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the familiar old Spanish and Náhuatl words we're used to seeing--enchilada, tamal, tortilla, mole de guajolote--have been replaced by words in one of the Mayan languages, a family of languages whose spellings appear to a Spanish speaker to be influenced by Basque, or possibly Martian.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.

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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.

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