The Yucatan and the Maya Culture (Part 2)


Tasting the Ancestral Cuisine

The local Yucatecan cuisine is really a kaleidoscope of its past inhabitants beginning with the ancient Maya civilization followed by the succession of other foreign influences.   With each voyage, new ingredients and cooking methods were introduced.  The Spanish brought pigs, citrus fruits and sugarcane.  The Portuguese brought the skill of sausage-making and the French of fine baking.  The Lebanese brought spit-roasting. And the Dutch brought their cheese, especially Edam, an omnipresent ingredient in the local modern cuisine.

A visit to a local Mercado revealed a wealth of ingredients new to us:  Caimito (Star Apple); Mamey, a fruit used for beverages and desserts; and Naranja Agria, or bitter orange.  Naturally, there was plenty of corn, dried beans, tropical fruits such as papayas, mangoes and coconut, plus chilis galore- particularly the local favorite, Habanero, the really hot one! We also saw canela or cinnamon and honey used for desserts and mountains of fresh herbs such as cilantro, but also exotic ones called Epazote and Chaya.

Long a staple of Yucatecan cuisine, Chaya is considered the “miracle food” of the Mayas. It tastes a bit like kale when cooked, but with a nutritional value two-to-three-times that of any other edible leafy green. It is used in a wide variety of ways. Our group first encountered Chaya in a margarita. Later, we enjoyed it cooked in a tamale stuffed with hard boiled eggs in a dish called Brazo de Reina. We also encountered it deep fried as a garnish to a meat dish.

We learned that Chaya leaves are covered with tiny microfibers that can cause skin irritations.  We were told by las Mujeres Mayas (local female cooks) that the tradition is to first whisper to the plant asking permission before gathering its leaves.  As superstitious as it sounds, the Mayas swear it is the only way not to be “stung” by the plant.  Incidentally, Chaya is only consumed cooked, as it is tough.  It also has a high level of hydrocyanic acid and can be dangerous if consumed in large quantities.

Two standout characteristics of Yucatecan cuisine for me was the smokiness in the food preparation and the liberal use of condiments and pastes.  Of the latter, the most often used include Papadzul paste made with ground pumpkin seeds; Black condiment made with red chili pepper, garlic, salt and Epazote (a green herb); and shocking red Annatto paste made with oregano, cumin, peppercorns, garlic, cloves, salt, and Annatto seeds grinded together and then made into a paste with the addition of sour orange juice or white vinegar.

The tradition of smoking comes from three sources: charring the ingredients directly in the coals; cooking underground (called Pibil, a Maya word meaning buried); and  through the centuries-old tradition of smoking still done in some homes as well as in small smoking plants.  

The Yucatan produces one of the world’s great cuisines as seen in its rising popularity among top chefs today. Under the watchful eye of our Mexico City Dames d’Escoffier, our group was fêted to a whole range of culinary and cultural Maya experiences. We ate, drank and danced our way through the region tantalizing our taste buds with  exotic fruits and vegetables, fiery chilis and smoky pit barbecues.  We experienced first hand the serene spirituality, gentleness, and warm hospitality of the Maya people who generously shared with us their culinary secrets. We thank our sister Mexican Dames for this incredibly enriching and delicious experience. Next year Oaxaca? Fantastico!