Many chefs tap into recipes passed down from mothers and grandmothers, and memories of growing up in Hunucmá, Mexico, surrounded by Mayan communities inspire Ed Correa’s menu featuring indigenous cuisine at Mayan Kitchen in Sunnyvale. Through her partnership with Katie Voong, owner of bubble tea and jianbing boutique K Tea Cafe, executive kitchen director Correa’s cooking has evolved to reach a wider audience, even if that has meant bringing changes that would not win the approval of his family. matriarchs.
Correa is determined to share Mayan cuisine with the peninsula and sees his style of cooking as an essential evolution in educating people about a little-known culinary tradition. He does not view his food as inauthentic or watered down. “I know it’s not just about preparing this food that I find delicious for me. It’s also about preparing this food to defend (for the Mayan culture),” says Correa.
While many Mexican restaurants exploit the Mayan name, few establishments actually feature Mayan cuisine. The exact size of the Mayan population in the Bay Area is difficult to determine, but the number was estimated at 5,000 in 2002. Voong and Correa claim they run the only Mayan restaurant on the peninsula, although others restaurants can serve a handful of the culture’s best-known dishes, including cochinita pibil, slow-roasted pork traditionally cooked in underground ovens, and poc chuc, citrus-marinated pork that may have come from efforts to conserve meat by brining.
Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between Mayan cuisine and Mexican cuisine, as some aspects of Mayan cuisine have been adopted as Mexican and international influences, including colonization, have shaped the Yucatec version of Mayan cuisine presented. by Correa. Maya is a term used to collectively describe many diverse groups living throughout Central America today and their ancestors.
Correa says that even in his home country of Mexico, Mayan cuisine is underappreciated. Despite the popularity of the same dishes, he says people don’t want to familiarize themselves with cooking. “(The names of the dishes) are in the Mayan language, the names are a bit foreign even to Mexicans… We have so many different dishes that are really delicious that people don’t even want to try,” he says.
Voong and Correa started working together at K Tea Cafe four years ago, and the business relied heavily on catering gigs that disappeared when the pandemic began. Proudly identifying as a female entrepreneur, Voong says she thinks differently than most small business owners. Learning from Correa and noticing how Mayan cuisine with fruits and vegetables lent itself to current dining trends, she and Correa decided to partner with Mayan Kitchen, which opened a month ago in downtown Sunnyvale. . K Tea Cafe has become a delivery-focused business without a dining room.
It’s true that many elements of Mayan cuisine are closely tied to the demands of Bay Area diners today. Many items are naturally gluten-free and others may be vegan. The cuisine was born around fruits, vegetables and a robust agricultural system. Correa says: “(My mother and my grandmother) mapped out what food is available when, and they just put it together in a delicious way. That’s how I grew up eating. That’s how that I learned that food is meant to be.”
However, Voong and Correa are hesitant to prepare the food exactly as Correa remembers it. The duo have a strong partnership in the kitchen due to their complementary expertise in different cuisines. Voong has experience in Japanese, Korean and Chinese restaurants, and Correa has come to French and Italian kitchens. Voong describes Mayan Kitchen’s menu as “handcrafted” because each item emerges through collaboration. Voong offers commentary on how to prepare dishes that appeal to the restaurant’s diverse clientele, and Correa tries to adapt the home cooking he learned from his family.
While this high-profile approach may prompt accusations that Mayan Kitchen’s food is inauthentic or watered down, Correa would strongly disagree. Menu highlights are prepared using Mayan techniques and include panuchos, tortillas filled with black beans and fried, and salbutes, tortillas fried fresh to make sure they puff. While some diners might confuse xnipec with pico de gallo, the sauce is brightened up with a punch of bitter orange, a common Mayan ingredient. Many of the restaurant’s sauces are made with habaneros, which provide heat but are also aromatic and flavorful. They are one of the main crops grown in Yucatán and even have a geographical designation.
However, changes have been made to the menu. Overall, the spice level is toned down and most dishes come in variations that allow chicken or beef to be added to create a more robust meal. Vegan and gluten-free options are also prevalent at the restaurant. There are dishes borrowed from a seemingly random assortment of cuisines, including vegan cheesecake, the ever-fashionable bao, and bruschetta. Still, these are changes Correa wants to make. “(My mother and grandmother) are like, ‘You can’t change anything. You have to follow the book. Or if you can’t, don’t cook it’…Times are different now. What if you want to share something, you have to adapt. You can’t stay in the past,” he says.
Some of these adaptations are also ones that reflect Correa’s own culinary journey and his slightly detached relationship with his culture. Cochinita pibil is served with traditional sides of rice and black beans, but Correa adds a favorite childhood snack, xec, a jicama and citrus salad, to the plate. He finds the salad adds brightness and acidity to the rich dish, but admits the pairing would intrigue his mother. Unlike his parents, Correa is not fluent in any Mayan language. His family encouraged him to focus on learning Spanish in order to access more professional and economic opportunities around the world. “(Although) I don’t know the language, I know the food…I want to share the part (of Mayan culture) that I actually have at my disposal,” he says.
As Correa seeks to expand the menu to include more meals he remembers from his childhood, he will seek Voong’s approval as well as feedback from the clientele who also grew up with Mayan cuisine. He is thrilled when customers tell him how happy they are to see a restaurant bring Mayan culture to the community.
“It’s the best compliment I can get,” Correa said.
Mayan Cuisine, tinyurl.com/mayankitchen, 139 S. Murphy Ave., Sunnyvale; 650-305-6595.
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Anthony Shu writes for TheSixFifty.com, a sister publication to Palo Alto Online, covering what to eat, see, and do in Silicon Valley.