Many chefs harness recipes passed down from mothers and grandmothers, and memories of growing up in Hunucmá, Mexico, surrounded by Mayan communities inspire Ed Correa's menu showcasing 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 kitchen manager Correa's cooking has evolved to reach a wider audience, even though it has meant making changes that wouldn't get the approval of his family's matriarchs.
Correa is determined to share Mayan cuisine with the Peninsula and sees his style of cooking as an essential evolution to educate people about an overlooked culinary tradition. He does not consider his food inauthentic or watered-down. "I know that it's not just about making this food that I find delicious to myself. It's also making that food to advocate (for Mayan culture)," Correa says.
While many Mexican restaurants harness the Maya name, few establishments actually present Mayan cuisine. The exact size of the Maya population in the Bay Area is hard to pinpoint, but the number was estimated at 5,000 in 2002. Voong and Correa assert that they run the only Mayan restaurant on the Peninsula, although other restaurants might serve a handful of the culture's most well-known dishes including cochinita pibil, the slow-roasted pork traditionally cooked in underground ovens, and poc chuc, pork marinated with citrus that may have originated from efforts to preserve meat through brining.
At times, it can be difficult to draw the line between Mayan and Mexican cuisine, as some aspects of Mayan cooking have been adopted as Mexican, and international influences including colonization shaped the Yucatecan version of Mayan food that Correa presents. Maya is a term used to collectively describe many diverse groups that live 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 few dishes, he says that 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," 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 started. Proudly identifying as a female entrepreneur, Voong says that she thinks differently from most small business owners. Learning from Correa and noticing how the fruit and vegetable-forward Mayan cuisine lended itself to current trends in dining, she and Correa decided to partner on Mayan Kitchen, which opened one month ago in downtown Sunnyvale. K Tea Cafe has become a delivery-focused business without a dining room.
It is true that many of Mayan cuisine's elements link closely to the demands of diners in the Bay Area today. Many items are naturally gluten-free, and others can be made vegan. The cuisine originated around fruits, vegetables and a robust agricultural system. Correa says, "(My mother and grandmother) mapped out which food is available when, and they just put it together in a delicious way. That's how I grew up eating. That's how I learned food is supposed to be."
However, both Voong and Correa are hesitant to prepare foods exactly as Correa remembers them. The duo has a strong partnership in the kitchen because of their complementary expertise in different cuisines. Voong has experience in Japanese, Korean and Chinese restaurants, and Correa came up through French and Italian kitchens. Voong describes Mayan Kitchen's menu as "hand-crafted" because each item emerges through collaboration. Voong offers feedback on how to make dishes appealing to the restaurant's diverse customer base, and Correa attempts to adapt the home cooking he learned from his family.
While this mediated approach might invite accusations of Mayan Kitchen's food being inauthentic or watered-down, Correa would strongly disagree. Highlights of the menu are prepared using Mayan techniques and include panuchos, tortillas filled with black beans and fried, and salbutes, tortillas that are fried fresh to ensure they puff up. While some diners might mistake xnipec for pico de gallo, the sauce is brightened up with a punch of sour orange, a common Mayan ingredient. Many of the restaurant's sauces are based on habaneros, which provide heat but are also aromatic and flavorful. They are one of the main crops cultivated in Yucatán and even have a geographic appellation.
On the other hand, changes have been made to the menu. Overall, the spice level is toned down, and most dishes are available in variations that allow for adding chicken or beef to create a more robust meal. Vegan and gluten-free options are also prevalent at the restaurant. There are some dishes borrowed from a seemingly random assortment of cuisines, including vegan cheesecake, persistently trendy bao, and bruschetta. Still, these are shifts that Correa wants to make. "(My mother and grandmother) are like, 'You cannot change anything. You have to go by the book. Or if you cannot, don't cook it' ... Times are different now. And if you want to share something, you have to actually adapt. You cannot stay in the past," he says.
Some of these adaptations are also ones that reflect Correa's own culinary journey and slightly detached relationship to his culture. The cochinita pibil is served alongside traditional accompaniments of rice and black beans, but Correa adds a favorite childhood snack, xec, a salad of jicama and citrus, to the plate. He finds that the salad brings brightness and acidity to the rich dish, but admits that the pairing would puzzle his mother. Unlike his parents, Correa cannot speak any Mayan languages fluently. His family encouraged him to focus on learning Spanish in order to access more professional and economic opportunities across 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 available to me," he says.
As Correa seeks to expand the menu to include more meals he remembers from his childhood, he will look for Voong's approval alongside feedback from clientele who also grew up with Mayan cuisine. He is delighted when customers tell him how happy they are to see a restaurant bringing Mayan culture to the community.
"That is the best compliment I can get," Correa says.
Mayan Kitchen, tinyurl.com/mayankitchen, 139 S. Murphy Ave., 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.