A Taste of the Past: Uncovering the Rich History of Mayan Cuisine

by | 4 Apr 2024

Unfamiliar with the history of Mayan cuisine? There’s a good chance that you’ve tasted a bit of Mayan culture over the last week – corn, tamales, avocado, chocolate – these are all foods that we can trace back to the Mayans.

There are differences, no doubt about it. Tamales, for instance, were often reserved for holidays, but today, we can enjoy them as casually as any other fast food dish. Still, some elements of Mayan food, like cacao production, haven’t completely evolved beyond their traditional preparation.

Let’s take a closer look at the history and legacy of the food in ancient Mayan civilization.

A brief history of Mayan cuisine

Sustainable eating may be a trending topic now, but recent research has found that at least one Mayan city in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula used sustainable agriculture and forestry methods as far back as 3,000 years ago. Interestingly enough, this evidence points to a unique form of conservation: the Mayans did approach the concept of managing their land from a sustainable perspective yet also modified their farmland so that they could increase the diversity of crops used for food, fuel, medicine, and more.

Once you’ve explored the Mayan communities throughout Central America, check another iconic travel experience off of your bucket-list with a visit to Peru. The Peru with Machu Picchu tour is a 10-day excursion that balances guided tours through ancient ruins with low-impact activities like visits to local distilleries and planetariums.


Photo of a bucket of dried coloured maize (corn)


Maize was one of the foundational crops of the Mayan’s culinary history. The versatility of maize was unlike any other crop: it was grown, stored, consumed, and used in an exceptionally easy manner. It was flour, it was fuel. It was made into baskets and eaten whole, it was a building block for so many other Mayan dishes.

Squash and beans were two other strong crops grown. Avocados, sweet potatoes, and cocoa beans were also grown. What made the Mayan’s food production significant was their ability to leverage their farms to produce as many different types of crops as possible at a consistent rate.

The importance of agriculture in Mayan society

Photo of an alpaca standing on the terraces of Machu Picchu


The early history of the Mayan civilization saw their ancestors act as hunters and gatherers. While this may be effective in some contexts, the dense and wet rainforests of Central America were much less suited for such a strategy. That’s why the ancient Mayan civilization relied so heavily on agriculture as a primary means of food production. There are four key techniques they used to keep their crops plentiful:

Raised bed farming, which involved creating raised soil mounds in swampy areas so that seeds wouldn’t get oversaturated with water. They’d weave mats from leaves to place on these mounds so that they could plant seeds in more hospitable soil.

Slashing and burning, which involved abandoning sections of farmland temporarily after its soil was damaged. They’d then return to the section years later, cut and burn all vegetation that grew, and start a new planting cycle on the fresh soil.

Water reservoirs and filtration, which involved storing rainwater and purifying it through rocks.

Terrace farming, which involved creating small elevated terraces with ledges that would trap water for crops that needed constant hydration.

A simple approach involving conservation, combined with complex agricultural practices, allowed the ancient Mayan civilization to produce the food, medicines, and resources they needed to sustain their communities and environments for centuries.

Learn more: Where to Sample the Best Chocolate in the World

Mayan recipes you can still try today

The Mayan civilization that once dominated the areas of Mexico and Central America may look quite different today, but you can still taste the same traditional recipes throughout the region – thanks to the influence of the history of Mayan cuisine.

Poc Chuc in Mexico


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Poc chuc is a Mayan grilled pork recipe that has an important place in the history of Mayan cuisine. Created in the Mayan Yucatan, it’s a simple meat dish that’s marinated then grilled, typically served with staples like rice, beans, and vegetables. It was likely created to help preserve the meat, which makes it no surprise why it’s such a commonly found Mayan dish throughout the Yucatan.

Kak’ik in Guatemala

Visit Antigua and Lake Atitlan if you’re searching for Mayan food and you will not be disappointed. Many of the ruined capital’s restaurants and multiple villages around the lake all sell traditional Mayan cuisine like the kak’ik. The kak’ik is technically a turkey soup, though the amount of spices and vegetables added can make it lean into stew territory. Cobanero chile gives this dish its namesake red and spicy reputation.

Caldo de Pollo in Belize


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Whereas the kak’ik was more of a special soup thanks to the greater expense that turkey meat necessitated, caldo de pollo in Belize is much more of an everyday dish. This chicken soup is a Mayan comfort food and was welcomed into Belizean culture with open arms. Potatoes, squash, and plantains swim in this soup made red by Annato paste. Fresh mint and kolantro (similar to cilantro) are also floating freely, ready to be scooped up with a corn tortilla.
After you’ve seen the tip of Mayan civilization in Mexico, make your way to the southern edge of the Fuegian communities that called Patagonia home. The Best of Chile From Atacama to Patagonia tour is an immersive 11-day journey from Calama to Punta Arenas that features private wine tasting sessions, swimming in hot springs, and stargazing in the desert.
I'm Alex, Editor of Insightful. I have over 10 years' experience as a travel writer and editor, and have been lucky enough to visit some incredible destinations in that time. Canada, Italy and Iceland are (so far) my favorite places on Earth, but at the top of my wish list for future adventures is India. I'm fascinated by indigenous cultures and traditions, have a hearty appetite for history (but a poor memory for dates), and feel most at home in wild, unpopulated landscapes.