Mayans consumed a wide variety of foods, their staple diet being maize. Agricultural produce formed a key part of the cuisine while Mayans also hunted and fished for meat.
A wide variety of vegetables were consumed which were usually grown in domestic gardens. Mayans also ate a wide variety of fruits, most of which were gathered from rainforests.
Herbs and condiments were used to flavour the foods and included cinnamon and vanilla. Cocoa was used to create chocolate drinks, Mayans being among the earliest civilisation to have created flavoured chocolate drinks. A mead called balche' was made from the bark of a tree and was used as a drink during religious ceremonies.
The key source of Mayan foods was agriculture. Mayans grew a wide variety of crops, vegetables as well as fruits for their consumption. To that end, agriculture was practised at a large-scale and Mayans deployed many innovative techniques to improve the produce. Many crops were popularly grown in forest gardens which were walled with stone and carefully tended. In times of food emergencies, more areas were turned into arable land and cultivated to fulfil the increased demand for food.
The most popular Mayan foods were primarily vegetarian. Key among these was maize which was a staple part of the Mayan diet and was used to produce a number of different foods and drinks. Corn was boiled in lime and was then baked into tortillas, or consumed as a drink by making a gruel of it. Flat cakes were also created from corn while some dishes used corn dough as a filling for other ingredients such as meat. Other major vegetarian components of the Mayan diet included squash, beans, avocado, tomato, papaya, pineapple. Mayans were also among the first to discover cocoa and make chocolate from it. The chocolate consumed by Mayans was usually in the form of a drink and spiced with chili peppers. Mayans also domesticated bees and used the honey produced by them.
Although Mayans primarily relied on non-meat sources for food, they also consumed meat when available. Three sources of meat existed for the Mayans: they could find meat through hunting, they could exploit the resources available in waters such as fish, or they could domesticate animals and get meat from them. Mayans exploited all three sources whenever there was a need for meat. They hunted animals such as deer, monkey, manatee, guinea pig, armadillo, wild pheasant and peccary. Traps and spears, and later bows and arrows, were commonly used by Mayans during hunting. Among the animals domesticated by the Mayans for meat were turkey and dog. From maritime sources, Mayans fished out shrimp, fish, lobster and various other varieties of food. Along the Yucatan peninsula, Mayans often hunted for saltwater fishes and treated them so as to preserve them over long periods of time and even trade them to other Mayan cities.
Mayans consumed a wide variety of fruits as a regular part of their diet. These included such fruits as avocado, mango, pumpkin and papaya, which are widely available in most parts of the world. However, Mayan also consumed a wide range of such fruits which were exclusive to their tropical region, such as sour orange, saramuyo, nance, pitahaya and mamey. Fruits were directly consumed, they were used in making drinks and were often put to other uses as well. Sour orange, for instance, was used in salting meat to preserve it.
Corn was the most important part of the Mayan food culture, and it was used in countless ways. Mayans produced a popular drink from corn called atole and it was often laced with chili pepper or honey to add sweetness. This drink was often the first meal of the day for the peasant class and offered an inexpensive way of replenishing the body with the needed nutrients. Another popular Mayan drink was balche’, which was alcoholic. It was prepared by soaking the bark of balche tree in honeyed water for a long time. After it had fermented, it produced a sort of mead. This alcoholic beverage was used at the time of religious rituals.
Mayans placed a very high value on cocoa beans. They were among the first to discover cocoa and to use it in various ways as a part of food. Mayans dubbed cocoa as “the food of the gods” and the most popular way of consuming cocoa was to make a chocolate drink from it. This drink was spiced with chili peppers or honey and consumed only by the rich and the elite of the Mayan society, often as part of their breakfast. Mayans depicted the cocoa bean and drinks made from it in a number of illustrations and artworks. The cocoa bean was also used for trading and as a form of currency.
The Mayans were fairly advanced for their time, Mayans made use of a number of spices and other plants and herbs to spice their foods and drinks. Chili peppers was a frequent component of Mayan recipes. Mayans also made use of vanilla and cinnamon to add flavors to their drinks. Honey was usually used as a sweetener. Mayans made a sauce with avocado that is popular to this day.
Mayans were an agrarian society, so the food demands of the society at large depended heavily on the agricultural produce. Among the key crops was maize which was used to create a number of foods and drinks. So significant was the dependence of the Mayan society on maize that the Mayan pantheon had a maize god. For the major portion of the society, maize was the staple diet, both for the peasants as well as the rich. Other common food ingredients included vegetables, beans, squash and fruits of different kinds such as papaya, pineapple and sour orange. Meat was obtained through hunting, fishing and sometimes the domestication of turkeys and dogs. Mayans also consumed drinks made from corn and cocoa. However, chocolate drinks were limited to the rich.