Travel through Maya food and its history: Photo essay

Welcome to another edition of Cultural Tidbits Monday. Following my trip to Mexico, this week we travel through Maya food and its history. I will give you a brief overview of Yucatec Maya food (also known as Yucatán food), influences, popular ingredients, and dishes. All sprinkled with delicious photos. ¡Buen Provecho!

Maya food platter

Maya food platter from Valladolid (1yen, Flickr)

Maya food: Brief history

If any restaurant in Mexico claims to serve “pure” Maya cuisine, they are lying. Maya food from the Yucatán is a mix of Yucatec Maya, North African, Spaniard, and other European influences. The Peninsula was active in the Caribbean trade throughout colonial times, which transformed its cuisine.

Maize, or corn, is the centerpiece of Maya food. Every dish is made with, or comes with a side of, handmade corn tortillas. Mashed black, red, and pinto beans are also present in most Maya dishes. The way I see it, Yucatec Maya food is the type of Mexican food Americans recognize. Go visit any other region in Mexico and you’ll be surprised to see how different “Mexican food” can be!

Conversely, the further south you go, the less spicy/hot Mexican food is. Accordingly, Yucatán cuisine is rather mild. They do import hot sauces from all over the country though, so ask your server! 😉

Maya food banana leaves

Maya food wrapped in banana leaves (foodfreak, Flickr)

Chicken and seafood have always been eaten by the Maya, in addition to rabbits, deer, doves, pheasants, and pork after colonial times. These are cooked with chili peppersHabaneros, tomatoes, achiote (annatto seeds paste), wild onions, chayotes, and cucumbers.

Like in the Caribbean, fruits play a big role in Yucatán cuisine. Papaya, bananas, mamey, oranges, guava, avocados, guanabana, mangoes, and pineapple are some common ingredients. Moreoever, Middle Eastern spices such as cumin, coriander, and saffron are now part of Maya food! The end result? Subtle, yet full flavors. Think sweet and peppery.

Traditionally, the Maya would wrap their food with banana leaves and bake it in underground ovens. Nowadays, most Mayas cook over coal fire stoves. By the way, the Maya are still alive in the Yucatán: They have their own villages and manage their own businesses! In fact, several companies in tourist towns such as Cancun and Playa Del Carmen have partnerships with Maya villages, helping them thrive. I loved this 🙂

Now, let’s sample some popular Maya dishes shall we?!

Cochinita Pibil or Pollo Pibil

The Maya used to marinate chicken with axiote and other pre-Columbian spices, baking it in underground ovens. In fact, the dish has its name because pibil means “buried” in Maya language 😉

After the Spaniards came, pork and other Eastern spices were introduced. This mix of cultures gave birth to the most popular Maya dish: Cochinita Pibil. Virtually every single Mayan restaurant you ever visit will list this dish under their specialties. I had it while visiting Playa Del Carmen last month and let me tell you, it is delishh!

Maya Recipe: Cochinita Pibil

Maya food Cochinita Pibil

Cochinita Pibil by Gonzalo Valenzuela, Flickr

Sopa de Lima

Lime soup with crushed (or strips) of tortilla on top. Traditionally, it is made with turkey, but can also be made with chicken. Very light, perfect with a margarita or Coronita 😉

Recipe: Mexican lime soup

Maya food lime soup and cochinita pibil

Lime soup (bottom) + cochinita pibil sandwiches! (Rigoberto Reyes, Flickr)


While there are several ways to cook poc-chuc, I love the the Maya barbecue version 😀 Fine slices of pork, marinated in a sour orange juice sauce, with onions and spices.

Maya Recipe: Poc-Chuc

poc chuc Maya food

Mmm Maya poc chuc (kanuck, Flickr)

Pavo en Relleno Negro

Literally means turkey with black stuffing. The jet-black sauce is made of a spice mix called recado. A variation of the reca’o used in the Caribbean, it consists of “achiote seeds, charred chilies, cloves, allspice, peppercorns and cumin” ( Then, mashed hard-boiled eggs and tortillas are added to complete the stuffing. Yum!

Recipe: Pavo en Relleno Negro (with a French twist)

relleno negro, Maya food

Turkey with relleno negro on the left (mswine, Flickr)

Queso Relleno

It is unknown how Edam cheese was introduced to the Yucatán Peninsula. There are several stories, but my favorite is the one told by the chef of the Mayan restaurant I visited: “a ship, containing a large shipment of the Dutch Edam cheese, ran aground at the height of the Caribbean trade in colonial times. Yucatec Mayas discovered  the boxes and started to incorporate Edam cheese in their cuisine. And so Queso Relleno became a Maya food!”

Maya Recipe: Queso Relleno

Maya food platter, Yaxche rest.

Queso relleno (bottom) stuffed with ground pork, which you can see coming out of the top left corner. The black portion is Pavo con Relleno Negro and on the right is the Cochinita Pibil once more


Small fried tortillas, topped with seasoned turkey, mashed fried beans, avocado, pickled onions, lettuce, and sometimes tomatoes.

Maya Recipe: Panuchos

panucho, Maya food

Yucatán panucho (John Chew, Flickr)


It is actually a type of chili in Maya food, but it needed its own category 😉 I found a fascinating recipe mixing these chiles with another authentic Maya dish. You have to try it!

Maya Recipe: Pib X’catik (blonde chilies stuffed with cochinita pibil!)

Pib Xcatik, Mayan cuisine

Pib Xcatik by

Mayan coffee

Last, but definitely not least, is Mayan coffee. Flambéed coffee with shots of Kahlúa, brandy, and Xtabentun (anise, fermented honey) liqueurs, cinnamon, and vanilla ice cream. To make it, a fire show (quite literally) takes place at your table. Think of Irish coffee —  but even better. O.M.G. Why do I do this to myself when I have to be at the office?! *sigh*

Recipe: Maya coffee (without the brandy, though!)

Which was your favorite Maya food? Have you tried it before?

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