Dig In: Mayan

Vast limestone plains flourished with lush vegetated rainforests open up to ancient ruins and modern culture. There is a history behind the ancient architecture, a mystery still unsolved, but a cultural connection that is explicitly pronounced. Since the early 1500s, the Mayan culture blossomed, growing with the many cultural nuances it inherited from Spanish invaders. With its beautiful geography, ancient history, exciting cuisine, and flourishing culture and language, the Yucatan Peninsula is like opening a chest full of endless treasure, perhaps the very treasure overlooked by the Spanish Conquistadors many years ago.


Maya Cuisine

There is no way to separate the original indigenous cooking of the Maya from its modern expression although the historical contributions are readily apparent. Mexican influences are also abundant but the unique Maya style is noticeable even in the preparation of classic Mexican recipes.

Like its first cousin, Mexican cooking, Maya cuisine revolves around corn. Tortillas, tamales, atoles, and numerous corn masa-based snacks are vital to the Maya cuisine. Squash and beans also figure prominently as are the use of recados, ground seasoning pastes unique to Maya cooking, can be found in most recipes. Chiles, many unique to the region, are freely used in the cooking and the use of leaves to wrap food before cooking remains a practice. Besides corn, which is used in most indigenous cooking, achiote, the paste made from the seeds of the native annatto tree, is the most identifiable ingredients in much of Maya food preparation. Whether you are traveling through Maya lands or cooking Maya recipes in your home, you will enjoy the fresh bold flavors and subtle sophistication of this celebrated, historic, and often misunderstood style of cooking.

In the Maya world many traditional recipes use terms like bastante (enough or sufficient) or cocinar muy bien (fry or cook well) and al gusto (as you like). The amounts given are often very ambiguous allowing for the cook’s own interpretation and to accommodate what is available, particularly since many rural areas and small villages have limited resources, and depend upon seasonal ingredients.

Understanding and mastering recados is one of the most important keys to achieving the distinctive flavors of Maya cooking. Recados are utilized as seasoning rubs and marinades, added to tamales, and often used to flavor sauces, soups and stews. The term Recado or Recaudo has several meanings ranging from messenger to safekeeping. In the Maya territories, the term almost always refers to seasoning pastes used every day and for special occasions like fiestas. When employed for cooking, I suppose that you could say that the Maya recados are flavors in safekeeping and that they are messengers of tastes from the ancient past. The Maya have used recados for millennial however, the arrival of the Spanish most certainly enriched the ingredients used and the variety of flavors achieved. Recados were a convenience food for the ancient Maya of the Yucatan and the gulf coast of Campeche. These premade, savory concoctions are unique to Mexican cooking no where else in the country are spice mixtures commonly prepared in advance and employed on a daily basis as part of the regular cooking routine. Most recados are a blend of herbs, spices, at times chiles and other seasoning frequently with the brick-red achiote or annatto seed included. They are typically made ahead of time and their use simplifies the preparation of meals. If well wrapped, most recados will keep up to one year in the refrigerator or they may also be frozen.

Colorado / Red Seasoning Paste
Recado Colorado is the most commonly used of the recados in Maya cooking. It is used to season meats, piltry aand seafood before cooking as a flavoring and colorant for sauces and tamales. Although these are readily available in markets provided is a recipe for your own adventurous ways.

½ cup Annatto Seeds (ground)                   2 tablespoon Apple Cider Vinegar
8 whole Allspice Berries (lightly toasted)       ½ teaspoon Coriander Seeds
2 teaspoons whole Black Pepper                 ½ teaspoon Cumin Seed
12 – 14 cloves Garlic (roasted and peeled)    1 tablespoon Mexican Oregano
1 ½ teaspoons Salt

  1. Mix the annatto seeds with 2 tablespoons of vinegar and soak for several hours.
  2. 2 Finely grind all ingrdeints in a spice grinder.
  3. Mix until a smooth, stiff paste is formed, adding more vinegar as needed.
  4. Form into a block, wrap well and refrigerate to store.

Chilmole O Recado de Relleno Negro / Black Seasoning Paste
¼ cup Annatto Seeds                     2 tablespoons Apple Cider Vinegar
2 Corn Tortillas                               8 Whole Allspice Berries
1 stick canela / cinnamon stick       2 teaspoons Whole Black Pepper
32 teaspoons salt                          20 cloves Garlic (peeled and roasted)
2 tablespoons Mexican Oregano
6 ounces Chiles Secods de Yucatan (toasted black, stemmed and seeded)

  1. Soak the charred chiles in hot water for 10 to 15 mintues. Drain and rinse thoroughly in cool water.
  2. Mix the annatto seeds with the 2 tablespoons of vinegar and soak for several hours.
  3. Finely grind all of the dry ingredients in a spice grinder until a smooth paste is formed.
  4. Form into a block, wrap well and refrigerate to store.

Here are three main ingredient components to the Maya cuisine:

Annatto / Achiote

  • Achiote seeds come in a variety of colors such as orange, yellow, and red. seeds come from the Achiote tree or the “lipstick tree” native to Central and South America.
  • Achiote have a mild peppery flavor and lemony scent.
  • Achiote seeds are primarily used for culinary and medicinal purposes as well as for body paint.
  • Achiote seeds are ground into a fine powder and steeped in oil to extract the taste and flavors.
  • Achiote seeds come from the Achiote tree also known as the lipstick tree native to Southern and Central America.


  • There is a very prickly variety of chayote that feels like Velcro.
  • The chayote is a member of the gourd family along with pumpkins, however they contain only one large seed.
  • The chayote is known by many names such as christophene, cho-cho, mirliton, chuchu, centinarja, choko, sayote, and many more!
  • The chayote is also used for medicinal uses such as dissolving kidney stones, assisting with treatment for hypertension, alleviating urine retention, and curing kidney diseases.

Corn / Maize

  • The shelf life of maize kernels are so long that archeologists are still able to pop popcorn with ancient maize.
  • There are over 3,500 different varieties of maize.
  • The ancient Mayan’s believed that man was made out of corn dough.
  • An ear of maize is actually part of a flower and an individual kernel is a seed.
  • Maize is grown on every continent except Antarctica.


Let’s Get Cooking!

Ancient Mayan Hot Chocolate
hotchocolateSince the Ancient Maya this classic drink has remained virtually unchanged and always delicious. Unlike modern hot chocolate, the Mayan’s never mixed cacao bean paste with milk instead using hot water and relying on natural sweeteners such as honey to enhance the flavor. In fact it was the Spaniards in Colonial times that began to add milk, cream, and sugar to the cacao paste to create a soft creamy taste similar to current hot cocoa.

Chocolate lovers will find a truly rich bittersweet chocolate flavor with a soft touch of chili pepper to enhance the deep aroma of this pure and authentic traditional hot chocolate.  Remember, the quality of the Kakaw or cacao paste you use makes all the difference when it comes to aroma and flavor.


  • 1-2 Cinnamon Sticks
  • 8 ounces bittersweet Kakaw Chocolate Paste (shaved)
  • 3 ounces Mexican Unsweetened Chocolate (Chukwa’)
  • 2 tablespoons Wild Pure Honey (Kaab)
  • 1 pinch dried Red Chilli
  • 1 pinch dried Vanilla Bean (split lengthwise)
  • 1 tablespoon Roasted Peanuts (finely ground)
  • 3 cups Boiling Water (Ha’)

Method of Preparation:

  1. In a medium sauce pot, bring water and cinnamon sticks to a boil. Reduce to 2 ½ cups.
  2. Remove cinnamon sticks and reduce to low/medium heat.
  3. Add the vanilla beans, chocolate, honey. Whisk until chocolate is completely melted.
  4. Remove from heat, and discard the vanilla bean.
  5. Whisk vigorously to form a foam. The garnish with dried chili pepper, peanuts and enjoy.

Sopa de Lima (Lime Soup)

limesoupA mainstay of home cooking throughout Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula and a standard on nearly every restaurant menu in the region, sopa de lima combines zesty Old and New World flavors. It literally represents the collision of indigenous Mayan foods with European, Asian, and Middle Eastern fare. Deriving from an ancient Mayan dish utilizing wild turkeys and limes brought over by the Spanish Conquistadors, sopa de lima is an excellent blend of savory, fiery, and tart. Yucatan’s lime juice has a unique aroma; its strong tangy and sour-sweet lingering flavors make it key to this delicious soup.


  • 1 fresh Red Pepper (sliced)
  • 2 ripe Red Tomatoes (P’aak) (sliced)
  • 1 small Sweet Onion (sliced)
  • 2 Bay Leaves (crushed)
  • 1 crushed Garlic Clove
  • 3 tablespoons Frying Oil
  • 20 oz. Chicken (Kaax) Broth
  • 2 Yucatan Lima’s (juice, pulp, zest)

Toppings & Garnish:

  • 1/2 lb. Corn Tortilla strips (fried golden and crispy)
  • 8 oz. cooked Chicken Breast (shredded)
  • 8 Lime Slices (with skin, sliced thin)

Method of Preparation:

  1. Heat oil in a medium size pot over high heat. Sauté garlic and onions until translucent. Add tomatoes, red peppers, bay leaves and sauté for 5 minutes.
  2. Add lime juice, pulp, and zest. Toss to coat the ingredients.
  3. Add the chicken broth and allow to simmer for 30 minutes.
  4. Garnish and enjoy.

Mayan Shrimp Ceviche

cevicheEnjoy the zesty flavor and aroma of this easy to make savory sweet ceviche. This is a Mayan favorite on any day of the week. Its rich nutrition value increases if you use vine-ripe tomatoes, organic grown onion and cilantro; plus, juicy mature limes.  Take the time to buy the best ingredients and be rewarded with an amazing tasty salad, just chill and enjoy. Add fresh celery to enhance the recipe’s color, texture and taste.


  • 1 lb. cooked Jumbo Shrimps (clean and peeled)
  • 2 ripe Limes (Lima’s) (juice only)
  • 1 small Red Onion (chopped small)
  • 3 Red Tomatoes (sliced in wedges)
  • 1/3 cup chopped Cilantro Leaves
  • 1 pinch black pepper
  • 1 pinch sea salt (ta’ab)
  • 1 pinch Cayenne powder
  • Light drizzle of squash oil
  • Optional Habenero Chili (minced)
  • Optional fresh Celery slices

Method of Preparation:

  1. In a large pot, bring water to a boil. Add a pinch of salt and the uncooked shrimp. When the shells turn pink, remove the shrimp and peel away the shell, leaving the tail fins behind. Set aside to chill.
  2. Prepare the vegetables and place into a medium mixing bowl. Season with lime juice, cilantro, black pepper, sea salt, cayenne powder, and squash oil. Mix well.
  3. Chop the shrimp into small pieces and gently mix in.
  4. Cover and set in the refrigerator to allow the flavors to meld.
  5. Enjoy with crackers or avocado halves.
Jack Achenbach

Jack Achenbach

I am an SLE Storyteller and a culinary nutrition student at Johnson & Wales University who believes that there is no limit to the size of one’s imagination nor the paths one travels. I am a writer, a sucker for a great story. I am chef with a culinary passion. I am an adventurer because I explore what yet I have not seen. I am a dreamer because I dream the impossible dream.

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