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Mining the Maya Trail

Lila Gault - July/August 2014

Mérida, Mexico—The legendary Diana Kennedy created the template for a Mexican cookbook as anthropology in her masterwork The Cuisines of Mexico. Chef/restaurateur Rick Bayless picked up that torch through his books and television show, Mexico: One Plate at a Time.

Now comes Mérida chef/cooking school owner David Sterling, whose recently published Yucatán: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition is an encyclopedic and brilliant treatment of the region, the people, and their food.

A frequent visitor to Mexico since the 1970s, Sterling turned his attention to Yucatán in 2000 while he was still living in New York City and wanted to create a line of specialty food products using Yucatecan ingredients. Then a friend from New York moved to Mérida and introduced him to the captivating colonial capital city.

Within a year, he and his partner had bought and renovated a house in the historic Centro and opened Los Dos, a cooking school, in their home. He began what became a 10 year journey of academic research guided by local scholars and fieldwork, crisscrossing the entire peninsula to cook with Yucatecan and Maya women and meet local restaurant chefs.

“I especially liked visiting the pueblos, but the most satisfying part of the work was the academic research,” Sterling explains. “Part of that research was delving into the vintage cookbooks I found. Learning what people were eating in Yucatán in the 1700s was simply thrilling—thrilling to see both how much things have changed and how little.”

The book’s opening chapters set the stage—a visit to the mercado central in Mérida, a glossary of local fruits, vegetables, and herbs, followed by an explanation of how the Maya people grow, hunt, gather, and prepare their traditional foods.

Readers then embark on an extensive regional journey, beginning in seven coastal towns, where recipes and stories from fine dining restaurants to roadside stands celebrate local seafood and other indigenous ingredients, such as coconut and duck.

The menu at Casa de Piedra, the restaurant at Hacienda Xcanatún in Mérida, an 18 room luxury hotel built on the ruins of a 19th century sisal plantation, features local ingredients prepared with French technique, such as pato con glaseado al xtabentún (duck magrets in honey/anise liqueur glaze) created by executive chef José Andrey Vázquez Manzanilla, a native Yucatecan. Huachinango “Hechizado” (pan-fried yellowtail snapper on sautéed chaya with braised chayote and Seville orange/caper beurre blanc) is a house speciality named for the Tulum restaurant where it is served. Chef Stefan Schober draws on Yucatecan-grown staples—chaya (spinach), chayote (a squash), and Seville (somewhat similar to orange)—for this local plate.

Finding the best food in Yucatán often requires looking beyond the restaurant table to some rather out-of-the-way places, Sterling writes, as he introduces readers to cooks for street food carts, prepared food market stalls, and cocina económicas (family-run restaurants in the front rooms of private homes).

The tour moves on to Mérida, Cam­peche, and Valladolid—where Mayas and Europeans first met in the 16th century. Each is famous for signature dishes created with Spanish and Maya influences, such as marquesitas (wafers with melted Edam cheese) in Mérida, campechano (shrimp in tomato sauce) in Campeche, and butifarras (spicy sausage) in Val­la­dolid.

Yucatán’s concluding chapters are instructional—how to make masa, form and cook tamales, use smoke in flavoring food, work with chiles, and master other basic techniques. “Pantry Staples,” from recados (seasoning blends) and beans to salsa and lard give basic insights into creating authentic flavors and textures.

After teaching a master class at Los Dos in 2009, then traveling to several pueblos with Sterling, Kennedy said, “David, you absolutely must do a cookbook on Yucatán! You really know the material.”