Eating in the Yucatan
Mexican and Yucatecan foods are very different. Yucatecan cuisine has been strongly influenced by European foods as well as the native Mayan culture. The peninsula was very difficult to reach from the rest of Mexico but it had several ports where the Europeans brought in commercial goods. The Global influences on the food of the Yucatan includes: New Orleans, France, and Cuba. From Yucatecan refrescos and bebidas to the markets that spring up in every little village the Yucatan is an interesting amalgam of traditional Mexican foods merged with Mayan specialties, even the tamales in the Yucatan are different from the rest of the country.
Cuisine of the Yucatan and its Global Influences
The holy trinity of Yucatecan cuisine is the achiote, the habanero and the sour orange (Seville Orange which is used to make the best marmalade in the UK). Corn, tomatoes, chiles and much more feature in this regional food. “The corn, the chocolate and the honey, the venison and wild turkey, squash, cucumbers, chiles and tomatoes are from the Mayans,” Patrician Quintana (Quintana is the owner and Chef of one of the best restaurants in Mexico City) says. “The pork and Seville oranges come from Spain, and the Edam cheese from the Dutch.” (from above mentioned article).
Achiote or Annatto is a tiny rusty red coloured seed that you can purchase, ground or whole. It can be ground in a coffee grinder but is is rather gummy and quite dense. In North American achiote was traditionally used to colour white cheese and margarine as it is a natural colourant that moves from soft yellow to deep orange.
Global influences on the food of the Yucatan
At the restaurant we had lunch at in Progreso we first tasted some Mayan botanos we had the venison (who knew deer used to be plentiful here in the peninsula, but they are now a protected species) and we had a very nice slightly spicy pumpkin seed dip, refried black beans that tasted better than any I have ever had, fish ceviche, and Mayan spaghetti (I think that last one was invented by our waiter Angel..lol..).
You can find some of Merida’s finest dining in the Santa Lucia Parque. From Apoala which is famous for its Mezcal collection, it includes over 30 varieties and its new take on Mexican cuisine to La Chaya Maya, which is considered one of the best restaurants in the region.
The staff at Chaya Maya are dressed in traditional huipiles that are gorgeously hand-embroidered and you will notice a small table of women making fresh tortillas to be served in the restaurant. Try the house specialty, Los Tres Mosqueteros, or The Three Musketeers, which combines three classic Yucatecan dishes: relleno negro (a black sauce made from burnt chiles and spices) over pork; papadzul (an egg dish); and pipián (a sauce with a pumpkin seed base) over turkey.
Some local dishes you must try which you will find nowhere else in Mexico include:
Cochinita pibil: A tender pit cooked roast pig that has been marinated in sour orange (naranja) annatto (achiote) and some local herbs and spices. Tender falling of the bone and served with small fresh tortillas and pickled red onion this is the central dish of the Yucatan.
Queso Relleno: The rind of Edam cheese scraped of all the cheese which is then wrapped around a filling of caramelized ground beef, raisins, almonds, spices, and olives which is then wrapped in banana leaf and cheesecloth and then steamed until done, when I find it I will let you know. In the meantime here is a link to a great recipe in Yucatan Today.
Pavo en Relleno is another Yucatecan delicacy and is likely incomparable to anything you’ve ever tasted before. The dish is turkey and polenta corn dumplings in a recado negro sauce, which is the key to its flavour and is made from crushed chillies that are then burnt black, and combined with spices.
Marquesitas are something that you find made all over Merida and it is a favourite treat for kids and adults alike. This is a crepe that is rolled up around a variety of fillings from blackberry jam, to the real specialty that is queso and caramel sauce or Nutella. Invented in Merida in 1938 these crepes became the favourite snack of the daughters of a Marquis living in the City so much so that they became named the marquesita after the little girls.
A panucho starts with a tortilla that has been warmed split and stuffed with refried beans, the tortilla is then fried and finally topped with meat, sour orange pickled onions, and sometimes lettuce or cabbage along with avocado and sliced tomato. The salbute is similar but the tortilla is simply fried and then topped with everything but refried beans.
Everyone loves a tamale but here in the Yucatan tamales are a rare thing to find as street food or even in the best restaurants. They are a labour intensive dish that you may find at some of the markets in the area and consider yourself lucky if you do find some to buy. If you get the chance take a cooking class to learn how to make them and here is a piece I wrote on a Tamale cooking class complete with recipes.
As an expat living in Mexico for a year I had the pleasure of experiencing a great deal of fabulous Yucatecan dishes. I also loved discovering all the new farmer’s markets that were beginning to flourish alongside some fantastic artisan crafts. There is much to take in and explore in the Yucatan, from Mayan sites like Uxmal and it’s hidden garden and Dzibilchaltun and other Mayan legends. You can easily travel to Playa del Carmen and Tulum to explore the Caribbean side and experience cenotes and the superb Rio de Secreto.
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