Connect to share and comment

Reviving Mayan cuisine

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

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.”