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Reviving Mayan cuisine

A restaurant in the Yucatan wants to introduce forgotten Mayan culinary practices into mainstream Mexican cuisine.

This sampler plate of Yucatecan delicacies, like papadzules, are made with ancient Mayan ingredients and techniques. (Angelica Marin/GlobalPost)

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.