Mayan Food

An introduction to Mexican cooking

An introduction to Mexican cuisine should start with Mayan food and agriculture.

The Mayans were some of the earliest inhabitants of Mexico. As happened on other continents, they were hunter gatherers before they discovered agriculture. At about 7000 BC, people were already hunting in Mexico, and thus the knowledge of indigenous plants has been evolving over at least 9000 years. The hunter gatherer forbears of the Maya collected and used wild chili peppers. They made use of a wide variety of wild animal foods, fish and tropical fruit. Their main source of calories were roasted Agave hearts. By 1200BC they had bred corn from the wild grasses and had started nixtamalizing (see below) with wood ash. Corn was seen as a gift from the god Quetzalcoatl and was part of the creation story. According to archaeological records many Maya had too little protein in their diet. Beans, amaranth, insects, and small wild animals all were protein sources but there was still not enough.

During the peak of power of the Mayan civilization the diet was very varied and food was obtained using a range of strategies, hunting, foraging, forest gardens known as pet kot, (pet meaning circle and kot meaning a low wall of stones, from the low wall surrounding these inclosures,) and adaptive agricultural techniques such as slash and burn, or swidden agriculture. Such swiddens would only last two years before losing fertility and were abandoned once again to the forest.

Perhaps the presence of ash in maize harvests from swidden agriculture first introduced the idea of nixtamalization. The Nahuatl word derives from nix (ash) and tamal (dough). The addition of ash or its derivative slaked lime to maize raises its pH, and changes the dough’s consistency and nutritional value. No maize is eaten in Mexico without undergoing this process, and in the past it would have ensured survival by preventing pellagra and protein deficiency, as the weak alkali makes many nutrients in maize including B vitamins and proteins available in a more readily absorbable form. Stable isotope analysis of ancient bones shows that enriched maize was eaten really early on. Today maize is more usually nixtamalized by being cooked or soaked with a little slaked lime. Some traditionalists are returning to using wood ash and I imagine it adds a lot more flavour as well as independence from commercial products.

The Mayans also practiced crop rotation, and sustainable farming techniques, with diverse plantings, and ate marine foods. Archaelogical evidence shows that there were regional differences in the use of resources. Plant domestication focussed on the core foods maize, squash, beans and chili peppers. The first three are known as the three sisters, and grow well together in permaculture gardens as well as complementing one another nutritionally. Chapalote-Nal-Tel was the dominant among a selection of maize species.

The special Mayan cooking implements for preparing maize dough comprised a metate or grinding rock and a griddle or comal, for cooking tortillas. Wrapping food like meat and beans in tortillas or leaves (steamed tamales) was common. Maize gruel made from coarse ground maize and water called atole was used for fermenting and a turkey broth pozole was made with whole kernels. Flavorings used for food were chilis, cocoa, wild onions and salt.

While certain varieties of maize and beans were cultivated, others were harvested from the wild. Manioc (otherwise known as cassava or taro) was also a staple crop and it may have been that maize, being more difficult to grow, was more precious, and only eaten by certain sectors of society. This is based on calculations about the sustainability of the Mayan population size in the area they inhabited, and the fact that taro does not leave a trace in the archaeological record as it rots too soon. 

The Maya had many tree crops and their cultivation may have resembled permaculture’s creation of food forests. Some of the tree crops they used were cocoa, avocado (fruit and the dried leaves used like bay), breadnut (Brosium alicstrum, a large tree bearing nuts that were ground to make flatbread), guava, soursop (Anona muricata, andits cousin A. cherimola the delicious custard apple), mammee apple (Mammea americana, an orange fleshed brown skinned fruit), papaya, Chaya (Cnidoscolus aconitifolius), the tree spinach was cultivated for its green leaves, achiote (Bixa orellana or lipstick tree used for coloring and spice), and the annatto seed (the seed of the same plant), canella (Canella winterana with cinnamon like bark) and allspice (Pimenta dioica). Shrub and herb crops were chili, peppers, epazote (Dysphania amrosioides, a fragrant herb from the Amarinth family), hoja santa (Piper auritum, whose fragrant green leaves are used for mole verde, and to wrap tamales) and mexican oregano (Lippia graveolens). pineapple, Among the vines they cultivated bean varieties such as pinto, red and black beans, tomato, sweet potato, pumpkin and a diversity of cucurbits such as Chayote (Sechium edule, a sweet squash) for its fruit and tender shoots, as well as vanilla, garlic vine (Mansoa alliacea, a lilac flowered Bignonia). The pineapple is a spiny succulent plant which reproduces by division, and Agave is similar reproducing prolifically from seed.

Some of these plants were planted close to human habitation and others further away. Cotton and agave may have been cultivated in domestic gardens, as well as others for the convenience of harvesting and care. Kitchen gardens, terracing, raised fields, check dams, drained fields, forest gardens, and various forms of irrigation were used.

Archaeological evidence shows that Mayan food may have included domesticated dogs and turkeys, but most of their meat sources came from hunting and wild foods such as manatee, armadillo, tapir, peccary, monkey, guinea pig, fowl, turtle and iguana, marine foods such as shrimp, fish, lobster, conch and other shellfish, with the white tailed deer being the most dominant source. Over time there was a shift from larger to smaller mammals, birds and aquatic resources, as occurs with resource depletion. Marine animals were transported alive for long distances inland by river.

Isotopic analysis of bone suggests that maize was a staple as early as 2500 BC, making up 50% of the diet, and change only slightly over the periods of Mayan history, with some regional variation due to the availability of seafoods, and regionally varied social differentiation with males and adults consuming more than women and children in some areas, and a drastic falloff from comprising 77 to 10 % of the Mayan diet at the close of the Classic era as maize agriculture either failed to keep up with population size, or alternative foods were exploited due to increased contact with other people with different food in the Caribbean and South America.

Mayan food and its influence on modern cooking

Mayan food items such as chocolate, tortillas, tamales and guacamole have influenced modern cooking profoundly. Without the foods of the Maya and Aztec civilizations global food today would be impoverished. Food is no longer thinkable without the tomato. Then there is chocolate. The Maya prepared cocoa as a stimulating and sacred ceremonial drink, believed to be an aphrodisiac. Bitter and frothy, with no sugar or milk like today’s chocolate, cocoa beans were ground and mixed with chili, corn flour and honey to create Xocolatl (in the Nahuatl language). Only the rich and noble could drink it often but all levels of society used it for weddings.

And then there is maize, the basis of north American agriculture and animal husbandry. Mayans believed the first humans were crafted from an ear of corn. People were fundamentally made of masa, or corn flour. As in Mexican cooking today, the most common maize dish was based on tortillas. However, the tortilla shells of the Maya were much thicker and smaller, from two to four inches, providing a sturdy base for other food, such as avacado or meat.

Tamales were also made and a suitable offering for the gods. They even became convenience foods because of the ease of transport, and were sold door to door in exchange for cocoa beans. The dough was wrapped in corn or other large leaves, and after cooking, unwrapped, covered in salsa and eaten. There is ample archaeological evidence in Mayan art that they were a part of Mayan cuisine.

By the time the Spanish conquistadors arrived it is believed many of the Mayan cities were abandoned. Food is perhaps an explanation. The population expanded too rapidly for food production, and then crashed. I’m sceptical of this and would like to examine sources of this construction of history more closely before citing it as fact. Being a South African I’ve also heard an ‘empty land’ discourse relating to colonization and invasion.

I’ve even read very prominent accounts of global food domestication which so under rate originally meso American crops and their importance in global food culture that its quite a staggering omission. Without the foods of meso America, global food culture would be slashed in half, or worse. Global food is based on meso American food. Its genetic diversity found in the areas where these global foods like maize, potatoes, tomatoes, taro and other staples are indigenous, is vital to the survival of mankind. Not only this, when you go back to the source, such as good Mexican food, these crops are used in a unique way based on millenia of experience of enhancing their flavors and matching them perfectly with other foods. Mexican cuisine is the most underrated gourmet cuisine on earth, or maybe not, I haven’t even started on Africa where this type of injustice of taste is even worse, and the history of food use goes ten times deeper in time. But all in all, gastronomically, Mexico gave the world more than it ever received.

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