Reviving Mayan cuisine

QUINTANA ROO, Mexico — Arsenio Hau Uicab looked worried. Before him was a proposal that would directly link his close-knit village of Mayan descendents to the tourist hub on the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula.

He sat with the head chef of Yaxche Restaurant, a popular eatery in Playa del Carmen. The restaurant wanted to make Hau Uicab and the entire community of Nuevo Durango its newest partner.

The village, which lives on communal lands, would provide a weekly shipment of raw food products to the restaurant. In exchange, the 63 families would get a steady cash flow. It would also be a chance to insert themselves into the tourism belt of the so-called Mayan Riviera and to play a role in re-asserting the Yucatan's gastronomical roots.

Yaxche Restaurant. (Angelica Marin/GlobalPost)

Thirteen years ago, when Playa del Carmen was still waking from its fishing village past, authentic Mayan food was rare. Yaxche is one of the few restaurants trying to bring forgotten Mayan culinary practices into mainstream Mexican cuisine.

David Reyes, the restaurant's young chef, worked in Nuevo Durango for more than a year. He accompanied Mayan men going off at dawn to harvest maiz, and saw women grinding it into masa. Hau Uicab’s wife taught him how to craft tortillas by hand. Reyes picked up techniques that he now uses to create Mayan-infused delicacies at Yaxche.

Planted along the touristy Fifth Avenue strip in Playa del Carmen, Yaxche packs in a full house almost every night.

“Our menu is made up in thirds,” said co-owner Ramon Lizaola Hernandez. “A third is ancient Maya, another third pays homage to the Yucateco like 'sopa de lima,' and the last is a constant laboratory which borrows from the street, from ingredients, spices and new techniques to create an entirely original dish,” he said.

Lizaola, a lanky man with the energy of a yoga master, said he inherited his interest in Mayan cuisine from his Cuban grandfather, a well-to-do immigrant and Mayan enthusiast who guided tourists throughout Mayan ruins from the 1960s through the 1980s.

Back then, Yucatecan cuisine was considered neither ancient Mayan nor Spanish, but rather a hybrid of both. In the same way, Mayan cuisine was often thought of as part of ancient Mexico, not contemporary gastronomy.

Mayan descendants like those in Nuevo Durango, who maintained their independence, first from the Spanish and second from the Mexicans, remained largely isolated. These communities became the keepers of ancient recipes and techniques.

Yaxche began promoting Mayan cuisine through large-scale food rituals like "Hanal Pixan" and by hosting Mayan dinners in Mexican embassies throughout Europe. “The first years were difficult,” said Lizaola.

They would serve dishes like "cochinita pibil," oven-baked pork, or "tikin xic," oven-baked fish, which are both marinated in achiote or annatto seed paste and wrapped in banana leaves. Traditionally these dishes are cooked inside the pib — the Mayan underground oven. (Nowadays, restaurants can’t use the pib for these recipes, due to sanitary regulations.)

“For the ancient Maya, the pib was a direct connection between life and death,” said Reyes. The Maya would place a dead animal inside a pib, and allow it to cook throughout the night. “In the morning, a new life form, a new dish, would emerge from the earth,” he said.

By using Mayan ingredients, Yucatecan recipes and international techniques, Yaxche has given birth to dishes that are apt for the global palate. Chaya crepes, which are filled with thousand-year-old spinachy leaves, are one example. For the ancient Maya, chaya was a sacred leaf that grew in the wild. Today, chaya shows up in eggs, juices, fillings, garnishes and seasonings.

“The ancient Maya would give thanks to the gods because they knew every meal would bring them wellness,” said Lizaola. “That’s what’s fascinating about all this, that we as contemporaries are now returning to those roots,” he said.

For Yaxche Restaurant, earning visibility is just the first step. Reyes and Lizaola believe the most important part of diffusing Mayan cuisine is including Mayan communities in that process.

“We’d only need about 40 pounds of masa for tortillas a week, and maybe some spices and honey,” said Reyes told Hau Uicab as he considered the proposal to sell the restaurant a weekly allotment of maiz, annatto seeds, seasoning blends and honey, which have been perfected through ritualized production over thousands of years. “But we’d like to make sure we can expect some continuity,” said Daiana Kleiner, the PR voice at the table.

Hau Uicab joked nervously in Spanish. “It’s possible, I only hope we don’t disappoint you.”

Two weeks later, Hau Uicab stepped off a white pick-up truck full of masa, seasoning blends and pumpkin jam. He greeted Reyes with a bottle of “melipona” honey under his arm, staring at Yaxche’s patio for the first time. “We are thrilled about this,” said Hau Uicab. The chef replied: “Now we have to figure out how to dig a pib right here.”