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the familiar old Spanish and Náhuatl words we're used to seeing–enchilada, tamal, tortilla, mole de guajolote–have been replaced by words in one of the Mayan languages, a family of languages whose spellings appear to a Spanish speaker to be influenced by Basque, or possibly Martian.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