mesoamerica and the maya world

Category: food

Mexico returns to its roots

Over at Frisco Vista I recently posted about my new bitters, called Old Tom’s Maximon Mole Bitters. They will definitely spice up a cocktail. So what better time to have another listen to Lila Downs’s great “Cumbia del Mole”?

Actually, I had planned to insert a video by Natalia Lafourcade, but I didn’t find one I liked enough. The impulse derived from this article in the New York Times, which says that Mexico is experiencing a new back-to-roots movement. (I think Ms. Downs was already there). The article begins:

When the pop singer Natalia Lafourcade stepped onto the stage of National Auditorium here last fall, it was a high point of a career that began more than 10 years ago, when she performed in grunge-inspired attire.

But for this concert, Ms. Lafourcade eschewed the ripped jeans. Instead, she wore pants from a Mexican designer and a crown of red roses, paying homage to the artist Frida Kahlo. Halfway through the show, she was joined by a band playing jarocho, a style of folk music from Veracruz.

“It was time to connect back with my origins,” said Ms. Lafourcade, 32. “I wanted to infuse my music with Mexican character.”

In a country that is struggling with pressing social, economic and political challenges yet possesses a rich cultural heritage, many emerging artists and trendsetters no longer feel compelled to look abroad for inspiration.



Mesoamerican animal husbandry

Illustration of stone rabbit sculpture from the Oztoyahualco 15B apartment compound. (Manzanilla ed.1993; drawing by Fernando Botas). . Via

Illustration of stone rabbit sculpture from the Oztoyahualco 15B apartment compound.
(Manzanilla ed.1993; drawing by Fernando Botas). Via

A team of researchers led by Andrew Somerville of the University of California San Diego, as reported by Cynthia Graber in Scientific American, have produced new evidence that ancient Mesoamericans raised animals for food. Traditionally it was felt that they did not engage in such acitivites, evidentally because researchers were looking for large food animals such as the cattle and pigs introduced by Westerners.

Archaeologists had already noted ample rabbit remains at Teotihuacan, near modern Mexico City. The current research team, however, noted a few curious things:

  • Carbon isotope analysis provides evidence of the rabbit’s corn and cactus fruit diet, which is different from that of wild rabbits and suggests that they were raised domestically.
  • Ruins of what appears to be a dedicated rabbit pen have been discovered.
  • A rabbit statue was found at the site of the pen.

According to Mexconnect, domesticated rabbits are still a common feature of central Mexican cuisine:

The rabbit, still hunted but more often raised domestically, is popular in Central Mexico, where it is most often eaten adobado – marinated in a chile and spice rub – or estofado – stewed. The latter is a more suitable way of cooking larger rabbit, from three-and-a-half to four pounds. Smaller ones generally run from one-and-a-half to two pounds and can be prepared using shorter cooking methods such as frying or grilling. In either case, even domestically raised rabbit benefits a great deal from being marinated first.

Buen provecho!

Maya foods that changed world cuisine

Christine Delsol identifies ten revolutionary Maya foods.

  1. Chocolate
  2. Vanilla
  3. Corn
  4. Chiles
  5. Tomatoes
  6. Black beans
  7. Avocado
  8. Sweet potato
  9. Squash
  10. Papaya

Pretty good list. Read what she has to say here.


image from a Chiapas market from 10b travelling’s photostream


Photo Wednesday

campeche chiles

Today’s photo, of chiles in a market in Campeche, comes from malias’ photostream.


The war on plants

sunflower detail

Dale Pendell, author of Pharmako/Poeia, has argued that the “war on drugs” is like a religious war, intended to keep officially sanctioned drugs like alcohol and chocolate dominant. A new study, reported by Scott Norris in an article in National Geographic News, suggests that sunflowers may have been similarly suppressed by the Spanish in Mesoamerica.

It has long been believed that sunflowers originated in the east-central U.S. and only spread to Mexico in recent centuries. But the new study, led by David Lentz of the University of Cincinnati, argues that sunflowers have been domesticated in Mexico for at least 2000 years, which suggests an independent origin of domestication in Mexico.

This conclusion is based on plant remains discovered in Cueva del Gallo in the Mexican state of Morelos. The sunflower achenes (fruits containing seeds) from this site are larger than wild varieties, indicating domestication. They have been dated to 300 BCE.

“We have filled in the gaps with lots of additional data that now make the Mexican sunflower [domestication] hypothesis irrefutable,” Lentz said. “Given all available data, the best explanation is that the sunflower was domesticated twice.”

But Bruce Smith of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., insists that “genetic research shows that all present-day domesticated sunflowers originated from a single domestication event, from wild progenitor populations in the central United States.” Smith says that if sunflowers were domesticated in Mexico there should be more remains than have been observed.

Lentz responds that sunflowers were used differently in the two locations. In the U.S. they were primarily a foodstuff, but in Mexico they were mainly used for ceremonial purposes.

Lentz’s team interviewed indigenous people in different parts of Mexico where sunflowers are grown today.

Eleven of 14 indigenous groups had unique words for “sunflower” bearing no resemblance to the Spanish word for the same species, according to the new study. Spaniards did not arrive in Mexico until the 1500s.

This linguistic evidence—along with distinctive traditions associated with the plant—suggest a long history of indigenous Mexican use and not a more recent cultural borrowing, the researchers argue.

They also suggest that the Spanish may have suppressed indigenous use of the sunflower because of the plant’s symbolic associations with the sun god and warfare—hence the lack of modern Mexican remains with lineages that can be traced back to ancient times.

If Lentz is correct, one wonder what other ancient ceremonial plants might have been suppressed during the Conquest.


image from charlie_cva’s photostream



Rompope is a drink made with eggs, milk, and vanilla.It is often called “Mexican eggnog.” It can be eaten with a spoon like ice cream, although men mix it with rum or brandy. It is said to have originated at the Convent of Santa Clara in Puebla in Mexico.

Gourmet Sleuth offers this recipe (but there seem to be many variations):

4 cups milk
1 cup sugar
3 inches canela (cinnamon bark)
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
12 egg yolks
1/2 cup brandy
In a medium sized saucepan over medium heat, mix together the milk, sugar, cinnamon bark and baking soda. When it begins to boil, lower the heat stand simmer for about 20 minutes. Set aside to cool, and strain to remove the cinnamon bark.

Place the egg yolks in a mixing bowl and whisk or beat with an electric mixer about 5 minutes. , until thick and lemon yellow. While still beating, slowly, pour the cool milk mixture into the yolks. Return to the saucepan and cook over low heat., stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens and lightly coast the back of a wooden spoon.

Remove from the heat and stop the cooking by pouring the rompope into a bowl (preferably metal) that is resting on ice in a larger bowl. Stir until cool. Gradually stir in the brandy and it’s ready to serve, or it can be tightly covered in the refrigerator.

The Big Apple has more rompope information and recipes.

Wines of Baja

Baja’s Guadalupe Valley is an up-and-coming wine region. This January, in California’s Napa wine region, there will be a tasting of wines from the region. Vinography: A Wine Blog reports:

Most readers know that I have a strong interest in up-and-coming wine regions around the world. In particular I love exploring those that are in surprising and unknown areas. Baja Mexico clearly qualifies as the latter. I first learned of the area from a loyal Vinography reader, and then subsequently spoke with Eric Asimov after a trip he had taken a trip down there to explore for an article he was writing.

Since then I’ve had only a couple of wines from the Guadalupe Valley, which is the name of the region’s wine country, but they’ve been interesting enough to show that there’s some real potential there.

Following are the details:

Wines, Cuisine, and Art of Mexico
January 26th, 2008

11:00 AM – 12:00 PM Panel: “Is Guadalupe Valley the Napa Valley of the 1970s?”
12:00 PM – 3:00 PM Food and wine tasting
1:00 PM – Food Demo with Chef Javier Plascencia (Villa Saverios, Baja)
3:00 PM – Food Demo featuring another Baja chef TBA

COPIA Center
500 First Street
Napa, CA 94559

Admission $30

Fiambre, a classic Guatemalan dish

Fiambre is only served on the Day of the Dead (Día de los Difuntos)  and All Saints Day (Día de los Santos) — on November 1st or 2nd. It’s mainly made up of cold cuts, fish, and vegetables, but the key feature is the sheer number of ingredients — which can number to 50 or more. Luis Figueroa at Carpe Diem has made a post on this “delicada y balanceada combinación de talento, y de carnes y verduras cuidadosamente seleccionadas.” Each family has its own recipe but, according to Figueroa, these fall into four main categories, fiambre rosado, fiambre blanco, fiambre rojo, and fiambre verde.

Sea cual sea su órigen, el Fiambre es mi plato favorito en todo el universo-mundo. Y celebro con mucha alegría la dicha de poder prepararlo y consumirlo;…y mi plato me dura casi una semana.

For more on fiambre, check out the excellent slide show posted last year by Rudy at Antigua Daily Photo.

Maya hot chocolate

A site called It’s Crazy Delicious has posted a recipe for what they call “Mayan Hot Chocolate.” Well, why not? I’m not exactly what’s Maya about it — the chile pepper, I guess — but hot chocolate could be good with cool weather approaching.

By the way, I’m still waiting to see a copy of the first UK edition of our translation of Laura Esquivel’s breakthrough book, which the editors there decided to call Like Water for Hot Chocolate, until they saw the light.

The full recipe can be found here. Following is a list of ingredients:

2 cups boiling water
1 chile pepper, cut in half, seeds removed (with gloves)
5 cups light cream or whole or nonfat milk
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1 to 2 cinnamon sticks
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate or
3 tablets Mexican chocolate, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
2 tablespoons sugar or honey, or to taste
l tablespoon almonds or hazelnuts, ground extra fine
Whipped cream

Sites we like: La Antigua Daily Photo

You can hardly go wrong with Antigua, but Rudy Girón goes the extra mile. Every day he posts a new photo from the city, along with some pretty interesting commentary. Some of his favorite topics are food, architecture, and signage, but really nothing is out of bounds. Well worth checking out (click iamge below).

la antigua daily photo


huitlacoche image

Huitlacoche, or cuitlacoche, is a unique ingredient of Mexican cuisine. Its English name is “corn smut,” which helps to explain why it has never quite caught on north of the Rio Bravo. (James Beard tried, to little avail, to overcome this by calling it “the Mexican truffle.”) It’s basically a corn disease caused by a fungus that replaces normal corn kernels with something that looks like mushrooms.

cuitlacoche from mexgrocer.comSmuts are a class of fungi that are parasitic on flowering plants and form black dusty spore masses that resemble soot or smut. A farmer in the U.S. who spots this on his crop will move heaven and earth to get rid of it. But in Mexico the smoky-flavored huitlacoche — said to signify “raven’s excrement” in Nahuatl — is viewed by many as a delicacy. It is used to flavor quesadillas, tamales, soups, and other dishes.

Corn Fungus Tamales, recipe by Aaron Sanchez
Huitlacoche Soup, recipe by Ellen and Tom Duffy
Monteblanco brand

Huitlacoche image by Kai Hirdes via Wikipedia
Monteblanco image via Mexgrocer


Platanos en mole

A dish for any time of the day. Serves eight.


  • 3 ripe plantains
  • 0.5 lb. high-quality chocolate
  • 2 ounces “pepitoria” (pumpkin seeds?)
  • 2 ounces sesame
  • 0.5 ounce cinnamon
  • 2 chiles pasa (a kind of red chile pod similar to chile pasilla)


  • Slice the plantains horizontally in slightly diagonal high-centimeter strips and fry until golden
  • Roast the pumpkins seeds, sesame, cinnamon and chile in a pan
  • Mix the chocolate with two cups of water and combine with the spices; blend until smooth
  • Drip the sauce on the plantains, sugar to taste, and boil for five minutes

This recipe is via

Easter carpets in Antigua

One of the great festivals in Guatemala is Semana Santa in Antigua. On Easter celebrants bear heavy floats depicting images from the passion of Christ; the floats, some requiring dozens of carriers, may weigh thousands of pounds.

semana santa procession, antigua, guatemala

Elaborate carpets — alfombras — of pine needles, corn kernels, flowers, and sawdust are created on the cobbled streets. These beautiful artworks will soften the treads of the bearers of the heavy statuary as they make their way across the hard, uneven cobbles. And they will be destroyed by them.

easter alfombra, antigua, guatemala

These photos were taken many years ago. The corn in this alfombra detail is interesting. The figure appears to be presenting the corn as a form of offering. The corn seems to emerge from a cooking vessel.

Maize has been the main crop of Mesoamerica since time immemorial. One of the chief deities of the classic Maya was the corn god, who is associated with death and rebirth. He descends to the underworld and reemerges in youthful guise much like a young shoot breaking through the surface of the earth at the beginning of the growing season. So it is natural that he would become associated with Easter, a springtime festival that is also associated with death and rebirth.


native women preparing manioc

For some time archaeologists have disputed whether manioc was a significant foodstuff of ancient Mesoamerica. While it seemed a logical possibility, there was scant hard evidence to support the thesis. Now a University of Colorado – Boulder team has uncovered an ancient field of manioc at a Maya site in present El Salvador, providing the first substantive evidence of the ancient use of manioc as a food crop in Mesoamerica.

Manioc, also known as cassava or yuca, is a member of the spurge family. Its potato-like root is often said to taste like a mixture of potato and coconut. It is extremely starchy and therefore is a good source of calories.

The image, Native Women Preparing Manioc for a Feast, by Theodor De Bry, is from Colonial Latin America. De Bry (1528–1598) was a Flemish engraver and publisher who specialized in depictions of explorations of the Americas (which he never visited).

This item is via La Casa Azteca. (More information there.)

Vanilla or Chocolate?

Both flavors have their origins in Mesoamerica.

This article on The Journey of the Vanilla Bean was published in the Evanston Review. It was pointed out by La Casa Azteca.
SEMI-RELATED: There’s a great series on Guatemalan food and drink at Antigua Daily Photo.

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