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  • Dr. Félix Landry Yuan

INDIGENOUS SPIRULINA TRADITIONS


The origins of spirulina in food traditions are ancient, and limited to some of the world’s most impressive alkaline lake basins. These three cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, species of the genus Arthrospira are adaptable to multiple environments. But this versatility allows them to thrive in places too alkaline or salty for the presence of other cyanobacteria which may be toxic to humans [1]. In this way the safe consumption of Spirulina could only develop in these unique environments.



Arthrospira species are found globally, in lakes across all continents [2]. Yet possibly due to a combination of historical and ecological factors, traditional culinary practices involving Spirulina have mainly been documented in central America and Africa’s Sahel region.


In Chad and parts of Niger, spirulina food traditions date back at least one thousand years among the Kanembu people [3]. These descendants of the once powerful Kanem-Bornu Empire, continue to harvest, sell, and cook spirulina. There, the salty and alkaline waters of the Lake Chad basin remain a great environment for the growth of spirulina. The entire process is led by women, and begins with harvesting by skimming the cyanobacteria from the water’s surface [3]. It is then drained, pressed into cakes, and sun-dried. Regionally known as dihé, these spirulina cakes are sold and traded, providing substantial financial revenue for local communities [3]. Through trade, dihé can eventually reach the city markets of the country, and even cross over into neighbouring countries, such as Cameroon and Nigeria [3].


Around the Lake Chad basin, a traditional method for consuming spirulina involves crushing dihé cakes, mixing with water, straining and then simmering over heat. It can then be combined with seasonings, and cooked with vegetables, namely okra, in addition to fish or meat [3]. Spirulina aside, this preparation bears resemblance to many other dishes from across sub-Saharan Africa. This stew is eaten with a starch, flour-based meal made from sorghum or millet, which are indigenous to the region, as well as maize [3]. Again, this is similar to fufu, ugali, and nsima, among other regional names, in West, East, and Southern African countries, respectively.


Spirulina traditions in the Lake Chad basin are not only important culturally, and economically, but also physically. There, people regularly eating dihé have been reported to sustain high levels of vitamin A in their blood [4]. It is therefore clear that the health properties of spirulina have long been recognized in this region.


Across the Atlantic Ocean, a similar dependence on spirulina is said to have existed in the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, in what is now Mexico [5]. This city was founded on an island in Lake Texcoco, which containted nutrient-rich, fresh and brackish waters. There, spirulina was given the name of tecuitlatl, meaning “stone excrements” [5]; a reflection of the species’ ecology. Unfortunately, the harvest, trade and consumption of spirulina in this region started to decline with the onset of Spanish colonialism in the 16th century [6]. The erosion of indigenous cultures, and the gradual draining of Lake Texcoco’s nutrient rich waters [7] have vastly reduced the survival of local harvesting techniques and recipes. Early historical records suggest that harvesting techniques were similar to that of dihé in the Lake Chad basin [6]. Yet the way it was consumed would have apparently differed, since tecuitlatl was reportedly often cooked as bread or cake to be eaten while travelling [6].



Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_conquest_of_the_Aztec_Empire#/media/File:Conquista-de-M%C3%A9xico-por-Cort%C3%A9s-Tenochtitlan-Painting.png


Despite the loss of Mexico’s indigenous spirulina traditions, there has been a growing contemporary interest in this superfood in recent decades [8]. In this case, the revival has provided an avenue for many to reconnect with their ancestral, pre-colonial roots, while also reaping the health benefits of spirulina. Reinventing, modifying or adapting ancient foods.


Learning from the Aztecs of Mexico and the Kanembu of Chad, it is clear that spirulina has been recognized as a highly nutritious food source since ancient times. This knowledge, whether passed down directly or revived through a renewed interest, provides a solid foundation for understanding how to consume spirulina and maximize its nutritional potency. Given the turbulent history for much of the world over the past few centuries, it has been common for indigenous food practices to disappear. Yet given the global distribution of Arthrospira species [2], the possibility for other ancient spirulina traditions are worth considering. The discovery of such could help further incentivize efforts to value spirulina as a versatile food resource.



Dr. Félix Landry Yuan



References

1. Grosshagauer, S., Kraemer, K. and Somoza, V. 2020. The true value of Spirulina. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 68, 4109-4115.

2. Sili, C., Torzillo, G. and Vonshak, A. 2012. Arthrospira (Spirulina). In Ecology of Cyanobacteria II (pp. 677-705). Springer, Dordrecht.

3. Abdulqader, G., Barsanti, L. and Tredici, M.R. 2000. Harvest of Arthrospira platensis from Lake Kossorom (Chad) and its household usage among the Kanembu. Journal of Applied Phycology, 12, 493-498.

4. Soudy, I.D., Minet-Quinard, R., Mahamat, A.D., Ngoua, H.F., Izzedine, A.A., Tidjani, A., Ngo Bum, E., Lambert, C., Pereira, B., Desjeux, J.F. and Sapin, V. 2018. Vitamin A status in healthy women eating traditionally prepared spirulina (Dihé) in the Chad Lake area. Plos One, 13, e0191887.

5. Farrar, W.V. 1966. Tecuitlatl; a glimpse of Aztec food technology. Nature, 211, 341-342.

6. Ciferri, O., 1983. Spirulina, the edible microorganism. Microbiological Reviews, 47, 551-578.

7. Montero-Rosado, C., Ojeda-Trejo, E., Espinosa-Hernández, V., Fernández-Reynoso, D., Caballero Deloya, M. and Benedicto Valdés, G.S. 2022. Water Diversion in the Valley of Mexico Basin: An Environmental Transformation That Caused the Desiccation of Lake Texcoco. Land, 11, 542.

8. DeRenzo, N. 2021. How Mexico is reclaiming spirulina. BBC. https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20210111-how-mexico-is-reclaiming-spirulina


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