How Oaxaca Got Her Name: Guaje Seed Pods

When the Spanish arrived in southern Mexico in 1521, they found a region called Huāxyacac, the Nahuatl word for the pod of the tree Leucaena Leucocephala. Of course, they couldn’t pronounce it easily, so they renamed it with the moniker, Oaxaca. Originally, Oaxaca was pronounced wa-shaka from a medieval Spanish root. Now, the X is silent, so we say, wa-haka.

Ready to eat guaje seed pod. Yummy in the tummy.

The tree is also known by the Maya as Uaxim and in English as Leadtree, White Popinac and Wild Tamarind. The pod, spelled phonetically as either Huaje, Guaje or Huaxya, is not edible. Inside the pod container are small green seeds that plump up in early spring (here, in Oaxaca it is late January and early February). The growing range is from Central America to Southern California.

Peel open the deep purple pod and there you have a tangy, somewhat bitter bright green pea that is rich in protein. My Zapotec friends tell me this is a food staple eaten by the grandparents. That means food for the centuries.

Ready-to-eat guaje seeds. I’ve acquired a taste for them!

It will cure your digestive problems, says my friend Arnulfo.

Ah, just like mezcal, I answer him, and he smiles.

We both know there is truth to folk medicine here in the Valles Centrales de Oaxaca. Indigenous food is sustainable.

The land on which I live in Teotitlan del Valle is dotted with these trees. The ones closest to the casita are over twenty feet tall and branches laden with pods hang over the rails of my rooftop terrace now. The pods are within plucking distance. That makes me happy.

Landscape is dotted with guajes, good for erosion control and shade.

When I go up there to read a book in the hammock, I reach out, grab a branch and pick off a pod, open it up and pop the seeds into my mouth. They taste healthy and refreshing. A friend suggested they would be good in salad, too.

There are lots of tips for cooking with guaje seeds from this gourmet food site, Specialty Produce. The ground dried seeds flavor guacamole and traditional Oaxaqueño moles.

When you are in Oaxaca this time of year, give the guaje a try. You might be pleasantly surprised. You’ll find them on comedor tables as a snack, and in markets tied in bundles ready to take home. Be sure to hold the pods up to the light so you can see how plump the seeds are. That’s the It’s Ripe test.

Ripe ones are easily plucked. Open like beans!



6 responses to “How Oaxaca Got Her Name: Guaje Seed Pods

  1. I really enjoy your posts. I wanted to ask you a question, off topic, I hope that is OK.
    I just saw for the first time, Oaxacan rugs on the Pendleton website. I was quite surprised. but maybe I shouldn’t have been.
    Since I live in Portland, I will brag, if anyone doesn’t know, that Pendleton Woolen Mills has been making incredible woolen rugs and blankets here in Oregon (and Washington) for a very long time. Many of them inspired by Native American designs. So when I clicked on a rug, I was very surprised that it was described as “hand dyed and hand loomed by Zapotec Indians in Oaxaca, Mexico”. The cost for a 4 x6 Zeta rug was $1020. A 6×9 Feathers rug is $2800 if anyone cares to look them up.
    I don’t know how long Pendleton has been selling Oaxacan rugs. Are you aware of the relationship? On the one hand, it is great that Oaxacan weavers can supply Pendleton with their rugs. But I am curious how big a presence Pendleton (or other Am. retailers) have in Oaxaca, how well they treat the local weavers and do they pay fair value for the rugs and are the local weavers benefiting from the relationship. I’m sure there are positives and negatives. If you have any knowledge you can share, I would be most interested to hear. Again, I really enjoy all your posts, I know you aren’t doing a blog about about Oaxacan weavers, but would welcome your comments.

    • Interesting that Pendleton is retailing rugs from Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca. But I’m not surprised. There are many enterprising and entrepreneurial weavers and exporters here. I do not know specifically who is involved or how the pricing is determined or how the weavers are paid. Thanks for bringing this to my attention! Glad to see that there is good business going on out there. I wonder what President Orange’s proposed 20% import tax will do to hinder this.

  2. I never knew the origin of the name Oaxaca. Now I do. Thank you.

  3. Lovely article! Mil gracias!

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