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Growing up, Claudia Serrato’s fondest memories were eating Mexican food with her grandparents — nopales, pipian, atole, caldo, sopa de fideo, to name a few — a diet she described as “not being animal-based, heavy or highly processed.”

“I always was so proud of my cultural heritage food, because that’s how I was raised,” Serrato, who uses ‘she’ and ‘they’ pronouns, said.

Serrato is a self-described plant-based, Mesoamerican Indigenous chef and a culinary anthropologist. They completed their dissertation in Indigenous culinary anthropology, as part of a doctorate program at the University of Washington.

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Serrato, who lives in Montebello, always wanted to study food — from the way food is grown to its many health benefits. Most importantly, they said, how natural food helps and represents diverse communities.

“I was really interested in indigenous food work, in Mesoamerican food ways,” the 46-year-old said. “I felt like there was a huge gap in food studies, that it was Western-centric. What about the cultural components and aspects of food?”

Serrato’s family is from Mexico. She said she identifies with the nationality of being Mexican, while also embracing her ethnicity of being Purépecha, a group of Indigenous people from Northwest Mexico. Their family is also Zacatecas and Huastecs; the latter is a fraction of Mayan ancestry, Serrato said.

As a young adult, Serrato explored a love of natural food, always leaning toward home-cooked meals, and experimenting with recipes from her culture. Today, she uses all these same attributes in cooking.

“I was always forced to take on a national identity,” Serrato said. “I was always told I was Mexican American, but no one ever said to me ‘Do you know what that means? It means that you are an indigenous person colonized by the Spanish.’ I decided to reclaim my indigenous ancestry because that’s important to who I am today and who I am tomorrow, and also for my offspring.”

Since 2008, Serrato has been posting online content about indigenous cooking and practices; originally starting a blog and then posting on Facebook. Their recipes have been featured on NYT Cooking, ABC News and Telemundo, among others.

Serrato is also a co-founder of Across Our Kitchen Tables, an organization centering BIPOC culinary methods and groups through events and conversations.

“I used to write about what it means to return to our cultural heritage foods, how it affirms our cultural identity,” she said. “I had a revelation where I was like, ‘I need to liberate myself.’ I decided to do that by decolonizing my diet and taste buds.”

Serrato began to do workshops around what it means to “decolonize” diet — which she defines as critically thinking about where food comes from, and what ingredients one’s ancestors would have used.

“I teach about and share foods that were originally here in the Americas, and provide knowledge about the foods that were introduced over time and through colonization,” Serrato said. “When we begin to supplement and remember our cultural heritage foods, then in essence and practice, we engage in decolonizing our diet and our minds. This is something that can be done today in our dishes.”

When Instagram launched, Serrato focused on sharing authentic recipes and resources on sustainability, and soon gained a big following. But more importantly, they gained a community of interested learners and intentional eaters.

Their Instagram account, @xicana_indigena, now has over 12,000 followers.

For years, Serrato has hosted popular workshops, food demos and pop-up dinners at home, online and in venues across L.A. They hosted several tasting events with the goal to decolonize food, while teaching others about indigenous culture — including a recent fall workshop at the Getty Center, for Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Serrato is working to create L.A.-area cooking classes in December, and wants to continue posting Instagram content that teaches more people about natural Mesoamerican food, indigenous history and perspectives. She also wants to start a new series called “Mesoamerican Monday,” and wants to make it a “holistic experience.”

Montebello resident Jazmin Escobar first learned about Serrato through Instagram. Later, by chance, she had Serrato as a professor in 2022 while studying Chicanx studies at Cal State Dominguez Hills, and was inspired by her work.

“I have chronic depression and some of my triggers are sugar and processed foods and having a high-fat processed diet,” Escobar, 39, shared. “It made me want to be more intentional with the types of food I am putting into my body. I began the steps to decolonize my diet — a concept that (Serrato) introduced in her classroom.”

Escobar, who has been to one of Serrato’s pop-up tasting events, has since been hired to work some of her events as an assistant and prep cook. She called the food “fantastic,” and said Serrato’s sopa de fideo with spaghetti squash made her cry because “it had the flavors my grandmother made.” The nostalgic taste, she says, is also like nothing she’s eaten before. 

She also loves that the ingredients used in many of the chef’s meals are native to the area and culture.

“She’s very intentional with her ingredients and you feel that as you’re eating her food,” Escobar said. “It’s represented in the plating, it’s represented in the menu, It’s not just tacos thrown on a plate. You know that the food is nutritionally sound and nutrient dense.”

Since meeting Serrato and taking the steps to be more intentional about what she eats, Escobar said she feels overall healthier and more connected to her culture.

“Learning how to connect what ingredients and pieces I want to remember from my childhood, without the process that’s going to make me sick, has been amazing.”

One way Serrato said she continues to decolonize her diet is by thinking about what the ancestors would have used in meals — without losing the tasty, natural flavor profile Mesoamerican food is known for.

“Let’s not lose the flavor. Let’s just rethink our ingredients in a more sustainable and authentic cultural way.”

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