Try to imagine a civilization that had it’s beginning in 1800 AD. It was a civilization that would build pyramids, plazas, palaces and cities. It was a civilization that developed the calendar and used zero as a number. But, by the time, the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century, it’s big cities were buried in the jungle’s growth and only small agricultural communities were left. Yet, when you go shopping or enjoy a meal at a Mexican restaurant, the fruits of this Mesoamerica (Mexico and Central American before the Spanish conquest) culture are ours to enjoy. Here are 5 fun facts.
1. Avocados: Rich and creamy, the avocado originated in southern Mexico and Guatemala. It was one of the favorite crops of the ancient Maya. It was a crop they could rely on when times were hard. It was a staple. Add some more of the regional favorites like chilies, garlic, onions and some lemon or lime and you have the all-American favorite, guacamole. At least, we want to claim it even if it was developed centuries ago.
2. Chocolate: Cacao is a natural in the lands of Maya and they were the first to take the seeds of this fruit and roast them. The result – the first hot chocolate ever! They didn’t go on to make candy bars but they used chocolate as a ceremonial elixir and a great mood enhancer. It was a gift from the Gods and many a modern chocolate lover would agree.
3. Tortillas: Corn was so important to the Maya that their creation myth included the legend that people were formed from masa or corn dough. Handmade corn tortillas were made after boiling or soaking corn in lime water. It was drained but ground while still wet and formed into cakes – that familiar tortilla.
4. Tamale: The masa harina or corn flour was filled with chicken, pork, vegetables and/or cheese and wrapped in a corn husk or a plantain leaf. You may enjoy one today but they are definitely not anything new. Tamales are represented in ancient Maya glyphs and excavated artifacts. The tamale may be thought of as being Mexican or Spanish, but they existed long before the Spanish invasion.
5. Other Crops: The crops of the Maya farmers were diverse. There was the all-important corn, but there was much more. Numerous varieties of squash and pumpkin were planted along with red beans and black beans. Chili peppers, tomatoes, yucca and sweet potatoes might occupy the same field. There were also those avocados, sweet potatoes and guavas. The Maya can claim they knew their seasonings and special flavors as they also cultivated cacao for chocolate and the vanilla bean.
When you go to your favorite Mexican restaurant and enjoy the many tastes that today’s chefs are creating, stop for a minute and consider that they are using ingredients that were cultivated before Christ’s birth. From the calendar to the tamale, we have many things to thank the Maya for developing!