Adriana Ah is a Mayan chef.
The Mayans in Belize come from three different backgrounds: Yucatec, Mopan and Kekchi.
All are distinct as a single Mayan unit, unified in part by their use of a long-count calendar and centering their food on corn-based diet. Each also has unique practices, techniques and recipes, based heavily on geography and ingredient availability.
Corn centered diets like that of the Maya, can be tricky: cultivation and use require and extra step called nixtamalization to draw out the flavors and improved nutritional value of the corn. Native Americans, both north, central and south, mix corn with ash to draw out the flavor, remove the hull and add much needed niacin. Corn lacks essential amino acids so the combination with beans, high is these vitamins, makes for a complete diet. Without this curative ash step, corn centered diets have seen severe malnourishment ie: Italians and pellagra, circa 1700.
The Maya have cooking down pat.
Ah is Mopan Maya. Her family hails from the southern part of Belize in Punta Gorda, Toledo. Mopan Maya play a huge part in the maize, cacao, coffee and citrus industry of Belize. The cuisine reflects this fact.
“I never forget my people. This food is from my people.” Ah said. She uses ingredients like fresh meats,fruits, vegetables and corn, mixed with seasonings, cooked at low and slow temperatures. She incorporates the Mayan black and red recados,(spice pastes) with proteins and carbohydrates.
Her cooking is special; she uses easy to find ingredients and add her touches, making savory and cry-when-its-over good food.
She moved to Sand Hill near Burrell Boom in the Belize District looking for work. Ah made her way to the Black Orchid Resort. It was there that she attracted the attention of Grace Foods, a massive Caribbean prepared food and seasonings company. They asked her to create dishes for their promotional calendar.
She is my kind of” Miss June”, the month on the photo calendar that showcases her signature dish. Her stew pork with poch or Tiquini Kinkien Telwah, has been a huge success, so much so she invited me to the resort to taste the dish that is making her famous.
Stew pork starts with red recado and salt and pepper. Not black pepper but a special Mayan pepper that she dries in the sun for four days, then roasts on the comal to make it charred and dark. It is then ground into a powder with scallions, garlic and cumin. It is used to season as well accompany the finished dish.
The pork is marinated for at least 24 hours and then stewed stovetop. The marinade is reduced at high heat and is poured over top the finished cuts. The homemade corn tortillas or Kin’kien are served on the side, and are meant of be used as a utensil and side-dish.
I couldn’t help be filled with gratitude and that wondrous feeling of tasting Ah’s Maya history.
“I make this for breakfast lunch or dinner.” she smiled and watched me as I ate. I hope that my raised eyebrows and chipmunk stuffed cheeks were testament to how much I was enjoying it.
Ah’s food is showcased in specials on the menu at Black Orchid Lodge, Burrel Boom, Belize District.