Counting up all the memorable moments from our OnMilwaukee OnVacay to Riviera Maya, Mexico would be a near impossible task. But among them was a traditional Mayan meal which we enjoyed while on excursion in the Yucatan.
We’d embarked on the excursion to Cenote Maya with expert guides from Alltournative Native Parks & Expeditions. While we were there, we’d rappel 12 meters down into the cavernous limestone water source and take part in a Mayan blessing ritual. But we’d also be treated to one of the best meals of the entire trip.
The cenote is located at Native Park Yucatan in Chechmil, Yucatán, an indigenous Mayan community not far from the “pueblo mágico” Valladolid, a place rife with history and rich in Mayan culture. As a result, it’s an excellent spot to get a taste of the notably fiery, smokey and earthy flavors of Mayan cuisine, which – like much of the cuisine in the Yucatan – relies on a “holy trinity” of ingredients: achiote, habanero peppers and Seville oranges, which were brought to Mexico by the Spanish.
Those flavors were evident in the meal we enjoyed at the park, which was prepared by members of the local Mayan community.
Chicken, marinated with achiote, offered up slightly earthy, mildly peppery notes and the vibrant red coloring for which the seeds are prized. It was accompanied by rice, a melange of lentils and vegetables and chayitas, chewy fried masa cakes flecked with chaya, a local green that’s often called “tree spinach.”
The leafy green is an ancient food source for the Maya, which serves as both nourishment and medicine. The leaves are richer in iron than spinach, and a powerful source of potassium and calcium. Just a quarter of an ounce of the prolific leaves also bear as much protein as an egg.
The feast was delicious wrapped in fresh white corn tortillas which were hand-rolled and cooked on a comal over a wood-burning fire (yes, even in 85 degree heat) just a few yards from our table.
Even better, we were treated to accompaniments including a mild tomato salsa, a crumbly queso, crema and creamy habanero salsa. The latter was not for the faint of heart; but it was phenomenally delicious. Emulsified with oil, the peppers took on the texture of an aioli and their sweet, floral fruity heat was delicious on absolutely everything.
A variety of beverages were also available, including canned soda and water. But the true star was the agua de Jamaica, a drink made with the red flowers of the Hibiscus Roselle which are harvested and dried in the sun for several days, then steeped in hot water to extract both their bright red color and floral, fruity flavor.
The meal was not only delicious, but has inspired me to further my education on Mayan cuisine and experiment with its varied flavors at home.
En última instancia, fue una experiencia que no olvidaré pronto.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.