Party like a Mayan: Preparing for a Celebration

If you got a chance to party like a Mayan, would you?  We did!

Being part of a celebration in another culture is one of the best ways to experience the community and the traditional food. Food is used in every culture to celebrate special occasions. In the Mayan culture, preparing for a celebration is a team effort. Women and men from the village show up a day or two ahead of time to offer their time and skill in preparing food for the special occasion. We were fortunate enough to visit our Mayan home stay family during a celebratory time. Primo, our friend Sebastian’s brother, just graduated with his teaching degree and his family was throwing a party!

This was our first day here and we were greeted by a barage of people. The men were relaxing, laying on their hammocks watching bad US war movies circa 1980s, because they had worked hard the day before butchering a pig and cleaning the property. The women were in the cooking house busy preparing all the food for the celebration.

Preparing Caldo, a Traditional Mayan Soup

A traditional soup of the Mayan people, which is eaten somewhat regularly, is Caldo. A pork or chicken based stew that is always served for special occasions, but not just for special occasions. The taste is fresh, hearty, flavorful, satisfying and surprisingly spicy. It took the effort of many women to process the meat and spices to prepare caldo. I was fascinated by the prep, although I took no part in helping. I offered, but since I only know 3 Ketchi words, the language barrier was inhibiting.

A banana leaf was placed on the concrete floor and the Mayan women sat or squatted to cut up 16 chickens. That is one big pile of chicken. Over 100 pounds! The pork for the soup was butchered the day before by the men.

The Mayan women cut up chicken to prep for the festivities.

The Mayan women cut up chicken to prep for the festivities.

All three places on the indoor stove were taken so the women went right outside the cooking house and dug out a small channel where they stood up rocks that would eventually form a platform to cook over.

Three rocks and a strip of metal and another cooking fire is made. How easy and convenient.

Three rocks and a strip of metal and another cooking fire is made. How easy and convenient.

Now we have a place for the Caldo to cook.

Now we have a place for the Caldo to cook.

Water boiling with pork bones.

Water boiling with pork bones.

First pork bones are cooked in water. When the mixture boils, spices are added: Garlic, Thyme Leaf, Culantro, Onion and Achiote (Annato). The women explained that if the spices are added prior to the water boiling, the flavors are off.

Prepping the spices for the caldo

Prepping spices. Aren't these women so cute? They thought I was funny taking so many pictures.


Cooking caldo outside, over a makeshift fire...and it looks delicious!

Cooking caldo outside, over a makeshift fire...and it looks delicious!

The color of the Caldo is enhanced by Achiote (aka Annato), a natural red pigment .

Mayan Caldo

The final Caldo is finished.

The quality of the soup was beautiful. Rich and flavorful, spicy and meaty. Yum. We were happy to have leftovers the following day.

Poch, Anyone?

Poch is another Mayan specialty that is very similar to a tamale. It is the same masa used in making the corn tortillas, but it is fermented first. The masa is wrapped in banana leaves and put into a large tub to boil. Another fire had to be constructed to hold the large pot of hundreds of banana wrapped Poch. The Poch is a dense and dry but when dipped into the caldo, it makes for a savory combination.

Poch and Caldo cooking on a wood fire.

Poch and Caldo cooking on a wood fire.

Mayan Cacao Drink

The Mayan Cacao drink was our favorite. The 5 gallon bucket of cacao drink sat on a plank out in the yard with a bowls of calabashes sitting in water next to it. The calabash comes from the fruit of the Calabash tree, a significant tree in Mayan culture. It is a perfectly round fruit that is dried to become a bowl for drinking or eating soup.  It was yet another example of how to utilize natural, replenishing resources. There was a small calabash bowl floating inside the bucket of Cacao drink which was used to fill the larger calabash bowl which you drank from. All the guests at the party used this method to enjoy the drink. No plastic cups used here.

Drinking Cacao from a Kalabash

Drinking Cacao from a Calabash

But I digress..back to the Cacao Drink! Cacao beans are ground and then mixed with hot water and a little sugar. It wasn’t rich like hot chocolate, the chocolate flavor was subtle. The Mayans drink this throughout the day to sustain their energy and it works well. It is normally drank out of a natural cup made from calabash.

Fresh ground Cacao beans in a calabash, a Mayan staple.

Fresh ground Cacao beans in a calabash, ready to prepare the Mayan Cacao drink.

Other Food

Chicken, beans and rice were also served at the party. Portions were huge! Each portion could have easily been 2 meals and we couldn’t finish our food (which made us feel very guilty). Everyone was served a huge bowl of chicken, beans and rice and then, another bowl of the caldo soup with huge chunks of pork in it and poch for dipping. Also, bottled sodas were passed out to everyone in attendance (probably not a traditional thing, huh?).

The Kings – on display

Our hosts were generous to us. We were their guests and for that we were asked to sit at a table set up underneath a canopy separate from the Graduate. We were smack dab in the middle of the party with many eyes upon us. We felt on display as many of the guests were around us and either stood, or sat on the grass or logs to eat. We finally invited some of them to sit at the table with us and to get under the canopy as it started to rain.

The Graduate

Primo, the graduate, sat at a beautifully decorated table (done by the girls and myself) and greeted his friends and community graciously. Gifts were given, congratulatory words spoken, and grateful tears cried. Only one person sat down and ate and socialized with him during the party.

Congratulations to Primo for obtaining his teaching degree!

Congratulations to Primo for obtaining his teaching degree!

So, how do Mayans Party?

Not very loudly. An outsider may have been confused whether this was a celebration or a funeral. The typical Mayan family stuck to their own unit and didn’t socialize too much with each other. Most guests greeted Primo, ate their food standing up, dropped their trash on the ground and went home. Even the children were quiet and did not run around much. Something totally different than the parties in Costa Rica or the US with kids running around, being loud, and chasing each other. We also noticed that the Mayan culture does not hug or kiss each other when greeting or leaving. We’ve become so accustomed to hugging and kissing from our time in Costa Rica that it is natural for us, even with people you first meet. I guess it might also be a little weird for us when we go back to the US and only shake hands.

A Mayan Family at the party.

A Mayan Family at the party.

It was an interesting scene: hip hop dance music coming out of a wooden thatch home with short, quiet Mayan people standing around and a glaringly Gringo couple sitting at the table. Everyone quietly eating the delicious food then trodding back to their home. But it was the true experience that we wanted.

Mayan boy enjoying the party

Mayan boy enjoying the party

A Community Affair

We were honored to be a part of this celebration and were most struck by how much the community members helped to make it happen. Hours of preparation for such an abundance of food could not have been accomplished without all their help. The Mayans definitely know the power of community and our sneak peak into one of their celebrations helped us honor that as well.

We will always remember and hold dear the experience we had living in the Mayan village. We also appreciate our Mayan friend Sebastian for inviting us into his home and teaching us the way of the Mayan.

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4 Responses to “Party like a Mayan: Preparing for a Celebration”

  1. Andy Richardson February 16, 2012 at 12:56 pm #

    Love the posts and the entire blog Sabina. Keep up the good work and drink some cacao for me and the rest of us back here in the States.

    • S King February 16, 2012 at 1:22 pm #

      Will do…I drank enough while we were there and then I bought some raw cacao to make at home 🙂
      Great to hear from you Andy!

  2. Laurie February 16, 2012 at 6:02 pm #

    I’ve been following blogs, websites and facebook on Belize and San Pedro (I have a friend that moved there). This blog is the “Belize” I would like to see and learn about. Not the touristy/bar drinking/partying pictures and videos I see. I would love to experience the “real Belize” and seeing the pictures and reading this blog really sparks my interest. How do I find out more 🙂

  3. lisa wood February 17, 2012 at 6:14 am #

    How funny – having a celebration but being very quiet about it 🙂

    Our family is never ever quiet – there is too many of us! I love the idea of getting together and sharing food.

    Gosh they look like really good cooks – did you enjoy their food?

    Funny how you were placed in the middle of the celebration! The little boy looks so cute 🙂

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