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.