Maya Food and Drink

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Ixnal, a Maya woman, making tortillas

Making Tortillas

There is a great introductory video  – A Maya woman, Elizabeth, demonstrates how to make corn tortillas and explains what makes Guatemalan tortillas so good!

It’s perfect to have a go at in the classroom, but you will need the correct type of Maize flour – try here.  It takes a fair few goes to get right, but the children will have a great time making them:

  1. In a bowl, mix a little water with some of the flour, keep going until it just starts to turn into a very stiff paste. Use a finger to swill it round to mix, it won’t require kneading.  You can always add more flour if it goes runny.
  2. With slightly wet hands, roll a golf ball amount into a ball and then flatten slightly.
  3. Start to work it with the fingers stretched out. Press slightly and turn it a small amount, alternating hands.
  4. Put onto a hot plate (or saucepan with no oil) and turn once the edges look like they are cooking. Depending on the heat of the pan (hotter the better), it should take less than a minute per side. When starting to brown that side is done.
  5. Serve with guacamole, refried beans or salsa – or just eat them as they are.

Cacao (Chocolate)

Cacao originates from the Maya area and was grown mainly in Guatemala.  A highly valued commodity, the bean of the cacao tree when processed, became the chocolate used in Maya sauces as well as drinks.  Cacao beans can be roasted, then easily stored and transported – for that reason cacao became a medium of exchange (currency) in the great market economies of the Postclassic and contact periods.  We see depictions of the Classic Maya use of cacao on their painted vessels.

A Classic Maya tomb found in Rio Azul, Petén, Guatemala contained paraphernalia of chocolate consumption.  A ruler had been placed with pottery vessels and six cylindrical vases, some of these had rings around their interiors showing that they once contained a dark liquid.  The writing on one vase actually states that is ‘a drinking vessel for cacao’.  Several of these vessels were sent to the Hershey Company, the largest chocolate manufacturer in the United States and were found to contain chocolate residue.

Chocolate pot found in a ruler’s tomb, Rio Azul, Guatemala

 

An outline of the chocolate making process can be found here: https://mayablog.co.uk/2016/04/05/better-chocolate-than-never/  You can pick up the process with Cocoa nibs that can be bought from a range of stores due to their recent popularity as a superfood.  If you can get as many pestle & mortars as possible, it will help spread out the inclusion around the class.

We were told it was traditional to tell stories as you were crushing the beans, so get the children to do this as they are grinding – we talked about who we were and where we were from, but a tale about something they have done or place they have visited is ideal.

The pouring was a large part of getting the drink frothy – be careful with the children doing this due to the hot water, but you can demonstrate pouring between two vessels (you’ve GOT to do it from a high point).

 

How the Maya make the chocolate drink frothy

We did not get the precise amounts of honey, vanilla and (if you chose to) chilli put it, but the vanilla and chilli would only be very small and the honey to sweeten to taste.

To see it being carried out in school – click here

There is a wonderful vase at the Denver Art Museum that depicts a palace scene with both cacao beans and a chocolate pot. The rollout of the vase can be seen below and several lesson plans and ideas are given.

 

 

Farming Methods

Farming is as important to the current Maya as it was in ancient times, and methods are similar in many areas.  It is critical to understand that they did not use metal tools or use beasts of burden – it was purely human.  Maize is the staple food, intercropped with squashes and beans as they support each other.  The methods used were driven by the physical geography:

  • In the rainforests they used shifting agriculture (slash and burn), where tree foliage (the trunks remained) and plants were cut down and burst, not only to clear the space but to provide nutrients from the ash. However, this only provided fertile land for a limited number of years so further areas cut down and the planting shifted and the original area left to grow back.  A huge undertaking, and not enough on its own to feed the huge populations in the Classic Era.
  • Raised beds were made by digging up mud from swampy areas (‘bajos’) and placing it on woven reeds. Canals ran between the beds where aquatic life thrived, producing fertiliser. Although labour-intensive, it was a productive method and could produce up to three crops a year.

Mountainous areas needed terrace farming – small fields cut into the side of the hill with a wall holding the growing land level and preventing erosion.

Download  –  Maya Food Lesson Plan

Download – Maya Food Teacher Notes

Further Resources

Maya Archaeology of Mesoamerica Resource: The Foundation for Latin American Anthropological Research (FLAAR) has books concerning plants utilized by the Maya, flowers, sacred food and drink and much more.

 The True History of Chocolate: Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe. Thames and Hudson, 1996.  This book draws on archaeology, botany and culinary history to present a history of chocolate.

 
 

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