Many times when we think about the ancient foods of the Maya, the first thing that comes to mind is corn, and rightfully so, corn was a major part of the ancient Maya diet, but they did not live on that alone. In fact, their diet was very wide and included a vast variety of plants and animals found in the surrounding forests. This brings us to the following question: Did the Maya clear forests completely? That may be true in the corn fields, but what about closer to their homes? If we visit a house of a present day Maya, we will find a variety of fruit trees, plants used in cooking such as spices or even those used for medicine. I believe that the ancient Maya were no different than what we are today and would have kept some plants around their huts or nearby.
The pacaya is a very beautiful plant and comes from the Chamaedorea family. There are several types of these plants. Some are used for decorative reasons. It lives in the moist humus understory of the Belizean rainforests, often on limestone soils. The pacaya plant produces a flower, at times referred to as a vegetable, most commonly known as chib, and resembles the ear of a corn. As the inflorescence, develops the brightly colored bracts are then exposed, revealing small buds that slowly develop into berries. It is the immature inflorescence that is prepared for consumption. It is traditionally a delicacy, as it is prepared during the Holy Week or Easter and is used as a substitute of meat since meat products are not consumed during this time. During All Saints Day and All Souls Day in Guatemala, it is used in a salad called “fiambre”. There are several variations, but all seem to be a mixed salad with many ingredients.
The following is one way of preparing pacaya. This method varies from one region to the other. The pacaya is edible raw, as it is picked from the plant, but mostly it goes through a process of cooking. Firstly, the ends of the immature pacaya are cut and boiled for 20 minutes. It is recommended to change the water twice because the pacaya can be a bit bitter. To make a meal for 3 to 5 persons, 15 to 20 pacayas will be needed. The outer section is stripped and discarded, and the inside of what would be the undeveloped flower is what will be consumed. It is then diced and placed in a pan where it is sautéed with a diced tomato and half of an onion, for about 3 mins. Four to five eggs are then added. This is then mixed until all the eggs are cooked. It is served with handmade or mill corn tortillas.
The pacaya can be paired with something else on the side, but not meat is served. On this particular day, I had it with deep fried plantains. This is one way it would be prepared during the lenten time. It seems to be used as a substitute for meat which is not uncommon as other wild plants and mushrooms are used in that manner. Although it is still uncertain if the ancient Maya would have eaten it or prepared it in the same way as people do today, communities all over Central America, including the Maya people consume the chib today. However, it is not limited to Maya groups, as it is consumed by many.
Cayo Tour Guide Association