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With the promotion of all things Maya in advance of the ending of the Maya calendar this December, one aspect of connecting with Maya life has been overlooked — its cuisine. Mexican cuisine is celebrated to such a degree that it can be difficult to find distinctly Maya cuisine. Trying new foods in exotic settings is one of the joys of traveling and, with a little bit of effort, travelers can find themselves feasting on a four-course Maya dinner in the Riviera Maya.
I recently sat down in Playa del Carmen for a Maya meal with Jorge Zenon, general manager of the Maya restaurant, Yaxche, as well as Itzel Olvera, director of Vishudda, a social agency based in Playa del Carmen. Yaxche (pronounced jag-shey) has been serving up authentic Maya cooking for more than 15 years. It’s a sophisticated, well-lighted venue in the heart of Playa del Carmen, with walls painted in earth tones and decorated with paintings depicting scenes from Maya life. The restaurant also has a second-floor al fresco terrace that overlooks Playa’s colorful Fifth Avenue.
“Maya cuisine is part of the living Maya culture,” said Zenon. “Yucatecan cuisine comes from the Maya, and we go to the basics of a Yucatecan meal.”
Our delicious lunch consisted of some of Yaxche’s specialties of the house, including dishes such as tsotobilchay, a Maya tamale made with chaya, boiled eggs and pumpkin seeds; pibxcatic, grilled xcatic peppers filled with either pibil (marinated pork) or cheese, topped with red onions; and tsic, a fried tortilla filled with fish and shrimp and marinated in sour orange juice, xcatic peppers and coriander, topped off with tomatoes and avocado.
“Everything is made fresh daily,” said Zenon. “It’s a big process to make and prepare all of the ingredients for the day’s service. It’s also hard for travelers to get fresh ingredients at home to duplicate Maya cooking.”
Zenon noted that his staff brings out examples of the less familiar produce to show diners before their meal. Yaxche also offers a small plates option, allowing guests to sample many items on the menu.
“We have vacationers who come back four times in one week to try different dishes on the menu,” said Zenon.
The mainstay ingredients of Maya cooking are maize, squash, beans, pork, chicken and fish. These ingredients are seasoned with chilies, salt, allspice berries, achiote paste (from the annatto seed), wild onion and cacao. One of the prime ingredients is the chaya leaf, which is often referred to as Maya spinach.
“Chaya only grows here,” said Zenon. “It’s difficult for the leaf to travel.”
Zenon further noted that chaya has proven health benefits and is particularly good for the kidney and liver.
A unique drink that can be taken at the beginning or end of a meal is xtabentun, a Maya liqueur flavored with honey and anise. Legend has it that xtabentun was a favored drink of Maya kings.
“There’s a limited production of honey used to make xtabentun, which is gathered from the stingless Mayan bee,” said Olvera.
Maya beekeepers harvest the honey from the bees’ nests. Once a nest is found, the beekeepers fashion a log-type structure around the nest, with an easily removable cap at both ends. A Maya shaman makes the honey liqueur because it’s considered to be a sacred drink. Like European honey mead, xtabentun has a reputation as an aphrodisiac.
Yaxche also serves some playful takes on Maya cuisine, such as the Mayan Margarita, made from cucumber, sour orange and chaya with Tequila Milagro Plata. The customary salt is replaced by a vibrant red coating of chili powder along the rim of the glass.
There are also positive social aspects to Maya dining. It’s a natural expression of the farm-to-table movement, and it’s a dining choice that helps small Maya villages and farmers, who supply the unique produce for Maya cooking.
“We’re working with Maya villages to teach them sustainable methods,” said Zenon. “We also benefit by becoming their most important client.”
In addition to purchasing produce from Maya villages, Yaxche also fosters the creation of henequen crafts, which are used at formal events and for decorating the restaurant.
“There are many positive messages to be taken from the Maya Calendar,” said Olvera. “Dining in the Maya way, you’re being nourished by Mother Earth. Maya dining is New Age dining.”