AKUMAL, Mexico - In my experience, the cooking of this part of the world is chili-dependent but rarely hot.
Mild rather than mind-blowing chilies are appreciated mostly for subtle flavor. This doesn't mean you don't see habaneros; you do. But the Mayan cooks I've seen use them include about a tenth of one at a time. That adds a tiny bit of heat and a distinctive fruitiness.
The milder chilies add complexity as well as (and sometimes instead of) heat, and may be thought of more as a subtle spice that results in mysterious flavors you can't duplicate otherwise. They're fun rather than fearful.
There are a couple of steps before you plunge in; one is optional, one essential.
The optional one is roasting, or toasting. This makes a difference even with dried chilies, and even if you're going to be cooking them anyway. Just a few moments over a gentle fire, or in a skillet, or even in a hot oven, will release complex aromas that may otherwise remain hidden. Fresh chilies, of course, benefit mightily from roasting because although it isn't essential, it's nice to discard the skins, just as it is with roasted bell peppers.
Which brings us to heat - and the essential step. Any chili, even a mild bell pepper, can contain some heat. And that heat is stored variously in the seeds, stems, veins and skin, all of which can be removed. With dried chilies, the process is easy: Just break the thing open, get rid of the seeds and stem and, if the chili is moist enough, tear out the veins.
I have yet to find a stewlike dish that doesn't benefit from adding the shells - that is, what's left after removing stems, seeds and veins - of several kinds of dried, mild chilies, especially if one has some smoke.
CHILI-TOMATO NOT TOO HOT SAUCE
Time: about an hour; yield: about 2 cups
6 guajillo or ancho chilies
1/4 cup neutral oil
2 large onions, chopped
4 garlic cloves, smashed
2 cups canned tomatoes
1 tablespoon honey
Salt and ground black pepper
1/4 cup distilled white or apple cider vinegar
Boil 3 cups of water. Put chilies in a large skillet over medium heat and toast, turning once, until fragrant, 2 or 3 minutes on each side. Transfer chilies to a bowl, pour boiling water over them and soak until soft and pliable, 15 to 30 minutes. Remove stems and as many seeds as you like. Roughly chop them, and reserve soaking liquid.
Put oil in the skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add chilies, onions and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onions soften, about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, honey, salt and pepper.
Adjust heat so the mixture bubbles gently. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is very thick, 10 to 20 minutes. Let it cool for a few minutes, then transfer to a blender with the vinegar. Puree until completely smooth, adding more vinegar or a splash of water if you want it thinner. Pour into a glass bottle or jar, cool completely and refrigerate up to a week.
Time: about 2 hours, plus hominy soaking time; yield: 8 servings
2 tablespoons neutral oil
2 pounds pork shoulder, cut into 2-inch chunks
1 large onion, chopped
Salt and ground black pepper
4 dried chipotle, ancho or guajillo chilies
2 cups dried hominy, soaked in a couple of changes of water for 8 to 12 hours
2 tablespoons fresh oregano, or 2 teaspoons dried
2 tablespoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons minced garlic
Chopped fresh cilantro for garnish
Lime wedges for garnish
Put oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. When hot, add pork and onions and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until pork and onions are deeply browned, 15 to 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, pull off whatever stems you can from chilies; break them in half and pour or scrape out some or all of the seeds. (The more you leave in, the hotter the stew will be.) When pork and onions are browned, add chilies, hominy, oregano and cumin. Add water to cover everything by about an inch. Bring to a boil, then adjust heat so the mixture simmers steadily. Cook, stirring occasionally and adding more liquid if necessary, until pork and hominy are tender, at least 1 1/2 hours.
If you like, fish out and discard chili pieces, or chop them up and stir them back into the pot. Stir in garlic and cook a few minutes more; taste and adjust the seasoning. The mixture should be a little soupy. Serve in bowls, garnished with cilantro and lime wedges.