Visitors and locals agree, Yucatán is a foodie’s paradise. The last few decades have brought to the region many new styles and flavors of cuisine; however traditional Yucatecan food remains hugely popular. When inspecting menus at Yucatecan restaurants you may see items described as “Pollo Pibil, Maya-style chicken” or “Papadzules, Maya egg roll”. Such dishes are always delicious, but they beg the question, are they really Maya?
Contemporary mestizo people do in fact eat many of these same dishes. However, most of the “Maya foods” you will find in traditional cookbooks or on restaurant menus call for some elements and techniques which would not have been available to, say a 2nd-century Maya family living in Kabah.
The Maya had one of the most varied diets of the ancient world. Corn (maize) was the most important staple, along with vegetables and legumes such as beans and squash. Since antiquity, Mesoamerican civilizations have processed corn using a technique known as Nixtamalización. This step is important because it makes corn more malleable and easy to work with, but also because it improves corn’s nutritional value.
Much like their descendants, the ancient Maya would use a stone tool called a Metate to grind corn into tortillas which they would cook on a comal and use to wrap foods such as meat and beans. That’s right the ancient Maya did indeed eat tacos!
They also domesticated animals like turkeys and ducks, and hunted wild game such as deer and tapir. In coastal areas as X’Cambó, fishing was a very common source of animal protein. Besides fish, the Maya along the coast also enjoyed shrimp, conch, and other shellfish. It is believed that seafood was greatly prized by Maya nobles and that it was exported at great cost to cities in the interior.
Famous Yucatecan dishes such as Cochinita Pibil, certainly have their origins with the ancient Maya, though certain elements may have evolved. For example, in ancient times, the Maya likely enjoyed Pibil peccary and deer instead of the ubiquitous suckling pig version. But other than the choice of protein and perhaps a spice here or there, the ancient recipe would look fairly recognizable to cooks today – complete with its banana leaf wrapping and sour orange marinade.
Just as contemporary folk do, the Maya enjoyed a drink from time to time. The popular Yucatecan liquor known as Xtabentún has its origins in Balché, a ceremonial liqueur produced by the Maya. Because its intense flavor did not sit well with the Spanish Conquistadores, they added anise, and thus Xtabentún was born.
Other timeless ingredients that Yucatecos have loved for millennia include honey, avocados, Chaya, Chayote, and of course, chili peppers. So the next time you are wondering if you should get another bowl of guacamole, just go for it and remind yourself that you are not merely indulging, you are exploring history!
Editorial by Carlos Rosado.
Photography by Carlos Rosado and Yucatán Today for use in Yucatán Today.
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