By Annette Hinkle
This Friday. That’s the day the Maya Long Count calendar officially comes to its end.
By all accounts, the ancient Maya were pretty damn good at mathematics as well as charting the stars and planetary movement. As a result of all that figuring, their calendar which began 5,125 years ago in 3113 B.C. is set to end December 21, 2012.
Exactly what that means in practical terms is up for debate. While some folks are taking to underground bunkers or looking for apocalyptic signs in the form of errant meteors and weird weather, this Friday, most people will no doubt be focused on finishing up their holiday shopping and making plans for 2013.
After all, there’s reason to be skeptical. The apex of Maya culture was more than 1,000 years ago. Given their ability to see so far into the future, one would think they might have been able to predict the coming of their own demise.
Regardless of your personal take on the situation, the fact is, the much heralded end is at hand. So why not welcome Friday, come what may, with a Mayan feast?
Chef Daniel Hoyer, a native of New Mexico, knows all about Mayan cuisine. He cut his culinary chops, so to speak, at the acclaimed Coyote Café in Santa Fe and has written a number of cookbooks on various ethnic cuisines.
Currently, Hoyer lives on the other side of the world, in Vietnam where he leads visitors on culinary tours of Hanoi’s food markets. He also has a restaurant in Hanoi, which, curiously enough, offers both Vietnamese and Mexican fare. Though he has been living in Asia for five years or so, in many ways, his heart is still south of the border (the U.S. border that is).
It is there that Hoyer discovered although Maya culture peaked long ago (around 900 A.D. by most estimates), much of it is alive and well in the Yucatan Peninsula where authentically Mayan cuisine can still be found. While Hoyer has written a few books about Mexico’s distinct food regions, for those looking to create an authentic menu for the end of days, his “Mayan Cuisine: Recipes from the Yucatan Region” is probably the one for you. As Hoyer notes, it’s a cuisine born of geography.
“Mayan culture is in the center in the Yucatan and it goes down to Central America, as far east as Chiapas as well,” explains Hoyer. “That’s the area where they had their main civilization center.”
“It’s unique from the rest of Mexico in that it was geographically separated,” he adds. “Until some major highways were built in the 20th century, the only way to get there was by boat.”
For that reason, the Maya relied on what could be found close by or grown— that meant a lot of seafood, animals found in the wild like turkey and venison, and plenty of corn. They also used pumpkin seeds and squash, beans and nuts. Pork and beef came later, introduced by the Spanish. But perhaps the most important factor in Mayan cuisine is the use of chilies.
“The habanero is the main one, but they use a whole variety,” says Hoyer. “The habanero was thought to originate in the Caribbean and named after Havana. It’s one of hottest and most flavorful and used mostly in sauces and condiments.”
Another storied food item in Mexican history is chocolate, and while is was important in Mayan society, Hoyer notes it was used as a food source more frequently in places like Oaxaca and Veracruz.
“In Mayan culture, the cacao bean was actually a currency and considered sacred and from the gods,” says Hoyer. “The rulers tended to hoard it.”
They did drink chocolate, but not the sweetened hot variety we tend to enjoy today.
“It was combined with chilies and consumed as a bitter drink,” says Hoyer who notes that the central defining flavors of almost all Mayan cuisine comes from recados — seasoning pastes made from the same essential ingredients but with some slight variation.
“There’s a number of them – a red, green and black one — made with chilies, herbs, spices and garlic, things like that,” he explains. “The red recado is made from achiote or annatto seeds, which is not so familiar in American cooking, but yellow cheddar cheese is colored with that.”
While making recados is challenging, Hoyer notes because of their importance in the cuisine, it’s worth doing a little painstaking work up front to make a few batches to have on hand.
“That’s usually the limiting factor in making Yucatan food,” says Hoyer who includes recipes for a number of recados in his cookbook. “It is a couple hours work, but freezes quite well”
When it comes to cooking, Hoyer explains one of the most common traditional methods in Yucatan is wrapping fish or meat with spices in banana leaves.
“It’s a practical way to keep the flavor in and you don’t need a cooking vessel,” he says. “Barbecuing or burying it in a pit is also popular. One of the iconic dishes is cochinita pibil.
This is a sort of Yucatan barbecue in which a small pig covered in sauces is wrapped in banana leafs and buried in a fire pit. Much like pig roasts in the United States, it’s a dish most often reserved for big gatherings.
“When I was traveling there, even in small Mayan villages if there was a celebration, they would still do it,” says Hoyer. “Once you have that meat you can eat it in a lot of different ways — on fresh tortillas with good salsa.”
While the 21st century has definitely had a major impact on the Yucatan region (Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Cozumel are all heavily touristed areas once dominated by the Maya culture), authentic experiences can still be had.
“It’s not hard to find evidence of the culture once you’re away from tourist and resort areas,” says Hoyer. “If you get to Merida [the Yucatan’s capital city] you’ll see a lot of traditional cooking there.”
Hoyer wanted to find the really rare Maya dishes for his book, which required him to venture into small, remote towns and make friends.
“My method is to be as informed as possible, have a loose itinerary and travel solo with as many contacts as I can. Then I branch out to meet others,” explains Hoyer. “I was traveling by bus a lot and I’d get off the bus and start stumbling around.”
“When they see a gringo looking for the authentic cooking of the town, you’ll find yourselves in the kitchen with the grandmothers preparing home cooking,” he says. “Being a gringo you get something of a free pass, and as a man, knowing something about food gave me entry.”
Diligence paid off and Hoyer ended up finding some true culinary gems.
“The most obscure was in Chiapas, in the southeast of Mayan territory, near Oaxaca,” he says. “It’s in the mountains and can be quite cold and it’s a unique culture. Often they have dishes particular to one village or another. Some were too esoteric or obscure to include in a cookbook, but I did include some things I learned.”
“One thing I found in that area, if I got to know people and told them I was interested, they’d share their handwritten family cook books with me,” says Hoyer.
But turning some of these family favorites into recipes for a cookbook was not an easy task.
“Many of them were non specific,” he says. “They’d list a few steps, but that’s it. It would say, ‘Cook this the way your mother taught you how.’ Some of these recipes were more than 100 years old. I considered that a real honor.”
Today, Hoyer is well-settled in his new life in Vietnam, but he is still smitten with Mexico. In fact, several Mexican dishes, including some from the Yucatan region are on the menu of his restaurant in Hanoi, which is named ¡Provecho! (meaning “enjoy your meal” in Spanish).
“People ask what I miss most living in Vietnam, and what I miss is Mexico, more than the U.S.,” says Hoyer, who has his own take on all they hype surrounding the end of the Maya calendar.
“I have a sense it’s more Gringo ideas than the Mayans that’s there’s an end of the world,” he says. “But I imagine they’re embracing capitalizing on the commercial aspect. I can’t imagine how many people will be at Chichen Itza this week waiting for the end of world.”
Hoyer has talked about this issued with scientists and anthropologists as well as shamans and other people he got to know on his journey in Yucatan who helped put December 21, 2012 into perspective.
“They saw it as the end of a cycle rather than the end of the world. Most reasonable thinking people see it as that way,” says Hoyer. “Though there are a whole lot of interpretations about what that means. Is it a whole new consciousness, a new phase of life? There’s not much we can do about it.”
So with that in mind, where will Hoyer be this Friday when the time comes?
“Probably walking through the markets of Vietnam showing people the food,” he says. “But I’ll keep an eye out and see what’s coming. It’s very fascinating. Spiritual and daily life are intertwined, even with the food.”
“Who knows? Maybe they have a solution for our lives.”
To learn more about Daniel Hoyer’s cookbooks and his food tours of Vietnam, visit his website Eatingvietnam.com.