Photo: Adriana Silvestre / El Universal

What a Mayan cook's heart feels

Adriana Silvestre
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Miriam Peraza has traveled throughout Yucatan and documented over 300 traditional recipes, many of which predate the Spanish conquest of Mexico.

“I still don't really see myself as a master cook; I need to get used to people saying that about me” said Miriam Peraza, who's the representative of a group of women cooks from Yucatan. Five years ago, Miriam's life changed drastically when she decided to stop teaching to open a restaurant serving regional food inspired by recipes from pre-colonial times through the 19th century. Her restaurant, called Manjar Blanco, which translates roughly to White Delicacy, is located in Mérida's Barrio de Santa Ana neighborhood.

Before inaugurating Manjar Blanco, Miriam traveled throughout her state of Yucatan to get in touch with her culture and get to know and learn from women who are experts in their region's unique dishes. “This has been such an exciting task and we're that much closer to making our dream come true. Yucatan is a place full of marvelous things; 106 municipalities each with their own traditions and culture that are influenced by the sea, maize farms, and their own unique colors and greenery,” said Miriam.

To date, Miriam's documented over 300 Yucatecan recipes. “They're dishes that are full of life and are made in rural areas where homes' gardens are used as small farms, and where instead of having grass, they grow mint, cilantro, radishes and many other things. A lot of these people still make the same dishes their ancestors made before the Spanish conquered Mexico. They don't even know what the term prehispanic means because they've been eating the exact same foods for centuries. They don't even speak Spanish,” she shared.

Although she grew up in Valladolid, Miriam was born in Yucatan's capital Mérida. She grew up admiring the women in her family work in traditional kitchens called fogones. This is where her passion for cooking was born.

Thanks to her hard work and dedication to keeping Yucatecan's traditions alive, Miriam has won several recognitions and awards at several international gastronomy fairs. She even participated in the Guinness World Records' for largest serving of roast pork, where participants served over 7 US tons of cochinita pibil, one of Yucatan's most famous dishes.

For Miriam, each dish represents a journey through time, myths, legends, religion, festivities, communal rituals and, of course, language.

“Traditional cooks are wizards with encyclopedic powers that zealously preserve the knowledge they've inherited so they can continue to transcend time. I believe it's very important that the world now looks at Yucatan as a gastronomical tourist destination because this state is so much more than just cochinita pibil. It's a vibrant and rich cuisine that the world should get to know,” she concluded. 

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