall: they have developed food traditions that do not depend on cultivating crops but are based on the more than 180 species of fish and seafood, game and hundreds of herbs and wild plants growing in the desert. Among these, the place of honor goes to mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), a wild legume species which is widespread throughout the region in various varieties but only the Seri keep eating the fire-roasted seed pods of this mesquite species on a regular basis.
The mesquite bush can live till 100 years and over time grows into a leafy tree. It has thin thorns and little dark green leaves. Its sweet fruits—which look like long flat beans—are gathered when dry and yellow-red.
The women of the villages, who do the harvesting, go into the desert and move from bush to bush, removing pods one by one or shaking the branches with sticks and rakes to knock the mesquite onto sheets laid on the ground. The best locations, which yield the sweetest fruit, are the beds of old rivers. The soil is dry but water remains deep down.
Until a few years ago, each family would take their pods home, dry them, toast them on burning coals and grind them with a stick to reduce them to a fine flour. Two small technological innovations have now been introduced to the Seri villages: a roasting machine (a cylinder with holes which is rotated over a gas fire by a handle) and a mill to grind the pods. These two simple pieces of equipment allow the villagers to avoid using burning coals, an exhausting process since when the pods are gathered in July the temperature rarely falls below 40°C.
Mesquite flour is yellow, tending to bright green, with a fine consistency and sweet, smoky flavor: after being sieved it is weighed and packed into paper bags.
The flour is the basis for most traditional recipes eaten by the Seri, as well as being an important source of protein: it is used every day to make tortillas, tamales, atoles and pastries filled with cactus fruit sauce; sometimes it is mixed with a little water or milk.
In recent years mesquite flour is also proving to be an essential factor in safeguarding the health of this people who are particularly susceptible to conditions such as diabetes and obesity. The benefits are due to galactomannin gums and other complex carbohydrates contained in the pods, which once consumed, are digested and absorbed slowly into the blood, reducing the level of sugar and promoting the proper functioning of insulin.
The Slow Food Presidium for Seri roasted mesquite, formally established in the summer 2007, aims to defend the use of mesquite flour by the Seri and to promote the use of this traditional product on the local market. The Presidium activities involve a group of women from El Desemboque del Sur who belong to the Cooperativa Mujeres Productoras de Desemboque de los Seris, formed when the project was launched.
The women bring their harvested pods to the cooperative, receiving a fair price according to the quality of the product: the pods must be selected and well dried. Some of the women in the cooperative work on the final stages of roasting, grinding and packaging.
What is a Slow Food Presidia?
The Slow Food Presidia are projects sustaining quality production at risk of extinction, protecting unique regions and ecosystems, recovering traditional processing methods, safeguarding native breeds and local plant varieties.
Check out our website: http://www.slowfoodfoundation.com/presidia
Photos — Peter Blystone