Sunday, January 6, 2013

Maya Have Some More, Please?

I tend to come back from travels with a taste for the foreign, and an itch to try out my new culinary acquaintances in the kitchen. My latest trip was a semi-backpacking bus blitz from Mexico City to Cancun, visiting over 10 Teotihuacano, Zapotec, Maya and Olmec archaeological sites in 10 days. My trip to the western hemisphere to attend a workshop at MIT gave me an opportunity to witness the marvels of ancient Mesoamerica first-hand, and try out some exotic foods while at it. While I had plenty to tickle my inner history geek, I also had my taste buds just as tickled by authentic Mexican food. And one sub-cuisine that especially stood out on this trip was the Maya cuisine I relished in the Yucatan.

The ancient Maya, of course, are famous for their impressive pyramids and other stone structures (built without wheeled vehicles, draught animals or metal tools, I might add), their mathematics, and of course, their "doomsday calendar". Their modern-day descendants, many of whom still speak Mayan languages, still have a taste for traditional foods. While not completely unpolluted by Old World ingredients, they mostly remain true to the pre-Columbian Mesoamerican heritage of corn, turkey, tomatoes and peppers (and chocolate, for which I will be eternally grateful). Here are some Maya dishes I tried out to entertain friends upon my return, to celebrate the beginning of the 14th b'ak'tun.

The Maya salsa "Xni-Pec" ("dog nose", because it's so fiery that your nose will end up runny and wet) is pretty simple. Chopped tomatoes and chili peppers (I used Serrano) with chopped red onion and cilantro, dressed with fresh lime juice and white vinegar, adding a pinch of salt.

This is a great dip to go with corn tortilla chips.

For the soup course, I prepared pumpkin soup. Pumpkins, and squashes in general, were and are an important crop in the region. Pumpkin seeds are also served as a seasoned paste for dipping corn tortilla chips. For the soup, stock is prepared.

In the meantime, pumpkins are roasted in an oven until soft. The seeds are then removed and sauteed, then put back in the oven to roast until browned.

The flesh is scooped out and mashed.

To the flesh, ground allspice and honey are added, and the stock is added. The mixture is brought to a boil, and simmered until the pumpkin completely softens to loose pulp. Salt is added to taste, and the mixture may be electrically blended if a smoother, more homogenous texture is desired.

The pumpkin soup is served hot, garnished with browned pumpkin seeds and chopped green onions.

A great accompaniment to the soup (and to the salsa as well) is the tamale, one of the most ancient traditional foods of the Maya and other Mesoamericans. The steamed gob of cornmeal was their bread, and, with various old and new fillings, is one of the most common (and delicious) street foods in today's Mexico. I made these tamales using cornmeal and frijol (black beans).

The cooked black beans with cooking liquid are poured into cornmeal slowly, while vigorously stirring for homogeneity.

The resulting loose dough is molded into balls or ingots, which are then steamed. Traditionally, this is done in leftover corn husks, but due to the lack of this material, I used foil to steam my tamales.

As a vegetable dish, I prepared a bean stew, beans being an important ancient Maya protein source. For this, chopped hot chili peppers and bell peppers are stir-fried with chili powder and ground allspice.

Cooked pinto beans and a little water are added, and the mixture is cooked.

This can be garnished with chopped tomatoes, and goes well with fresh corn tortillas to scoop or roll.

One of the best dishes I ate in Maya country was the pibil. Pibil, a roast marinated with citrus juice and annatto seed and roasted in banana leaf, is traditionally made with pork (which makes a good main course and an awesome sandwich filling), but can be made with most any meat. The turkey also being indigenous to the region, and also one of the main sources of ancient Maya animal protein, I chose to make a pibil of turkey. As I did not have annatto handy, I prepared the achiote paste using a substitute involving garlic, chili paste, vinegar and other seasonings, and added the required lime juice, orange juice and oil.

The roasting pan is lined with banana leaves.

The marinated turkey is placed in the pan, and topped with slices of tomato and onion, and a large hot chili pepper split in half.

The turkey is then covered with banana leaves, sealed in with foil, and roasted.

Due to my unfortunate inexperience with the intricacies of roasting technique, the turkey pibil turned out to require a couple of return trips to the oven. Still, it fed everyone well, and me for days after.

For dessert, I paid tribute to the great ancient Mesoamerican discovery of the secret to happiness: chocolate. For this dish of chocolate truffles, creamy coconut milk is brought to boil (the Maya did not use milk).

It is then poured into broken bits of dark chocolate with ground cinnamon, chili powder, and the innards of a vanilla bean.

As it is poured, the mixture is stirred so that all the chocolate is melted, resulting in a thick dark ganache.

The hot ganache is poured into a flat greased/paper-lined dish so it is a centimeter or so deep, or into molds. After refrigerating overnight, chunks of cold ganache are cut/pried out and tossed with cocoa powder until covered in it, resulting in these delectable truffles.

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