Corn, turkey, tortillas, chiles and chocolate were foods known to the Mayas, whose ancient civilization is admired more for its achievements in artistry, mathematics and astronomy than for its cookery.
They were also foods served at a party celebrating the arrival of “Maya--Treasures of an Ancient Civilization,” the spectacular exhibit of Mayan arts and artifacts at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum.
Gathered from museums in Mexico, Guatemala, Canada and the United States, the exhibit opened in New York and is now touring the United States. The L.A. appearance, which will continue through Nov. 10, is its only West Coast showing.
The Mayas inhabited portions of what is now Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and the states of Yucatan, Campeche, Chiapas, Tabasco and Quintana Roo in Mexico. Despite the heights to which their civilization rose, they disappeared mysteriously, leaving behind such imposing ruins as Chichen-Itza and Uxmal in Yucatan and Palenque in Chiapas.
The task of creating Mayan-themed dishes for the museum party was awarded to John Sedlar, chef of Saint Estephe restaurant in Manhattan Beach. Sedlar researched books on Mexican cooking and Mayan culture, then came up with a menu that he called “an inspiration from the Mayans” rather than a re-creation of ancient dishes.
Sedlar went so far as to raise Aztec black corn for the decorations. He also enlisted the help of a chocolatier, Mary Yoon, to produce striking re-creations of Mayan motifs in candy. Yoon, of Entiche du Chocolat in Whittier, collaborated with sculptor Christoph Rittershausen, who carved bases that were then sprayed with chocolate. The outcome was a dark chocolate Palenque pyramid decorated with Mayan glyphs and a white chocolate version of the reclining god, Chaac-Mool. For souvenirs, there were dark chocolate tiles imprinted with the exhibit logo.
Corn was so important to the Mayas that they made it into a god, Yu-Kaax, who held dominion over harvests, matrimony, fertility and prosperity. They also believed that the gods created the human race from corn.
Museum guests encountered corn not as humankind but in a variety of forms, including cooked dried corn, hominy, corn sticks made from blue cornmeal and blue corn tortillas. Some of the tortillas were turned into chips to go with a corncob molded of cream cheese and two dips: a pumpkin seed mixture and chutney-like pickled chayotes. Other tortillas were layered with spinach, black beans and smoked fish in a cake that was cut into appetizer-size wedges.
Tortillas also were ground into the sauce for Sedlar’s concept of Yucatecan turkey mole. The turkey was not simmered in the sauce as in traditional mole but cut into small pieces and grilled on sticks, like satay. The sauce was seasoned with fresh chiles, chili powder, chocolate, cinnamon and other ingredients blended smoothly with whipping cream and chicken broth.
The mole accompaniment was dried corn cooked with bacon and garlic. Hominy accompanied shredded barbecued pork. And as a sweet, there were tiny, porcelain-like blue corncobs made of tinted white chocolate stuffed with hazelnut cream.
More party dishes included chicken, cut into kebabs like the turkey and brushed with a guajillo chile sauce that turned it golden as it grilled. The chicken, turkey and pork were arranged in a rustic setting on one table. Another table, decorated in a tropical theme, was dominated by an undulating snake composed of bands of fruit. Here were seafood dishes, including oysters topped with ancho chile sauce, shark with passion fruit sauce, plantains with caviar and the layered tortilla cake with smoked fish.
What looked from a distance like sushi turned out to be fish and shrimp sausage wrapped in banana leaves. White as rice, the ground mixture of sea bass, shrimp and cream was rolled in the leaves to form long cylinders that were steamed and cut into short sections.
From his studies, Sedlar concluded Mayan food to be “very intense and complicated.” In duplicating his dishes, yellow cornmeal may be substituted for blue. And the fish sausage may be steamed in foil if banana leaves are not available. Guajillo chiles and ancho chiles are available in Mexican markets. Dried corn kernels, harder to find, turned up in the Grand Central Public Market in downtown Los Angeles under the name chacales.
CHICKEN CON CHILES
DE LA SIERRA QUEMADA
(Chicken With Burned
6 dried guajillo chiles, soaked until soft
6 cloves garlic
1/2 cup oil
6 chicken breast halves
Clean and seed chiles. Place chiles, garlic, oil and salt and pepper to taste in food processor and blend until pureed. Cube chicken breasts. Place cubes on bamboo skewers. Brush chile mixture onto chicken and grill until done, 5 to 10 minutes, depending on size of cubes and heat of grill. Brush with chile mixture while grilling. Makes 6 servings.
Note: For stronger flavor, marinate chicken overnight or several hours in chile mixture before grilling.
FISH AND SHRIMP
14 ounces sea bass fillets
6 ounces shrimp, cooked and peeled
2 cups whipping cream
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped cilantro
Combine fish, shrimp, cream and cilantro in food processor and season to taste with salt and pepper. Process until completely blended. Form 1/4 of fish mixture into roll about 1 1/2 inches in diameter on 14-inch sheet of foil. Roll up to form cylinder.
Repeat with remaining mixture, making total of 4 cylinders. Steam 10 minutes. Chill, then slice each cylinder crosswise, with foil wrapping, into 4 pieces. (If banana leaves are available, wrap fish sausage in leaves, then wrap cylinders in plastic wrap and steam.) Makes 16 pieces.
DRIED GREEN CORN
1 whole turkey breast
Dried Green Corn
Skin and bone turkey breast. Cut into 3-inch strips and weave onto bamboo skewers. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Grill over coals or broil until cooked, 5 to 10 minutes, brushing with oil while grilling. Serve turkey skewers with Mole Sauce spooned over. Accompany with Dried Green Corn. Makes 8 servings.
3 large tomatoes, peeled and seeded
1 1/2 tortillas, cut up
6 tablespoons almonds
1 green chile, seeded
3 small cloves garlic
1 ounce semisweet chocolate
1 tablespoon red chili powder
1 tablespoon cilantro
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup whipping cream
3/4 cup chicken broth
Combine tomatoes, tortillas, almonds, chile, garlic, chocolate, chili powder, cilantro, cinnamon and salt in food processor and grind until completely incorporated. Turn cream into medium skillet and boil until reduced to 1/4 cup. Add ground mixture and chicken broth to cream and simmer until thick. If sauce becomes too thick, thin with a little additional broth. Strain sauce through sieve. Makes about 3 1/2 cups.
Dried Green Corn
1 cup dried green corn
1/2 pound bacon, in one piece
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
Soak corn in water to cover generously overnight. Drain corn. Place with bacon and garlic in 5 quarts water. Simmer over low heat 2 1/2 to 3 hours or until tender. Season with salt and pepper. Remove bacon. Strain corn, season to taste with salt and serve as side dish with turkey mole.
24 Portuguese oysters, shucked
1 cup oyster broth
4 dried ancho chiles, soaked until softened, seeded
1/4 cup lime juice
6 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon salt
When shucking oysters, reserve liquid to use as oyster broth. If necessary, substitute bottled clam juice. In food processor or blender, combine oyster broth, 2 chiles, lime juice, garlic, olive oil, peppercorns and salt. Process until pureed. Finely dice remaining 2 chiles and add to sauce. Pour sauce over shucked oysters in shell. Serve oysters on bed of crushed ice. Makes 2 dozen.
PUMPKIN SEED SAUCE
1/2 cup pumpkin seeds
2 jalapeno chiles
2 tomatoes, peeled and seeded
2 tablespoons cilantro
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup water
Combine pumpkin seeds, chiles, tomatoes, cilantro, salt, pepper to taste and water in food processor. Process until smoothly blended. Serve with tortilla chips for dipping. Makes 3 cups.
COBS OF BLUE CRACKED
1 cup blue or yellow cornmeal
1 cup flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup butter, melted
1 egg, beaten
1 cup milk
Sift together cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Blend butter, egg and milk. Fold butter mixture into dry ingredients. Placed in greased corn stick pans. Bake at 400 degrees 10 minutes or until done. Makes 16.