By Verónica Toro
The Maya have been characterized over time as a multifaceted civilization. They were astronomers, mathematicians, farmers, hunters, craftsmen, traders and, it turns out, excellent chefs. Their cuisine is a practice that has remained almost entirely intact among residents of the southern areas of Mexico such as Merida and Quintana Roo.
Their diet consisted primarily of cocoa or chocolate, which appears to be the first food cultivated by this group. They used it to make coins and also considered it “the drink of the gods” which only members of nobility should consume. When the Spanish arrived, it essentially became a common beverage. Another fundamental food item was corn, “the center of life“. It was sacred to the Mayas because it constituted 80% of their daily diet, and was considered the basis of the creation of human beings, as mentioned in the Popol Vuh.
The Maya also ate meat. They survived on their hunting and fishing expeditions, which produced poultry such as turkeys, chickens, ducks, and animals such as wild boar, squirrel, rabbit and venison. Today the most well-known preparations of these meats are pibil, boiled and fried.
Over time, Mayan cuisine has undergone some slight changes in the preparation of various dishes. However, the essence has been preserved; it was also fused with Spanish cooking techniques since their arrival in Mexican territories. Below, we briefly describe some of the many dishes from this region.
Pork marinated in annatto seed, wrapped in banana leaves and roasted in the oven. It is commonly accompanied by red onion cured in sour orange, and eaten in tacos or tortas.
A base of corn tortilla with a layer of refried beans, accompanied by chicken, shredded meat or egg, with lettuce, tomato, cucumber and avocado.
Thick corn tortilla fried in oil or lard, served with lettuce, sliced tomato, turkey or chicken and avocado. Essentially the same as a panucho, without the layer of refried beans.
Tacos filled with chopped hardboiled eggs with pumpkin seed salsa.
Sopa de lima
Chicken stock with chicken and sour lime juice, seasoned with onion, sweet chilies and fried tomatoes. Garnished with julienned fried tortilla and slices of lime.
Fried eggs, served on a bed of tortilla fried in lard and bean paste, bathed in tomato salsa with bits of ham, peas, carrots, plantain, cream and grated cheese.
Very similar to sopes. A corn tortilla filled with white bean paste, spring onion and ground pumpkin seeds. Fried and served with green cabbage dressed in sour orange.
Grilled pork, marinated in warm salt water and accompanied by grilled onion and X´nipec salsa (sour orange juice, tomato, onion and cilantro).
Frijol con puerco
Pork cooked in beans, served with rice and accompanied by chiltomate salsa, radish, cilantro and onion.
Pork cooked in a regional black spice paste, served in tacos or sandwiches.
Rice and hibiscus flower beverages are the most common.
“Traditional sweets” as they are called, have seasonal fruits such as plum, zapote, cocotal, sweet potato and pumpkin. The principal feature of these desserts, in addition to cocoa is honey.
This cuisine’s fame is due to its whimsical combinations and blends of seasonings and spices:
pumpkin seeds, annatto seed, various chilies like sweet chilies and habanero, cilantro, red onion, oregano and many others.
These dishes have not only contributed to the contentment of millions of happy tourists and residents in the southern regions of the country, but have helped preserve the traditions and culinary customs of Mexico over thousands of generations. What better way to delight the palate than with Mayan delights?
By Verónica Toro