During your visit to the Mexican Caribbean or Yucatan, be sure to sample the delicious local cuisine. Although it is based on the famous trio of corn, chilies and beans, the use of which dates back to the days of the ancient Maya, it couldn’t be more different to the Mexican classics you may already be acquainted with.A veritable fusion cuisine, Yucatecan dishes blend time-honored Mayan staples such as corn, chili, tomato, beans, squash, cacao, honey and turkey with European and Middle Eastern ingredients that include pork, Seville oranges (known locally as naranja agria) and garlic introduced by 16th-century Spanish settlers and later immigrants from the Levant. The result is a sophisticated blend of flavors.Local chefs say that the secret is in the seasoning and they use recados or spice mixes of ground achiote (annatto) or pumpkin seeds and chilies that are sold in the markets as pastes or powders and dissolved in chicken stock or Seville orange juice to make sauces.In Mayan communities, a pib or cooking pit is traditionally used to slow cook pork, turkey, chicken and fish (in the past the Maya also hunted wild game such as agouti, peccary and deer and in some areas they still do). The meat is marinated, wrapped in banana leaves to keep the juices in and baked underground for hours until it is so tender that it falls off the bone.
Setting up a “pib” or cooking pitPhoto: mayaculture (Flickr)Cochinita Pibil
Pork marinated in achiote (annatto) and Seville orange juice, wrapped in banana leaves and slowly cooked in a pit for hours until it is tender. Pollo or Pavo Pibil is cooked the same way except that chicken or turkey is substituted for pork. Served with tortillas, pickled red onion and habanero chili sauce.
Cochinita PibilPhoto: mark hollander (Flickr)Sopa de Lima
A tasty chicken broth with shredded chicken, slices of lime, tomato, onion and green pepper and fried tortilla strips.
Sopa de LimaPhoto: dommichu (Flickr)Poc Chuc
Slices of tender grilled pork marinated in Seville orange juice and served with a chili sauce, pickled red onions, corn tortillas and side dishes such as guacamole.
Poc ChucPhoto: Larry Miller (Flickr)Panuchos & Salbutes
Yucatecan finger food! Panuchos feature a special tortilla filled with refried beans. They are topped with shredded chicken or turkey, lettuce, tomato and pickled onion. Salbutes are fried tortillas topped with the same ingredients.
Chicken PanuchosPhoto: phaedra torres (Flickr)
Cochinita Pibil PanuchosPhoto: Adriana Pérez (Flickr)
Corn tortillas filled with chopped hard-boiled egg and topped with two sauces made from pipian or ground pumpkin seeds and tomato.
PapadzulesPhoto: David Sosa (Flickr)Queso Relleno
A dish that is proof of the Caribbean connection with the island of Curacao, once a Dutch trade enclave. It consists of a steamed Dutch cheese with a minced beef and pork, hard-boiled egg, raisin and almond filling and is served with a white and a tomato sauce. Traditionally this would have been cooked in banana leaves, but it can also be baked in the oven.
Queso RellenoPhoto: turismoyucatan (Flickr)Tikinxic
A whole fish marinated in achiote and Seville orange juice, topped with slices of onion, green pepper and tomato wrapped in banana leaves and cooked on the grill or in tin foil and cooked in the oven.
TikinxicPhoto: Ana Noble (Flickr)Local Seafood
No Mexican Caribbean or Yucatan vacation is complete without sampling the local seafood. Your choices include juicy and sweet Caribbean lobster, shrimp, octopus, conch and a variety of good eating fish such as grouper (mero), huachinango (snapper) and boquinete (hogfish). Try your fish and seafood grilled, fried al mojo de ajo in garlic butter, in ceviche or in a hearty broth.Photo: Fresh local seafood available at Captain’s Cove RestaurantRelleno Negro
Turkey and a meat stuffing cooked in a spicy black sauce made with onions, hard-boiled egg and seared chilies. You may also come across relleno blanco on the menu.
Relleno NegroPhoto: rfung8 (Flickr)Codzitos
Rolled tortillas which are fried until crispy and topped with a tomato sauce and crumbled cheese.
CodzitosPhoto: Alejandra Can (Flickr)Frijol con Puerco
Chunks of pork cooked until tender with black beans, served with rice and a garnish of coriander, chopped onion and radish.
Frijol con PuercoPhoto: Alfonso Becerra (Flickr)Pavo en Escabeche
Turkey, onion, peppercorns, bay leaves and other herbs stewed in a vinegar-rich pickling sauce.
Pavo en EscabechePhoto: aya (Flickr)Longaniza
A spicy black sausage from the town of Valladolid that makes a great taco filling! Try it with handmade corn tortillas cooked over a wood fire.
Longaniza platterPhoto: Ryan&Jo (Flickr)Mucbil Pollo
Served on Hanal Pixan, the Mayan Day of the Dead (November 1 and 2), this corn tamale is stuffed with chicken, wrapped in a banana leaf and cooked in a pit.
Tamales being put in the “pib” or pit oven for cookingPhoto: Tips de Viajero (Flickr)
Photo: Maggy Molina (Flickr)Puchero
A meat or poultry stew with vegetables. Sometimes beef, pork and chicken are used in the same dish.
PucheroPhoto: Alberto Vázquez (Flickr)Dzotobichay
A tamal stuffed with pumpkin seeds and wrapped in chaya leaves, a native plant with more iron, calcium and trace minerals than spinach and Swiss chard.
DzotobichayPhoto: ausmemoria (Blogspot)Habanero Chili, a Gift from the Yucatan
Packing between 250,000 and 350,000 Scoville units on the heat scale, the habanero chili is definitely for serious chili eaters who crave its fiery yet fresh, grassy flavor. The Yucatan’s famous heart-shaped chile may be served whole, sliced or roasted in a red tomato sauce. It is also served with lime juice and chopped onion in a sauce called xnipek. In the Mayan language xnipek means “dog’s nose” and this salsa will literally make your nose run and your eyes water!
Habanero ChiliesPhoto: Mario Vázquez (Flickr)A Cool Drink to Accompany your Meal
We recommend that you try a limonada or naranjada, lemonade and orangeade made with freshly squeezed juice or an agua fresca, a water-based fruit drink made with a variety of fresh tropical fruit. Try whatever is in season; your choices include mango, pineapple, tangerine, guava, melon, tamarind, grapefruit and even more exotic fruit such as the fuschia-colored pitahaya (the flesh is actually white with tiny black seeds rather like a kiwi fruit), the guanabana or soursop and the mamey. You will also find agua de chaya on the menu, often flavored with lime juice or pineapple, this is a highly nutritious energy booster! In coastal fishing communities, you may be able to try agua de coco, literally the water inside a freshly cut coconut (a traditional remedy for upset stomaches). And Mexican favorites such as agua de jamaica (made with dried hibiscus petals) and horchata (a creamy sweet drink made from rice and water) are widely available.A cold beer also goes well with your meal and you should try the local brand called Montejo in its light (clara) and dark (oscura) presentations. Finally, be sure to sample the Yucatecan liqueur Xtabentun, a scented drink made from honey, native herbs and aniseed.Share your Stories
We would love to know if you have tried Yucatecan cuisine and which was your favorite dish? Why not drop us a line and let us know.