Bienvenidos a Los Dos: Yucatan: A Culinary Expedition

About Chef David Sterling
The Yucatecan Market
Maíz: The pulse of Maya life
MUNA IS A LITTLE PUEBLO about one hour south of Mérida, in the Ruta Puuc region near Uxmal. With a population of about 11,000, nearly half of the residents are Maya-speakers living in very traditional circumstances, earning a living by farming, hunting and fishing. Foods are traditional, too, with dishes not typically found in the city: chaya con huevo, joroches, pozole con coco and atole de maíz nuevo.

My gardener has a finca in Muna where she not only grows the plants she uses in her trade, but where she also farms New Zealand red deer. This woman, who is also a friend, is a highly opinionated and brilliant lady who speaks three languages fluently and is a licensed pilot and psychotherapist. For years she had boasted to me about her elderly cook, Doña Lina, and told me that Lina is a repository of Maya culinary tradition, which I had no reason to doubt. Finally, after months of gentle reminders, I managed to arrange a day with Doña Lina for the sole purpose of learning all about maíz, or maize.

The goal I established for myself was to start out the way Maya women have started their day for millennia – to grind the nixtamal (rehydrated maize soaked in calcium hydroxide) that was prepared the night before, turning it into the maize dough known as masa, then to proceed through employing the masa in several dishes, and finish by boiling the nixtamal for the next day. That is exactly what we did, and I was amazed at how much we accomplished in only one day – although that entire day was devoted to food with no time for anything else, reminding me of the endless and sisyphusian drudgery of traditional life.

At 8am I pulled into the heliconia-and-cactus-lined drive that leads to the house at my friend’s finca. Doña Lina – whose full name is Angelina Magaña – was to meet me there so that we could drive to the market to do our day’s shopping. She was nowhere to be found, however, and all I saw or heard was the gentle whoosh-whoosh of the finca’s irrigation system. From seemingly sheer space, a man appeared; it was Don Pardo, my friend’s right-hand man. He told me that Lina hadn’t arrived yet and that we were to go pick her up at her own house, just a few blocks away.

When we arrived, I could already smell the sweetly appetizing fragrance of cooking maize that, mingled with the ubiquitous purple cleaning product known as Fabuloso, serves as my olfactory mnemonic for all of Mexico. I was led through the front of the house (which also functions as a ragtag abarrote, or small grocery store) and into the cluttered but spacious solar where I found Doña Lina stooped over a galvanized bucket full of yellow sludge.

She had already made the nixtamal for our day, since it has to soak overnight. The process involves boiling dried maize in water and slaked lime – a process that not only rehydrates the maize but that also increases its nutritional value dramatically. The nixtamalization process was probably developed in Guatemala around 1500 – 1200 B.C.1

“You have to punch it like this again and again, then pour off the water and add more and keep going until the water turns clear. This is how the cascara comes off,” she explained to me as she thrust her fist over and over into the sickly chartreuse slop. This was her rapid-fire method for removing the pericarp – the papery outer shell of the kernel – already loosened through the cooking and overnight soaking process. Many women rub the kernels between their palms, but I admit this did seem to be a faster strategy and it appealed to my bull-in-a-china-shop personality. I stooped over to plunge my fist a few times, too. Whichever the method, the cooking liquid turns yellow because this outer layer disintegrates, staining the water.

The next step was to pour off most of the yellow-green water and add fresh. She hauled the pail to the side of the solar where there were a few sad plants, and sloshed out some of the sludge onto them. She scooped up fresh water from an open well, added it to the maize bucket and punched it a few more times. Then she poured out the paler yellow liquid and repeated with more fresh water. She did this several times until the water ran – well, not quite clear, but clearer. Once totally drained, the nixtamal was ready to take to the molino (mill) to be ground into masa.

Doña Lina transferred the maize from the bucket into a plastic pail, which we loaded into the back of my little van and drove into town. Don Pardo and Lina’s daughter, Norma, decided to meet us (literally) back at the ranch. As we drove, Doña Lina explained to me that only the poorest people still grind their own nixtamal. Anyone with even a few pennies won’t waste the time. Really poor people in remote regions may still use a metate (grinding stone) but even the humblest have graduated to the cast aluminum hand-grinders so commonly seen clamped to table edges throughout the peninsula. But most head for a commercial molino.

Our first stop was in fact not the molino, but rather the tidy Muna market. We ambled through the narrow aisles and Doña Lina adeptly negotiated our purchases, turning up her nose at some vendors’ offerings. While she purchased some calabaza, I turned around to see a sight I had heard about but never witnessed. A woman behind us – obviously not a regular vendor since she was operating furtively on top of a cardboard box – peeled away pieces of newspaper to reveal her treasure for sale: venado del monte – the tiny Yucatecan wild deer. Its head, antlers and hooves were still visible although it looked like most of the meat had been sold. It is illegal to sell venado del monte anywhere in the state, and her harried movements and hushed tones let me know that she was ready to run at the first sign of the authorities.

As we walked back to my car from the market, we spotted Norma who had somehow arrived just behind us. We all climbed into the car and drove to the molino. It was a spotless place, brightly lit and full of customers – all women of the pueblo, each of whom had toted pails of nixtamal from home, just like we had. An assistant led us to our own grinding machine – a large contraption with an opening at the top and a bin at the bottom. She took the pail from Lina and emptied the contents into the opening at the top. She flipped on a switch, and soon there streamed out tiny bits of ground maize, all tumbling into the bin at bottom. I couldn’t imagine how these bits could become masa, but Lina took some, pinched it to check for fineness, then gathered up a bunch and patted it into a big, fat ball. Masa!

Class structure in Mexico is still defined by the single unit of the centavo. For those with even a few pennies more, you can skip making your own nixtamal and purchase ready-made masa from these commercial molinos. That is what we did for our masa nueva, or masa made from fresh – not dried and nixtamalized – maize. Our assistant led us to a totally different machine – reserved exclusively for the purpose of grinding fresh maize. She dumped a kilo of the white kernels into the opening, flicked the switch, and scooped up some of the wet paste that eventually oozed out. She offered me a taste and I savored its sweetness. This was to serve for making our atole nuevo and pozole nuevo.

Our last stop, oddly enough, was a building supply store. Norma hopped out and soon returned with a small plastic bag full of cal, or calcium hydroxide powder – a key ingredient that has been included since ancient times in such diverse recipes as cement, paint and rehydrated maize, or nixtamal.

Back at my friend’s finca, we began the real work. Don Pardo had completed the manly chore of building our fire. An old tin bucket was waiting nearby, and Doña Lina dumped in a couple of kilos of hard, dried maize. She tugged at a garden hose to fill the bucket with water, just covering the maize, then took a fistful of the powdery white cal and tossed it in, too. A small branch served as an ad-hoc spoon, and she stirred the concoction before hauling it over to the fire. Once in place, it would come to a boil, then remain at the boil for a full hour. Before we left, Doña Lina shoved another branch into the fire, making sure the pot had enough heat.

As we strolled back to the house, Doña Lina told me that the maize she uses is called x-nuuk nal, which in Mayan translates to “large cob”. She also referred to it as maíz de país (roughly translated to “local maize”). Later research revealed that this is the Tuxpeño race of Zea mays, and is the maize favored by local farmers due to its adaptability to the stony soil and the long periods of drought typical of Yucatán.2 It can be white or yellow, although several studies indicate that the yellow is more commonly planted in the region. Doña Lina told me that the yellow is sweeter, but that for some reason the white is more common in Muna.

In the kitchen, we started preparing the meal for the day. The comida fuerte – or main meal – is generally eaten around 2:00 pm in Yucatán. Mamás and abuelas and cooks of all kinds seem to have an internal clock that paces their kitchen rhythm so that the table is set just on time. Doña Lina, Donna and I padded about in the compact kitchen, managing to stay out of each other’s way while at the same time preparing several delicious dishes.

So vital a place does maíz have in the lives of the Maya that the ingredient has been elaborated into literally hundreds of variations – one assumes as much out of reverence for its importance as out of sheer daily boredom from a diet based on one staple item. These include not only things to chew but also things to chug. Respecting the traditional rhythms of the Maya day, our first task was to make several traditional maíz beverages. 

Pozole (variously written as posolli, pozol and posole) is a maize gruel that is drunk throughout the day, to refresh and to nourish. Often – among workers in the field or the very poor – it may be the only thing consumed except for the main afternoon meal. The basic recipe is deceptively simple: dissolve a ball of masa in water – and serve! It may sound odd, but it can actually be quite refreshing on a steamy tropical day. Pozole is generally served at room temperature or, if available, over ice. The traditional serving vessel is the jícara – or tree gourd.

Atole is simply pozole that is cooked until it thickens, and served hot. As with pozole, a wide range of ingredients may be added to atole according to the consumer’s taste: honey or sugar, achiote, chocolate, canela or allspice, salt and pepper, ground chiles, and so on. If pozole is gruel, then atole is porridge, and both are everyday fare in rural areas, supplemented in the afternoon and evening by a stack of tortillas.

But wait: the recipe for pozole/atole isn’t quite that simple. The masa for pozole/atole is special – the nixtamal is cooked at least another hour longer than standard nixtamal for tortillas or tamales. This makes it softer and more soluble in water. Maya women, like Doña Lina, plan ahead, and prepare enough nixtamal for both. She carefully timed and watched the pot, testing the kernels for doneness. When the boiling water had turned that sickly green color, and bits of germ were visible at the surface, she scooped out a kernel and bit into it. She gave me one to do the same. “Ya listo,” she said: “It’s ready.” The kernel was what I would call al dente – softened but still with quite a tooth.

This was the nixtamal
that would be ground
to become the masa
that formed the tamales
that Lina made.

She poured half of the maize slop into another bucket and set it aside for the morning, and put the rest back on the fire. This batch would cook yet one more hour, until each kernel was quite tender. This, then, would be the nixtamal for the masa for the pozole/atole. Confused yet? I reiterate: the only difference between masa for pozole/atole and masa for everything else is that the nixtamal for pozole/atole cooks longer.

As if the cooking methods weren’t labyrinthine enough, masa for pozole/atole (as well as for tortillas and tamales) can be produced from a kaleidoscopic matrix of maize types and cooking methods:

• Maíz seco (dried maize) cooked with cal. The resulting beverages are:
– Pozole, refresco de pozole (k’eyem in Mayan) – What one might call “standard” pozole, this beverage is made by simply dissolving masa in water and adding flavorings to taste. Nowadays it is often sweetened with sugar (I prefer the more authentic honey) and served over ice when available.
– Atole (sa’ in Mayan) – This standard atole is made by dissolving masa in water; then it is cooked and served hot. Many people add sugar but I prefer a savory version with chopped or mashed chile verde (green chile de arbol) and a pinch of salt.
– Pozole con coco – The standard refresco de pozole is put into a blender and liquefied with the meat of a whole coconut. Add sugar to taste and serve over ice. This beverage is so popular that Maya women have turned it into a cottage industry, chopping the coconut and pre-mixing it with masa. Balls of this mixture are plentiful in the Mérida market, always obvious with its white color and protruding flecks of coconut. Just dilute in water and add sugar to taste.

• Maíz seco (dried maize) cooked without cal. The resulting beverages are:
– Sakab – Another pozole version, this one is typically served on Viernes Santo (Good Friday) and also for certain agriculture ceremonies. Farmers fill three jícaras (drinking gourds) with the pozole and leave them in the field to invite the spirits to drink so that they will bring a fertile harvest. Because the pericarp is intact, the masa and therefore the beverage have a slightly different texture and flavor.

• Maíz tierno
(fresh maize) is cooked for less time, with just a smidgen of cal, before being ground into masa. The resulting beverages are:
– Pozole nuevo – This beverage is naturally sweet, but most still add some sugar. Doña Lina called this Áak’ leesh (áak’ means fresh or young).
Atole nuevo (áak’ sa’ in Mayan) – Cooked and served hot like standard atole – usually with sugar and a pinch of salt – this is the atole typically served with Yucatán’s Tamal Colado and also at harvest festivals.

We made all of these beverages in less than 30 minutes – and this is just a drop in the bucket (pardon the pun) of all maize beverages in Yucatán, much less throughout Mesoamerica. I sipped my favorites (atole and pozole de coco) while we proceeded cooking the meal.

Doña Lina and Norma next led me through the processes of making two popular kinds of Yucatecan tamales: chámchamitos de jolo’och and tamal colado. The former is Yucatán’s only tamal wrapped in corn husks, although it can take a few different forms depending on the fillings; the latter is Yucatán’s famous, creamy strained tamal. It is prepared basically like atole: masa is mixed with water, strained, cooked until it thickens, then spooned onto banana leaves, wrapped and steamed. We finished with a quick soup: Sopa de Joroch’, a nourishing squash stock enriched with lard and filled with dozens of simple masa dumplings.

We sat down to eat promptly at 2:00pm. After our meal, we checked on the simmering nixtamal that would serve for tomorrow’s pozole. It was done. Doña Lina set it aside to steep, such that by the time she awakened the next morning it would be ready for the punching/draining process, and the flow of events I experienced today would start all over again.

1. Coe, Sophie D. America’s First Cuisines. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1994.

2. L.M. Arias, L. Latournerie, S. Montiel, E Sauri. “Recent changes in the diversity of local varieties of maize in Yucatan, Mexico.” Mérida, Yucatán: Department of Human Ecology/CINVESTAV, January 31, 2007.
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