The Maya were the ancient people who lived in Belize. They are one of the classical civilizations of Mesoamerica, having risen to prominence around A.D. 250. Their empire stretched from southern Mexico through Guatemala and Honduras as well as Belize. They developed astronomy, a calendar, and used hieroglyphics.
Their cuisine was varied as, in addition to growing crops, they also hunted, fished, and foraged. Their agriculture focused on maize or corn. In fact, the earliest cultivated plant specimens discovered by archaeologists include this grain. In order to best utilize its nutrients, the Maya soaked and cooked maize in an alkaline solution. This allows for the release of niacin, which is a necessary B vitamin.
In addition to corn, the Maya also grew squash, beans, and chili peppers. Manioc cassava was another possible staple that was easily grown. These basic crops were combined with meat, wild onions, cacao, and salt to produce flavorful and nutritious meals.
Some of the delicious dishes that the Maya ate are still being consumed today. Some of them you might be familiar with!
For example, guacamole. The Maya called it “avocado sauce”. Whatever you choose to call it, however, it’s a wonderful treat, whether used as a garnish, a dip or as the main spread in your sandwich. The Maya integrated this condiment into many of their dishes and today it has become popularized worldwide.
Another Mesoamerican invention that has become internationally available in modern times is the corn tortilla. This was a staple of the Maya diet as it used their most widely grown staple crop, maize. The traditional preparation methods have not changed from ancient times.
The corn kernels, after being stripped from the cob, are soaked in an alkaline solution and ground and kneaded into a dough which is called masa. This is then formed into small disks that are cooked over a flame or on a griddle.
They can be used as-is for soft tacos or fried to make tortilla chips or taco shells. They are accompanied by a wide variety of fillings and dips and some people consider them to be the ultimate comfort food.
Another great corn-based comfort food of the Maya that is still popular today – the tamale. In this case, masa is molded around a filling and steamed in a plantain leaf. The Maya typically used cooked game meat as their filling, though nowadays everything from pork and chicken to yummy vegetarian options are available.
One variant that many are not familiar with that is unique to Belize is the tamalito. In this version, the corn isn’t made into masa, it is instead ground up, stuffed back into its husk, and then steamed. Often lightly spiced, they are perfect for vegans, though sometimes meat may be added. Roasted to give a nice crunch, they are a popular breakfast food that is also eaten throughout the day.
So far, we have mentioned only savory dishes. However, there is one sweet treat that is consumed the world over that has its origins in the ancient Maya.
We are, of course, talking about chocolate. The Maya discovered that they could take the oblong-shaped fruits of the cacao plant, roast and grind the seeds, and turn them into an edible concoction.
The Maya, however, did not sweeten their chocolate. Instead, they made Xocolatl. This was a bitter, spicy and potent drink. The Maya believed it was sent by the gods to give them power and reserved it for important people. They even traded the beans as a type of currency. Today, this food connotes romance and pleasure and is a cultural icon worldwide.
These are some of the traditional Maya foods that you may be familiar with. However, there are also some you have never tried.
One is Caldo de Pollo, which is a simple traditional soup served in small villages throughout Belize. It is made from a chicken that was often raised in someone’s backyard. The pieces are sauteed in garlic and other spices and then cooked in a broth that includes annatto, a local spice, as well as herbs such as paprika and thyme. Hot habanero powder adds a kick to the concoction. Locally sourced vegetables are also thrown into the pot. As you can see, not only is such a meal delicious, it’s also bursting with nutrition.
Another flavorful local dish is pibil. To create this ancient dish, an entire pig is marinated in spices and citrus juice and then buried in the ground under hot rocks to slowly cook. The long, gentle cooking process results in incredibly tender and juicy meat. It is then shredded and served with hand made corn tortillas as well as fresh local herbs and pico de gallo.
For a wonderful cultural experience, you should visit the Maya ruins in Belize. Not only will you be awestruck by the ancient pyramids and other architectural wonders, you will also find your taste buds tempted by the delicious flavors of the ancient cuisine.
To truly enjoy a trip back in time, you should feast on these sumptuous dishes. Buy tamalitos from a local vendor. Learn to make Xocalatl the way the Maya did and imbibe its spicy richness. And for a dinner fit for a king, enjoy pibil with maybe a side of local guacamole. You will feel a real connection to the ancient Maya who once lived in this wondrous land of Belize.