Many chefs use recipes passed down from mothers and grandmothers, and memories of growing up in Hunucmá, Mexico surrounded by Mayan communities inspire Ed Correa’s menu of indigenous cuisine at Mayan Kitchen in Sunnyvale. Through his partnership with Katie Voong, owner of K Tea Cafe, a bubble tea and jianbing shop, Executive Chef Correa’s cuisine has evolved to reach a wider audience, even if that meant making changes that didn’t get approval his family would receive matriarchs.
Correa is determined to share Mayan cuisine with the Peninsula and sees his cooking style as a major evolution in educating people about an overlooked culinary tradition. He doesn’t think his food is fake or watered down. “I know it’s not just about making this food that I find delicious for myself. It’s also about preparing this food to promote[the Mayan culture],” says Correa.
While many Mexican restaurants use the Mayan name, few establishments actually showcase Mayan cuisine. The exact size of the Maya population in the Bay Area is difficult to determine, but the number was estimated at 5,000 in 2002. Voong and Correa claim they operate the only Mayan restaurant on the peninsula, although other restaurants may serve a handful of them. The culture’s most well-known dishes include cochinita pibil, the slow-roasted pork traditionally cooked in underground ovens, and poc Chuc, pork marinated with citrus fruits that may have originated from efforts to preserve meat through curing.
Sometimes it can be difficult to draw the line between Mayan and Mexican cuisine, as some aspects of Mayan cuisine were adopted as Mexican and international influences, including colonization, shaped the Yucatecan version of Mayan cuisine, the Correa presents. Maya is a term used to describe many different groups living in Central America today and their ancestors.
Correa says that even in his native Mexico, Mayan cuisine is underappreciated. Despite the popularity of the same few dishes, he says, people are unwilling to familiarize themselves with the cuisine. “(Names of dishes) are in the Mayan language, the names are kind of foreign even to Mexicans… We have so many different dishes that are really delicious that people don’t even want to try them,” he says.
Voong and Correa started collaborating at K Tea Cafe four years ago, and the business relied heavily on catering gigs, which disappeared as the pandemic began. Voong proudly describes herself as an entrepreneur and says she thinks differently than most small business owners. Learning from Correa and realizing how fruit and vegetable-focused Mayan cuisine suited current trends in the restaurant industry, she and Correa decided to partner with Mayan Kitchen, which opened a month ago in downtown Sunnyvale. The K Tea Cafe has evolved into a delivery-oriented business with no dining room.
It’s true that many elements of Mayan cuisine are closely related to the needs of today’s Bay Area guests. Many items are naturally gluten-free, while others can be made vegan. The kitchen evolved around fruits, vegetables and a robust farming system. Correa says: “[My mother and grandmother]determined what food was available when and they just put it together in a delicious way. That’s how I grew up with food. That’s how I learned how food should be.”
However, both Voong and Correa are reluctant to prepare food exactly as Correa remembers it. The duo have a strong partnership in the kitchen due to their complementary expertise in different kitchens. Voong has experience in Japanese, Korean and Chinese restaurants and Correa came through French and Italian cuisines. Voong describes Mayan Kitchen’s menu as “handcrafted” because each element is created through collaboration. Voong provides feedback on how to make dishes appealing for the restaurant’s diverse clientele, and Correa tries to adapt the home cooking he learned from his family.
While this mediated approach could prompt accusations that Mayan Kitchen’s food is inauthentic or watered down, Correa would strongly disagree. Menu highlights, prepared using Mayan techniques, include panuchos, black bean-filled and fried tortillas, and salbutes, tortillas that are freshly fried to rise. While some diners might confuse xnipec with pico de gallo, the sauce is brightened with a dash of tart orange, a common Mayan ingredient. Many of the restaurant’s sauces are based on habaneros, which add warmth but are also aromatic and flavorful. They are one of the main crops grown in the Yucatán and even have a geographical designation.
On the other hand, changes have been made to the menu. Overall, the spice content is toned down, and most dishes come in variations that allow chicken or beef to be added to create a heartier meal. Vegan and gluten-free options are also widely available at the restaurant. There are some dishes that hail from a seemingly random assortment of cuisines, including vegan cheesecake, persistently trendy bao, and bruschetta. Still, these are shifts Correa wants to make. “[My mother and grandmother]say, ‘You can’t change anything. You have to stick to the book. Or if you can’t, don’t cook it’… Times are different now. And if you want to share something, you actually have to adapt. You can’t stay in the past,” he says.
Some of these adaptations also reflect Correa’s own culinary journey and slightly distant relationship with its culture. The cochinita pibil is served alongside traditional side dishes of rice and black beans, but Correa adds a popular kid’s snack, Xec, a jicama and citrus salad, to the plate. He thinks the salad adds brightness and acidity to the rich dish, but admits the combination would confuse his mother. Unlike his parents, Correa is not fluent in Mayan languages. His family encouraged him to focus on learning Spanish to access more professional and business opportunities around the world. “(Although) I don’t know the language, I know the food… I want to share the part (of the Mayan culture) that I actually have available to me,” he says.
As Correa strives to expand the menu with more dishes he remembers from his childhood, he will seek Voong’s approval as well as feedback from customers who also grew up with Mayan cuisine. He delights when customers tell him how fortunate they are that a restaurant is bringing Mayan culture to the community.
“It’s the best compliment I can get,” says Correa.
mayan cuisine, tinyurl.com/mayankitchen, 139 S. Murphy Avenue, Sunnyvale; 650-305-6595.
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Anthony Shu writes for TheSixFifty.com, a sister publication of Palo Alto Online, covering what to eat, see, and do in Silicon Valley.