While several customs and traditions that played a part in the ancient Mayan culture will never be known, there were also many things that were well-documented. One major aspect that has survived throughout the centuries, fortunately, is a variety of delicious foods that played an important role in their lives. The Maya once held power over large portions of countries like Mexico, and many of the foods that served as diet staples for them are still commonly eaten there today. Although the foods listed below have ancient origins, they are still beloved nowadays. The ancient Maya may have stumbled upon these foods centuries ago, but they are still featured everywhere from restaurant menus to home kitchens.
Avocados and Guacamole
Even though avocados have become a bit of a trendy food in recent years, the savory fruit has been a mainstay of the diet in Mexico for centuries. The ancient Mayans fell in love with the rich texture and delicious flavor of avocados. There were several avocado varieties they consumed, and they even created the first version of guacamole with a combination of avocado, lime juice, spicy chilies and onion. Today’s versions sometimes include ingredients like cilantro, garlic and tomato, too.
Without a doubt, tamales were one of the foremost foods in the ancient Mayan diet. Scrumptious fillings such as chicken, pork or cheese and chilies are surrounded by corn masa, which is wrapped up in banana leaves or corn husks to be steamed. After they are finished cooking, the outer layer is taken off of the tamales and they are ready to enjoy (and often topped with fresh salsa). While savory tamales are satisfying as a meal, sweet tamales filled with fruit make an excellent choice for dessert. Tamales have been made and enjoyed by the Maya for centuries, especially as a part of important celebrations, and to this day remain a beloved treat in Mexico throughout the holiday season (though they can be found year-round).
The cacao tree is native to regions where the Maya once ruled, which is why it is not surprising that they eventually discovered the wonders of this pod fruit. After roasting the cacao seeds, the ancient Maya would use them to make the original version of hot chocolate which was consumed during traditional ceremonies and rituals. The Maya believed that cacao was given to them as a gift from the gods, and they even used the beans as a form of currency. Once the Spanish arrived in the 1500s and started to invade various Mayan settlements, they fell in love with the ceremonial beverage. The addition of milk and sugar was done by the Spanish, who shared the delicious new drink in Europe when they got back, where it was quickly embraced.
Salt was used to preserve meat long before refrigeration existed, and this unique dish was a result of that process in the Yucatan Peninsula. Today’s version features salted slow-cooked pork which is balanced by the tangy flavors of vinegar and orange juice. Other elements such as sautéed onions and cilantro pair beautifully with the pork for a sensational dish one simply must try when spending a vacation in the area.
Perhaps the single most important diet staple in Mexico is the corn tortilla, which is made out of ground corn masa and is cooked on a traditional comal or a wood-fired oven. The ancient Mayan diet featured plenty of handmade tortillas which would be eaten alongside meals from rice and beans to vegetables and roasted meats. Today, freshly made tortillas are essential for dishes like tacos and enchiladas, though they are present for just about every meal. When they are still hot, they are sometimes even eaten as a snack with a generous helping of fresh salsa and nothing else!
The traditional breakfasts that can be found in Mexico are heavily influenced by the dining habits of the ancient Maya. Breakfasts typically feature scrambled eggs served with beans, queso blanco (white cheese), and plenty of steaming hot tortillas kept warm in a cloth-lined basket. Not surprisingly, the breakfast drink of choice is a piping hot cup of coffee which has been made with locally grown and roasted beans.
As evidenced by this list, the cuisine of modern-day Mexico can thank the diet of the ancient Mayans for influencing it in so many mouthwatering ways!