A Little Taste of the Mayans

By Juan Jardinero

“Don´t eat anything your [Mayan] great grandmother wouldn´t recognize as food.”

Michael Pollan

This month we take a journey back in time to explore some of the edible plants that were widely used and continue to be consumed by ,albeit much less, Indigenous Guatemalan communities in their diets. Throughout history and all around the world, groups of people have experienced dramatic changes in their diets. Usually due to relocation (war, natural disasters, migrating tribes), people would find themselves in new microclimates where they had to adapt to whatever plants were available to farm and eat.  The conquistadores arrival to the Americas marked a great change in pre-existing diets.  However it is within the last 50 years that the food floodgates have opened with increased access to imported foods and foreign crops varieties, not to mention new technologies and production methods that promote mono-crops, which have reduced the self-sustaining dietary model that relied on consuming various plants indigenous to Guatemala.

For the Mayans in Mesoamerica some of these plants possessed spiritual significance and were used regularly in their religious ceremonies. However upon the conquista some of the plants were forbidden as a way to break up their traditions and speed up the Spanish Inquisition. The Mayans however had accumulated a lot of medicinal plant knowledge, as well as agricultural experience that to this day tries to remains alive in people´s kitchens.

Here are some of these plants:


Beautiful and colorful, and with over 60 varieties of this plant exist around the world; from red, to purple to gold colored grains, it is as appealing to the eye as it is to the stomach. Some varieties are considered weeds but others are valued for their leafy greens, cereals or as ornamental plants. As a grain it can be toasted and mixed with honey and granola or popped just like popcorn! In Xela, it’s available at organic stores and in the organic market. Full of vitamins and minerals amaranth is making its way back into our diets, even as a gluten substitute.

Chan Seeds:

Also known as Chia seeds, these were considered third in importance in the Mesoamerican diet, after corn and beans. Chan was used for food consumption, as offerings to the gods and also as an oil-based body paint. Though the Spanish recognized the health benefits of this plant, calling it Salvia Hispanica (salvia meaning health or healer) this was another plant that was quickly eradicated from Mayan culture. Today Chan seeds are easily available at Democracia or Terminal and can be added to yogurt, drinks and licuados. Chan is a great source of vegan protein, and some of its benefits are: increased energy & endurance, regulation of sugar levels & intestinal activity. It is also said to make you feel full longer so as to prevent over-eating.


The Chaya, also known as spinach tree or Mayan spinach, is a fast growing plant that thrives in costal lowlands of Mesoamerica. This plant is a real winner, it´s very easy to propagate, suffers very little pest damage, it´s drought tolerant and heavy rain resistant. Chaya, however, was another plant removed from the culture to the point where it is now seen being used as natural fencing without knowing it’s nutritional and medicinal value. Chaya is an excellent source of protein, vitamins, calcium, and iron; and is also a rich source of antioxidants. Warning: one must cook it for 20 minutes though to inactivate it toxic component. Chaya is sometimes available in the local mercados.

So when in Guatemaya…eat as  a Mayan!


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