Ancient Maya cuisine was varied and extensive. Many different types of resources were consumed, including maritime, flora, and faunal material, and food was obtained or produced through a host of strategies, such as hunting, foraging, and large-scale agricultural production. Plant domestication focused on several core foods, the most important of which was maize.
Much of the Maya food supply was grown in forest gardens, known as pet kot. The system takes its name from the low wall of stones (pet meaning "circular" and kot "wall of loose stones") that characteristically surrounds the gardens.
The Maya adopted a number of adaptive techniques that, if necessary, allowed for the clear-cutting of land and re-infused the soil with nutrients. Among these was slash-and-burn, or wideness, agriculture, a technique that cleared and temporarily fertilized the area. For example, the introduction of ash into the soil raises the soil’s pH, which in turn raises the content of a variety of nutrients, especially phosphorus, for a short period of time of around two years. However, the soil will not remain suitable for planting for as many as ten years. This technique, common throughout the Maya area, is still practiced today in the Maya region. Complementing wideness techniques were crop rotation and farming, employed to maintain soil viability and increase the variety of crops.
Maya diet focused on four domesticated crops (staple crops): maize, squash, beans (typically Phaseolus vulgaris) and chili peppers. The first three cultivars are commonly referred to in North America as the "Three Sisters" and, when incorporated in a diet, complement one another in providing necessary nutrients. Among the three, maize was the central component of the diet of the ancient Maya, and figured prominently in Maya mythology and ideology. Maize was used and eaten in a variety of ways, but was always nixtamalized. Nixtamalization (a term that derives from the Nahuatl word for the process), is a procedure in which maize is soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution. This releases niacin, a necessary B vitamin (vitamin B3) that prevents pellagra and reduces incidents of protein deficiency.
Once nixtamalized, maize was typically ground up on a metate and prepared in a number of ways. Tortillas, cooked on a comal and used to wrap other foods (meat, beans, etc.), were common and are perhaps the best-known pre-Columbian Mesoamerican food. Tamales consist of corn dough, often containing a filling, that are wrapped in a corn husk and steam-cooked. Both atole and pozole were liquid based gruel-like dishes that were made by mixing ground maize (hominy) with water, with atole being denser and used as a drinking source and pozole having complete big grains of maize incorporated into a turkey broth.Though these dishes could be consumed plain, other ingredients were added to diversify flavor, including chili peppers, cacao, wild onions and salt.
An alternative view is that manioc cassava was the easily-grown staple crop of the Maya and that maize was revered because it was prestigious and harder to grow. This proposal was based on the inability of maize to meet the nutritional needs of densely populated Maya areas. Manioc can meet those needs. Because tuberous manioc rarely survives in the archaeological record, evidence for this view has been lacking, although recent finds in volcanic ash at the southern Maya site of Joya de Cerén in El Salvador may be such evidence.
Several different varieties of beans were grown, including pinto, red and black beans. Other cultivated crops, including fruits, contributed to the overall diet of the ancient Maya, including tomato, chili peppers, avocado, breadnut, guava, soursop, mammee apple, papaya, pineapple, pumpkin, sweet potato, and Xanthosoma. Chaya was cultivated for its green leaves. Chayote was cultivated for its fruit, and its tender green shoots were used as a vegetable. Various herbs were grown and used, including vanilla, epazote, achiote (and the annatto seed), Canella, Piper auritum, avocado leaves, garlic vine, Mexican oregano, and allspice.
Hunting supplied the Maya with their main source of meat, though several animals, such as dog pek [pek] and turkey ulum [ulum], may have been domesticated. Animals hunted for meat, as well as for other purposes, include deer, manatee, armadillo, tapir, peccary, monkey, other types of fowl, turtle and iguana. The Maya diet was also supplemented by the exploitation, at least in coastal areas, of maritime resources, including fish, lobster, shrimp, conch, and other shellfish.
The Mayans are believed to be the first people to have discovered and cultivated the cacao plant for food. The cocoa beans were ground up mixed with chili peppers, cornmeal and honey to create a drink called xocolatl (a Nahuatl word). Only the rich and noble could drink this. They also used cacao beans as ceremonial sacrifices to their gods.
- Michael Ernest Smith and Marilyn A. Masson (2000). The Ancient Civilizations of Mesoamerica. p. 127.
- Mt. Pleasant, Jane (2006). "The science behind the Three Sisters mound system: An agronomic assessment of an indigenous agricultural system in the northeast". In John E. Staller, Robert H. Tykot, and Bruce F. Benz. Histories of maize: Multidisciplinary approaches to the prehistory, linguistics, biogeography, domestication, and evolution of maize. Amsterdam. pp. 529–537.
- Bronson, Bennet (1966). "Roots and the Subsistence of the Ancient Maya". Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 22: 251–279.
- Atwood, Roger (2009). "Maya Roots". Archaeology 62 (4): 18.
- Mayan dictionary (1997). Wired Humanities Project. Retrieved September 13, 2012, from link
- Bogin 1997, Coe 1996, Montejo 1999, Tedlock 1985
- Coe, Sophie D. (1994) America's first cuisines ISBN 0-292-71159-X