Everything You Need to Know About the Ancient Mayan Food Culture

Staples of ancient Mayan food culture
The ancient Mayan cuisine was an exotic blend of extensive foods that included native crops and meat. This Buzzle article elaborates more on the ancient Mayan food culture.
Processing Food
The ancient Mayans used the cooking methods of boiling, grilling, and roasting extensively to process food, especially meat. The meat was put on skewers and then on a frame, and grilled until perfection. Roasting meat was common for festivities, where the meat was placed in a fire pit above hot stones. Meat was also boiled food and spiced and used in stews.
The Mayan empire peaked around the 6th century CE and covered most parts of current-day Mexico, Guatemala, the Sierra Madre, and parts of El Salvador. Several years prior to the Spanish Conquest, the Mayan Empire was on the verge of decline, unlike the Aztecs and the Incas, whose influence can still be found in parts of Mexico and Central America.

Nevertheless, the Mayan civilization with their unique language and culture are remembered as an important ethnic group. Traces of their customs and traditions are still found today, though with considerable changes. One of their distinguishing cultural aspects was their food and cuisine. The paragraphs below provide an insight into the food history of the ancient Mayans, what they eat and drank, and much more.

Crops Cultivated

Maize

Black maize

Purple maize
It is one of the traditional and staple Mayan foods. Maize, rather corn, was an extensively-grown crop, and since agriculture was a major source of living, maize was grown in humongous quantities. Different types of maize was grown in the fields. They were harvested and washed and then ground into different flours to make a variety of breads.

Squash

Colored squash
Mayans were very fond of squash. A squash is a kind of tender pumpkin, and Mayans grew varieties of squash in their fields. Squash fillings were liberally used in tortillas.

Beans

Different beans
Beans was another staple food of the Mayans. Though red and black beans were most commonly grown and eaten, other varieties of beans and legumes found prominence in Mayan cuisine too.

Chili Peppers

Colored peppers
Green, yellow, and red chili peppers were extensively grown. The Mayans were very fond of chilies, and used different spices and ingredients to make different recipes.

Sweet Potatoes

Another staple crop of the Mayans was the sweet potato. Some of Mexico's most traditional foods include the sweet potato as a major ingredient.

Meat

The Mayans were very fond of meat. However, meat was not necessarily a part of the regular food preparation. People living in the coastal areas regularly consumed fish varieties as a part of their daily diet. In general though, they were very font of turkey meat rather than chicken. They also ate ducks and bird eggs. They hunted for, you'd be surprised, monkeys. Yes. Ancient Mayans relished monkey meat as a flesh food. They also hunted for deer, boars, and consumed pig meat (pork) as well in their regular food.

Besides these, the Mayans consumed apples, pineapples, papaya, freshwater fish, guavas, tomatoes, vanilla beans, avocados, chocolate, turtles, etc.

Cuisine - Food Items

Tortillas

Tortillas
  • A tortillas is a kind of bread made from corn.
  • For the corn flour, the maize crop was first soaked in lemon water and drained.
  • It was then ground on a small, cylindrical stone table (metate) and mixed with water.
  • The resultant was a thin dough-like gruel (pozole), which was rolled into flat bread, called tortillas.
  • The tortillas were pan roasted on a hot clay griddle and eaten with a variety of fillings.

Tamales

Tamales
  • The Mayan cuisine would remain incomplete without the mention of tamales, which is basically made from corn flour, that is to say, the initial step includes making a type of corn husk. Or you could use plantain leaves.
  • Then, it is filled with pork, chicken, cheese, vegetables, etc., wrapped, and steamed.
  • It is cut and served with salsa.
  • In fact, it was used as a regular recipe in Mayan festivities.

Guacamole

Guacamole
  • The famous, quick, and delicious guacamole dip takes root in the foods of the Maya.
  • Guacamole is prepared from avocado, the fleshy fruit grown extensively in the Mayan era.
  • The green flesh of the fruit is scooped out and mashed together with garlic, a small amount of tomatoes, and some lemon juice for a little zest.
  • Back then, it was served with traditional corn tortillas with beans; today, it serves as a dip for tortilla chips, regular chips, tacos, burritos, and many more food items.

Refrescos - Jamaica

Jamaica
  • The Mayans were apparently very fond of drinks. Jamaica was a popular refreshment drink back then.
  • It is made from the hibiscus flower. The calyxes are mixed with water, and sugar/honey.
  • It was widely prepared in the summer months to keep the sun at bay.

Desayuno Tradicionales

Breakfast
  • Much of the traditional Mexican breakfast has its root in the ancient Maya cuisine.
  • Back then, a traditional breakfast consisted of scrambled eggs, a piece of avocado, beans, some roasted plantain, and sometimes, even cheese.

Important Mayan Food Facts

Horchata is another drink of the Mayans, made from rice milk, sugar, and almonds. It is served with spicy food.

Dog snout salsa is made with habanero chilies, and is a highly spicy dish.

The cacao plant is believed to have been discovered by the Mayans. The nobles back then had a special drink made from ground cocoa beans, peppers, corn, and honey. It was called xocolatl.

Poc Chuc is a popular Mayan dish. Pork is cooked on slow fire, combined with orange juice and vinegar, and garnished with onions.

Mayans used honey as a sweetener. It was mixed with maize gruel and drunk.

Cacao beans were used as currency.

Cacao was adopted by the Spanish and enhanced with milk and sugar.

Chocolate was mixed with ground maize and chili and served during festivities.

It is believed that the ancient Mayans first invented the burrito, when they stuffed cooked beans inside a tortilla. Popcorn is also believed to be a Mayan invention.

The Mayans practiced crop rotation to avoid soil exhaustion.

Archeological excavation reveals that gourds were used for food storage by the Mayan people. The gourds were hollowed and emptied by the womenfolk of the house, painted, and food was served and stored in them.

The ancient Mayan civilization was indeed a colorful and culturally advanced society. It's fascinating to discover how many of today's Mexican recipes have been influenced from the ancient Mayan foods. And, it's even more enchanting that the ancient Mayas developed such unique recipes from a small number of basic ingredients.
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