Today is Earth Day. For the Maya, living harmoniously with nature and being good stewards of the land rendered every day a celebration of the Earth and its bounty. So let’s get in the spirit of our modern Earth Day with a Maya concoction sure to please.
It’s such a lovely time of year for a dinner party, but how do you set your gathering apart? How do you make your fiesta better than the rest? Serve an ancient cocktail with a haunting and seductive history. We are coming to your rescue with a recipe for Jaltun Ha, a refreshing sweet and sour cocktail using the ancient Mexican spirit called xtabentún. But before you begin preparations for the dinner party of the season, you’ll want to make sure you can dazzle your guests with the ancient history behind their drink.
Xtabentún is an anise-flavored liqueur made from anise seeds, rum, “the nectar of Mayan bees” and the fermented nectar of the xtabentún flower (also called Mexican Bindweed). The flower is from the morning glory family and is native to the Yucatan peninsula, but there is another key characteristic that makes it uniquely ideal for a spirit. The xtabentún flower or Rivea corymbosa (also Turbina corymbosaas), as it is scientifically known, comes from a seed that, when ingested, causes a sense of euphoria and drowsiness due to its psychotropic nature. It is said to be a natural source of the hallucinogenic drug LSD and was also used in the religious ceremonies of the Aztecs and various other indigenous cultures.
Although the Aztecs may have used it to enhance their religious experiences, it’s the Mayas who developed it into a liqueur and made it famous. The legend goes that two women were living in a Maya village, one a prostitute and one considered to be a perfectly virtuous woman. The prostitute, Xtabay, was kind and generous, giving all of her earnings and gifts to the poor and those in need. The virtuous woman Utz-Colel seemed perfect at first sight because she was a virgin, well-dressed, wealthy and clean, but she was heartless and prideful and hated the poor and needy. Many people insulted and detested Xtabay, but she never responded to those insults with malice, choosing instead to be kind to everyone. One day, people began to realize they hadn’t seen Xtabay for a few days. They assumed she was prostituting herself in a neighboring town. After some time, a sweet, delicious aroma began to fill the air around her house and the whole town. When the townspeople entered her home, they found her dead body being protected by animals who were licking at her hands and keeping flies away. Utz-Colel was infuriated and said that if this despicable woman smelled so sweetly, certainly when she died, being a respectable and honorable woman, her body would smell even more fragrant.
Some kind people buried Xtabay’s body and the next day the grave was covered with small white flowers giving off the same delicious smell of her body.
Eventually, Utz-Colel passed away and was buried. As the numerous mourners gathered to cry over her grave, they noticed a putrid smell coming from the ground over her body. The smell was so horrible that no animal would go near it, not even vultures. An awful smelling, spiny cactus called tzacam grew on the grave. The spirit of Utz-Colel was furious and begged the gods to send her back to life. She took the form of Xtabay and used her new body and life to enjoy all of the pleasures she had forsaken during her first lifetime.
The legend has it that she waits in the jungle for an unsuspecting young man to come along, seduce him and then take his heart. Others tell of men who were seduced by a beautiful woman in the jungle. They would lay with her and in the morning, find themselves embracing a cactus. If you should see a woman combing her hair with a stem of cactus, do not follow her for she is Utz-Colel, awaiting her next victim.
The moral of the story is that virtue is in the heart, not in the actions and face you show to the world. The flower that grew on Xtabay’s grave is the xtabentún and the drunken effect you feel when imbibing the liqueur is said to be akin to the feeling that men felt when Xtabay turned on her charm.
Today, Xtabentún is a delicious spirit that connects the people of the Yucatan peninsula to their history. It is often spoken of as the “elixir of the Maya gods.” The sweetness of the flower nectar is balanced by the anise and rum. It isn’t easy to find outside of Mexico, but it is worth the hunt. Use it in this modern cocktail and stay connected to the ancient Maya.
Recipe courtesy of La Cantina at the Maroma Resort and Spa.
- 1 ounce of xtabentún
- 2 ounces of pineapple juice
- 2 ounces of orange juice
- 1 ounce of pomegranate Tequila
- 2 teaspoons of tamarind purée (reserve a few drops for garnish)
- 3 lime slices, for garnish
- Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice, shake vigorously and pour into a large glass. For even more authenticity, use a jicara bowl instead of a glass.
- Garnish with drops of tamarind purée and lime slices.
 Exotic Mexican Spirit Xtabentun Makes a Splash. (n.d.). Retrieved April 21, 2015, from http://www.winemag.com/Web-2012/Exotic-Mexican-Spirit-Xtabentun/
 Piatz, S. (n.d.). The complete guide to making mead: The ingredients, equipment, processes, and recipes for crafting honey wine.
 Xtabentun, The Legend and the Drink.
 Exotic Mexican Spirit Xtabentun Makes a Splash.