In the kitchen of the Maya with Karla Enciso

10 Apr 2019

Keeping ancient traditions alive is central to the Slow Food philosophy, and the work of Karla Enciso.

She’s more than just a chef: she’s a gastronomic explorer.

After years spent training in the French Alps she returned to her native Mexico and embarked on a journey inwards, towards an ancient civilization whose culinary culture is often overlooked: the Maya. As well as two restaurants in Cancun and Playa del Carmen, she now runs the Mayan Gastronomical Tour, offering visitors the chance to learn and cook some traditional recipes for themselves.

Maya gastronomy

‘When I arrived in Quintana Roo 16 years ago, I realized there were amazing Maya communities which were still relatively uncontaminated by mainstream civilization, and I started looking for opportunities to connect with them,’ Karla tells me. ‘Then, five years ago I was invited to be a jury member at a Maya gastronomical contest. I was astonished by the richness of the flavors these Maya cocinera women were cooking up. I remember at the end of the contest, one cook asked me: “Did you really liked what we cooked with the ingredients from our milpas (Maya farms)? Do you feel proud of us?” Tears started falling from my eyes—I couldn’t believe she was really asking me if we were proud of them, as if they didn’t know the value of their work, which is keeping Maya gastronomical traditions alive. From that day, I made a commitment to all I could to help empower Maya communities.’

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Karla Enciso in El Pueblito, Mayakoba

I ask Karla if Maya food is well known around Mexico. ‘People know Yucatan food, and people often think we don’t have any gastronomic identity beyond that. Our food is simply Yucatan food. But chefs like me who live and love Quintana Roo are making a huge effort to communicate that our food is Maya, not Yucatan. Ours is the food you find in the houses of the Maya communities, where Mayan languages are spoken more than Spanish, cooked with ingredients from their farms, where animal breeds at risk of extinction—such as the Yucantan Peninsula Hairless Pig, a Slow Food Presidium—are still used for important celebrations.’

Slow Fish

What about fishing? How important was that for the Maya people historically, and how important is it today? ‘Not all Maya people live by the seaside, which makes it difficult to practice fishing as a way of life,’ Karla explains. ‘One of the most famous Maya sites is Chichen Itza, which is two hours from the sea by car, whereas the ruins of Tulum overlook the beach. So it depends where we’re talking about. But today, fishing is an important part of life for Maya communities along the coast in places like Cozumel, Isla Mujeres, Bacalar, Holbok, Progreso (Mérida) and Campeche. What they catch depends on the season of course, ranging from grouper to hogfish and snapper.’

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“For sustainable fishing”

Karla is also member of Slow Fish Caribe, a network of fishers, chefs and food activists from across the region created to promote artisanal fishing and the sustainable use of marine resources. I ask Karla how the Slow Food philosophy fits into her life and work. ‘When I opened my first restaurant 14 years ago, I knew that my principles were Slow. I’ve always worried about our planet, and about protecting all the precious things we could lose if we don’t take care of it. That means human culture, too. I live Slow every day by empowering Maya communities, connecting fishers with chefs, hotels and restaurants so they can sell their products at a fair price. I offer business coaching so that Maya producers realize the potential of their products, whether it’s honey, condiments or reusable straws, and help them with planning, packaging and networking.’

At Slow Fish 2019, Karla will be presenting a Dinner Date together with Ecuadorean chef Daniel Maldonado. ‘This is a unique culinary opportunity for all involved, where we’ll bring the ancestral gastronomy of Latin America to life. I’ll be cooking a special ceviche made with recado negro, which is the base for most dishes in Quintana Roo, and an iconic fish dish, tikin xic, made with the achiote paste we call recado rojo.’ Don’t miss it!

you can make a spicy Mexican green sauce to accompany your own fish dishes at home: Karla Enciso’s Green Sauce

by Jack Coulton

[email protected]

Slow Fish Caribe: Strengthening conservation models and sustainable use in Caribbean protected areas linked to Slow Food is a project financed by the European Union and implemented by Slow Food in collaboration with the Fundación Activos Culturales Afro (ACUA) and the Corporación para el Desarrollo Sostenible del Archipiélago de San Andrés, Providencia y Santa Catalina (CORALINA) in Colombia; and the Colectividad Razonatura and Amigos de Sian Ka’an in Mexico.

Slow Fish Caribe includes communities across the Caribbean, but focuses mainly on three biosphere reserves. These are the Sian Ka’an and Banco Chichorro biosphere reserves on Mexico’s Quintana Roo coast and the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve in the San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina Archipelago. The project’s objective is to promote the sustainable use of the marine resources in the Caribbean ecosystem, which are suffering from excessive exploitation.

All photos courtesy of Karla Enciso.

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