Remembering the Maya at Maya del Sol

Reflecting on history after the day history was supposed to end

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By David Hammond

So 12/21/12 came and went and we stayed pretty much as we were. No asteroids, no planet-swallowing solar flares, and no satisfaction to anyone who actually believed that the world would come to an end as a result of "predictions" allegedly made by the Mayan calendar.

Maya del Sol recognized this non-event in the best way I can imagine: with an End of the World party that featured the food of some exceptional local chefs and attracted over 300 people.

One very acceptable and unintended corollary advantage of Mayan-inspired doom-saying is that it focused some attention on the Maya, a people who have fascinated me for decades.

My wife Carolyn and I drove throughout Yucatan in the late 70s, and I've been to Yucatan a few times since, and always my main has been the material remnants of the great Mayan civilization – and the food.

The Maya left a distinctive cuisine, some of which you can sample at Maya del Sol, one of the few places in Chicagoland that serves the food of this ancient and magnificent civilization.

There are a few dishes that are distinctly Yucatecan, and none so well known as cochinita pibil, which I have enjoyed at Maya del Sol on several occasions.

Cochinita pibil is a slow-cooked pork with pickled onion and habanero sauce.  What's interesting to me is that this dish, though perhaps the most recognizable traditional cuisine of the Yucatan peninsula, could not actually have existed in this form before the Spanish brought pigs to the new world. In Pre-Contact days, the Maya used wild boar, which is now almost never used in cochinita pibil (even in Yucatan). The habanero sauce, however, made from chile native to the area, existed centuries in probably pretty much its current form long before Cortez came a-knockin'.

In the cochinita pibil, as well as several other dishes at Maya del Sol, there's achiote, or annatto,  which are the seeds of a small tree indigenous to the region of the Maya. You can recognize the presence of achiote by its deep red color. It actually has very slight flavor, and my sense is that it's added to food more for its color than for its flavor.  The Spanish actually brought achiote from Mexico to the rest of the world, and you can now find it in some Southeast Asian and even Northern European food (Spain colonized parts of Asia and at one point controlled parts of Northern Europe).

The word "pibil" comes from "pib," which refers to an earthen pit where food was cooked. No health inspector would allow a restaurant to cook food in the ground, but the chefs at Maya del Sol cook the pork slowly in the oven to simulate the slow-cooking process used by the Maya.

Though it does include some Mayan dishes, Maya del Sol is a pan-Mexican restaurant. I'd love to see more distinctly Mayan dishes because, in Chicagoland, we simply don't have the opportunity to eat the food of that region often enough.





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David Hammond from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: December 26th, 2012 7:13 PM

Xni-Pec, yes, Rachel, and that is a fine restaurant, too. Bayless (at Frontera, etc.) also features Yucatecan food now and again. Yucatecan food, however, gets nowhere near the representation as does the food of, for instance, Jalisco, Oaxaca and Guerrero. I'm pretty sure the reason for this disproportionate representation is that many Mexican immigrants to Chicago come from these other regions -- and so that's the kind of food they cook when they arrive in this area. We just don't get as many people coming here from Yucatan.

Rachel Pildis from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: December 26th, 2012 8:34 AM

Of course, there's always Xni-Pec in Brookfield for some very Yucatecan/Mayan food.

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