“The female chefs in Yucatán are magicians,” says Miriam Peraza, owner of the restaurant Manjar Blanco. In our interview we talked about women, grandmothers, and the magic of the aromas and flavors of Yucatecan cuisine.

Wearing a colorful traditional dress “hipil,” Miriam smiles and recounts the story of her grandmother Enriqueta, native of Valladolid, who taught her how to love Yucatán through cooking. In the garden in her back patio, she grew everything she needed for day-to-day cooking: onion, cilantro, tomato, and a complete herb garden.

With the memory of childhood flavors, six years ago in December 2011, Miriam opened Manjar Blanco in Barrio Santa Ana as a project which seeks to rescue the magic of local gastronomy. Miriam explains, “Time has stopped in the communities of rural Yucatán. The women still raise turkeys, squawking chickens, and they continue tending to their gardens. Some still prepare their dishes over an open fire, respecting nature and using only the limbs and dead trunks, which is a mystical Maya tradition that was handed down to them by their mothers and grandmothers.”

Her passion and enthusiasm for the woman’s role in the kitchen infuses all of her ideas: “Seeing all of this in my culture pushed me to open a restaurant that is not only an homage to Yucatecan cooking, but also to the strong and magical women who don’t even realize how valuable they are.”

Within only a few minutes, Miriam transmits her vision of the many Maya women who live in the rural communities throughout Yucatán. She believes that these women deserve the title of “master chefs.” Many of these women are monolingual, speaking only Maya, and demonstrate incredible physical and mental strength, by waking up very early to prepare the “masa” (corn dough) and collect the necessary ingredients for the preparation of the day’s meals. These same women possess the ancestral wisdom of medicinal plants and their nutritional properties as well as the secrets to making every meal a delicious experience.

“I say that they are magicians because there is never a lack of food in their homes for their family or visitors. They are creative – inventing new recipes to make use of leftovers or new ingredients,” emphasizes Miriam. These women incorporate ideas from different cultures and traditions, creating the distinct gastronomic and cultural fusion that amazes travelers who visit Yucatán.

As a part of this culinary conservation and female empowerment project, over the last two years Miriam has hosted “Meetings with the traditional Maya chefs,” events which unite master chefs with locals and travelers. Students learn traditional recipes like “la melcocha de Doña Socorro de Dzityá” and the pork dishes from Sucilá, among others. These events create sisterhood among Maya women of all ages from all over the state. Otherwise, these women would never have the opportunity to meet one another and receive the social and cultural recognition that they deserve.  There are women more than 80 years old, a living legacy of Yucatecan wisdom that we can still learn from.

Some of these women have joined the team that represents the national and international tourist “tianguis” (showcase) during Yucatecan week in México City, where people form long lines to taste their food. Miriam smiles, “Getting on a plane and a stage for the first time, and then receiving the applause and recognition from the audience has changed many of these women’s lives. Today, they sell more or have started their own food businesses. This makes me very proud.”

Miriam created a non-profit organization to support the continuation of this work, which brings Maya women into an international culinary conversation. The organization receives donations and other support, which brings events to life as well as the rescue of important traditional recipes. Starting in March, you will be able to take group cooking classes (with reservation), where you not only learn the recipe, but also how to conjure the mystical ambience necessary for sincere traditional cooking.

Like Miriam says, the Yucatecan women are magicians, in the kitchen as well as other realms. Let’s celebrate them every day.

Restaurante Manjar Blanco
Calle 47 #496 between 60 y 58, Centro
Every day, 8 am – 6 pm
FB: El Manjar Blanco

By Violeta H. Cantarell