Five Mayan Dishes To Try Before The Long-Form Calendar Resets

If you've spent the last several months at home with side-by-side translations of the Popol Vuh and the Chilam Balam, then you know there's no cause to worry about the world ending on Dec. 21, 2012, and you're also probably hungry for Mayan food... except that almost nobody in this country knows what Mayan food is.

It doesn't help that the familiar old Spanish and Náhuatl words we're used to seeing--enchilada, tamal, tortilla, mole de guajolote--have been replaced by words in one of the Mayan languages, a family of languages whose spellings appear to a Spanish speaker to be influenced by Basque, or possibly Martian. It's hard to guess what things are, so here is a guide to five traditional dishes, presented in menu order, to try in homage to the people who've managed to ignite such eschatological furor.

1. Sopa de chaya

Chaya is testimony to the human drive to survive by any means necessary; the leaves, known to botanists as Cnidoscolus aconitifolius, come from a tall tree and look a lot like wolfsbane, a powerful poison. Chaya's leaves have stinging hairs like nettles, and the leaves must be cooked long enough to kill the toxin in them, but not so long that it recondenses in the pot.

What's left when it's done right is an earthy vegetable like thick spinach that packs nearly three times the nutritional punch of Popeye bait. It retains a slight chew even after long, moist cooking, and the taste is not as strongly iron-y as spinach.

2. Papadzules

Tortillas may have come originally from the area in southern Mexico and northern Central America populated by the Maya peoples, and thus it's not a stretch to imagine that the staple cake (which is thicker in Mayan cuisine than in Aztec cuisine) might have been dipped in a protein-heavy sauce.

Papadzules are like enchiladas, except dipped in pipián, a mild sauce made of toasted squash seeds, chiles, and spices, and filled with sliced boiled eggs. Tomato sauce is drizzled over the top, a far cry from the canned La Costeña enchilada sauce and boiled chicken we have north of the border.

3. Poc chuc with chayote shoots

Poc chuc means "grilled pork"; thin slices of pork are marinated in sour orange juice and onions, then grilled over an immensely hot fire. They cook almost instantly, in so little time that the juices literally do not have time to escape into the fire.

While the chayote (or mirliton, choko, etc.) is known in the United States, there is nowhere north of Miami where it's consistently warm enough for the plants to send up tender young stalks in the winter; they look like mutant asparagus but taste like squash and are normally served boiled or in soup.

4. Tikin xic

Tikin xic (the second word is pronounced "sheek") means "dry fish" and refers to fish, normally a grouper or other white or pink fish, which is rubbed with a marinade made of bright red achiote, sour orange juice, salt (or seawater), then rolled inside banana leaves and cooked in a pit. As with many Mayan dishes, it goes well with just a dab of xni pec ("dog's snout", the hottest non-novelty salsa in use in Mexico)

5. Agua de chia, chocolate and xtabentún

Xtabentún on ice
Xtabentún on ice

Yes, those Chia Pets we all got twenty years ago really were edible. The seeds have a nutty, slightly "green" taste, and are packed with vitamins; soak them in water and then add sugar and lime juice to make it sweeter and a little more interesting.

The Mayans were the first to grow the cacao for food; they developed the savory, coffee-like drink that was the first chocolate; made with bitter chocolate, canela, and chile powder, it's not exactly Hershey's here.

For the after-dinner digestif, there's xtabentún, an anise-flavored, honey-sweetened liqueur based on rum. It didn't start that way, of course, but the invading Spaniards didn't develop a taste for fermented corn alcohol with tree bark; their alterations changed the drink into the world's most interesting variation of absinthe.

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