Photograph by Aldo Pavan, Grand Tour/Corbis
Cacao is endemic to the lands of the Maya, who were the first to take the seeds of the fruit and roast them to make hot chocolate. The ancient Maya didn’t make candy bars, nor did they add sugar and milk to the cacao. Instead they took their chocolate as a ceremonial elixir and a savory mood enhancer.
For the Maya, cacao was a sacred gift of the gods, and cacao beans were used as currency. Ek Chuah, the Maya god of merchants and trade, was also the patron of the cacao crop. When the Spanish invaded Maya lands in the 1500s, they adopted the beverage, adding sugar and milk to make it sweet and creamy. To learn more about cacao and taste chocolate, visit the Ecomuseo del Cacao in the Puuc region of Yucatán, www.ecomuseodelcacao.com.
Avocados and Guacamole
The avocado, originating in southern Mexico and Guatemala, is loved for its rich taste and creamy texture and was a treasured crop of the ancient Maya. Even today a person from Antigua Guatemala is called a panza verde, or green belly, because of the region's reliance on avocados in hard times.
Combined with chilis, garlic, cilantro, onions, and lime or lemon, avocados become guacamole, a sumptuous appetizer. Don’t expect to find lots of Hass avocados in the Maya world—there are many other varieties, most of which are bigger.
In 1917, Wilson Popenoe, a California Avocado Association explorer, reported why Guatemalan avocados are best: “The flesh is of a deeper yellow color, smoother, more buttery [in] texture, and richer [in] flavor than any varieties yet known in the United States.”
This distinctly Yucatecan dish dates to the days before refrigeration, when meat was preserved with salt. Slow-cooked pork is combined with sour orange juice and vinegar to temper the saltiness of the meat. The orange juice refreshes the salted pork and gives it a tangy flavor—“sour orange” is a variety of orange; the juice hasn’t gone sour. The dish is topped with onions sauteed with coriander and a bit of sugar.
Julio Bermejo of Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco, which serves Yucatecan specialties, says his favorite restaurant in Yucatán is Restaurante El Príncipe Tutul-Xiu, in Maní: “They make the best poc chuc on Earth!”
Southern Mexicans like to add some spice to their food—and their beer. A michelada (or chelada in some parts) infuses cerveza with lime, coarse salt, pepper, and shots of Worcestershire and/or Tabasco sauce, served in a chilled, salt-rimmed glass. Some versions also include soy sauce or Maggi seasoning. It sounds odd, but it’s refreshing and well suited to a hot day—or a rough morning.
If the spices sound a bit much, try a simple version, which blends just lime juice and salt with a light beer, like Corona or Tecate. It’s so popular that Miller and Budweiser have created their own versions of michelada, but of course there’s nothing like the real thing.
Handmade Guatemalan tortillas provide an elemental satisfaction. In outdoor markets, you can hear a rhythmic clapping as women pat them into shape, then cook them on a comal, a big wood-fired iron or clay pan that looks like a Caribbean steel drum. These tortillas are only three or four inches across but thicker than what North Americans are accustomed to.
The Maya creation myth says people were made of masa (corn dough), and this remains the essential element of the indigenous Maya diet. Hot off the comal, tortillas are immensely satisfying, an ideal accompaniment to Guatemalan black beans, a perfect base for a layer of guacamole.
Simple foods are often the best. The typical Maya desayuno includes scrambled eggs, a side of black beans, fried plantains (akin to bananas but larger, with more complex flavor), a bit of queso blanco (white cheese), and a cup of rich coffee made from local beans. It’s all accompanied by a cloth-lined basket of warm yellow corn tortillas. After an all-night flight to Guatemala, I head straight to Antigua Guatemala’s Posada de Don Rodrigo and enjoy a morning feast in the hotel’s leafy courtyard, as a marimba band plays.
Seeing where your coffee comes from is an eye-opening experience. The typical coffee plantation tour includes a visit to fields (and often an explanation about the virtues of shade-grown coffee), continues to areas where the beans are dried and processed, and ends with a cup of café. Finca Filadelfia, with views of distant volcanoes, offers tours near Antigua Guatemala. If you want more kick than a cup of joe offers, cap off your day with a ride on their zip line. Near Quetzaltenango, in Guatemala’s western highlands, an organic coffee and macadamia co-op farm called Comunidad Nueva Alianza is well worth visiting.
Two Refreshers: Jamaica and Horchata
At cantinas throughout the Maya world you’ll see big glass jugs with aguas frescas. The bright red drink is agua de jamaica, known simply as jamaica, (pronounced ha-MY-ka) made from hibiscus flower calyxes, water, and sugar. It’s high in vitamin C and an ideal way to temper the summer swelter.
Another popular refresco in the Yucatán Peninsula and beyond is horchata, a blend of rice milk, ground almonds, cinnamon, and sugar. Some varieties have chufa (tiger nut), vanilla, or barley. The result is almost like a milkshake but not as thick or rich. A horchata complements spicy food.
No culinary exploration of Maya life would be complete without tamales. Made from masa harina (corn flour) and filled with chicken, pork, vegetables, and/or cheese, tamales are wrapped in corn husks—or a banana or plantain leaf—and steamed. Then they’re unwrapped and topped with salsa. Some tamales are made with fruit or other sweet fillings. In much of the Maya world, indigenous women walk door to door selling baskets of fragrant tamales.
Enjoyed long before the Spanish invasion, tamales are a staple of Maya holiday celebrations and festivals. Tamales are even depicted in ancient Maya glyphs and excavated artifacts.
“Dog Snout” Salsa
This fiery salsa, made with habanero chilis, is not for the faint of palate. It’s very spicy and should come with a warning label that it may make you cry. It’s called “dog snout salsa” because its intense heat can make your nose moist.
In much of the Yucatán Peninsula, this salsa, also known as xni-pec, includes not just the traditional tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and lime, but also orange or grapefruit juice. In Guatemala, less spicy fresh salsas are served alongside bottled hot sauces. For a shot of fire, grab the bottle of Maya-Ik, a hot sauce with a Tikal temple on the label. I always buy some Maya-Ik to take home, a piquant reminder of the flavors of the Maya world.
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