Mayan foods history

Regional Mexican Cuisine: The Yucatán's Mayan Splendor
November 10, 2015 – 09:34 am
Amaranth plants and blossoms

In the Yucatán, an ancient land of dense jungles, the tropical climate puts food at constant risk of spoiling. In response, cooks concocted pibil, now the region's most famous dish.

A combination of spice rub and pit smoke, pibil was historically a means of preserving wild game that might otherwise spoil on the journey home. Today it's a connection to the region's Mayan past. (Barbecue is as good a way to do so as any.)

Cochinita pibil. [Photograph: Farley Elliott]

The Yucatán, which sits at the end of Mexico's curling peninsula, is often described as Mayan, and it was a vital cog in the old empire. The state is home to a proudly defiant people, who, despite the devastation of disease, resisted the Spanish long after other Mesoamerican cultures collapsed. Many people in the countryside continue to live off the land, cooking pibil in earthen pits.

This resilience, and the region's remoteness, helped to preserve Yucatán culture, though the people have been flexible enough to absorb influences from the Caribbean, the Dutch, the Lebanese, and the Spanish. In the centuries since, Yucatán cooks have learned to stuff peppers with Dutch Edam cheese and have taken to serving Lebanese kibbeh with salsa. Today, Yucatecos eat plenty of turkey, cook with a variety of recados or spice mixes (more on these in a moment), and make tamales that Diana Kennedy says put the rest of Mexico's to shame.

Core Ingredients

Habanero chilies.[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Achiote, citrus, habaneros, and smoke. These are four defining pillars of Mayan cooking. While habaneros are often trumpeted as the stars of Yucateno cooking, their blazing, fruity heat plays second fiddle to the puckering acidity of Seville oranges. The fruit is found in every nook and cranny of the cuisine, from tamales colados to chile tamulado (a purée of raw habanero and sour orange juice) to pibil. It's used, often, like vinegar, its acidity both to liven a dish up and for preservative qualities.

Achiote seeds. [Photograph: Robyn Lee]

In the Yucatán, only the mild yet earthy, if slightly bitter, achiote matches sour orange's ubiquity. When crushed up and mixed with liquid, the pod's oily red seeds form the paste recado rojo, the most prominent of the Yucatan's spice mixes, or recados. These seasoning bases are, Mexican food historian David Sterling says, the progenitors of mole, a history he says is imprinted in recado negro, a blend of spices and seriously charred chilies that recalls mole's smoldering depth. Each recado is engineered for specific uses, like recado para bifstek or recado para escabeche. They can be used as rubs, thickeners, or flavor bases. In short: Yucateno flavor bombs.

Seville oranges. [Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

The Mayan diet was once, like everywhere in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, largely vegetarian, and there's more to today's Yucateno diet than pork. Fish and game served to supplement a diet heavily reliant on black and espelones beans, a multitude of squash ranging from chayote to zucchini, tomatoes, and aromatic greens like banana leaves. But the essential green of the Yucatan is earthy chaya, a Swiss chard-like green packed with iron and other nutrients vital when the diet was mostly meat free. Today, it is cooked with eggs, brewed as a tea, and incorporated into antojitos.

Fruits and vegetables aside, you can't talk about Yucatán food without mentioning venado, a local species of deer that, for a society without any large domesticated livestock, was an invaluable source of protein in a region that lacked domesticated red meat. Because of overhunting, it's now a protected species. Other proteins that fill out the cuisine: turkey and quail, both highly prized, and more exotic critters like armadillos.

What's Cooking?

Sikil p'ak is much tastier than its appearance suggests. [Photograph: Farley Elliott]

Today, pibil is most likely made with suckling pig (cochinita pibil) or, less often, chicken. The meat is rubbed in achiote paste, marinated overnight in sour orange juice, wrapped in aromatic banana leaves to build a head of steam, and cooked in an earthen pit known as the pib. The pib is sealed shut to form an airight oven, which both cooks the meat and suffuses it with smoke.

Pibil's not the only preservation game in town. The ancient practice of salting meats is carried on today with poc'chuc, a preparation of brined pork cutlets cooked over a wood fire. But in this land, nearly all meat seems to get marinated, typically with achiote and sour orange, whether it's chicken broiled over charcoal or grilled whole fish.

You can see the Yucatecan commitment to marinades in all manner of dishes: ceviche, pulpo en escabeche (octopus first cooked in olive oil, then marinated in acid overnight, and marinated beef that's then grilled, chopped up, and fried. Acid has no limits here; the local love of citrus is so strong that it gave birth to sopa de lima, a chicken soup spiked heavily with fragrant local lime juice.

The same preservative need informs the state's salsas, which rely heavily on the fearsome combination of habanero (an antibacterial capsicum) and sour orange, which fills the shoes vinegar takes elsewhere in the world. These ingredient help preserve otherwise perishable foods in condiment form, like tomatoes, as in chiltomate, or charred tomatoes and habanero, or red onions, which are charred and marinated for days in sour orange and spices.

Popular Q&A
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