Distinctly Different from the usual Mexican Fare,Yucatecan cuisine is a mouthwatering melange of European and Caribbean influences and flavours. This is most definitely not typical Mexican food, the markets here carry different ingredients and the land is not great for farming so much of the food is indigenous or imported.
Earthy, hot and smoky, Yucatecan cuisine is as diverse as it is rich in colour. Here, the air is thick with the scent of the strong flavours that make this region’s food a culinary delight. Annatto has been called the saffron of the Yucatan and is used to add earthy flavour and colour, and of course the searing heat of the habanero is a staple.
Local produce is everywhere: from the chaya or tree spinach that grows on shrubs to the ground rice and honey that is made into drinks, and the infamous habanero chilli and sour orange that add a zesty spice to many dishes.
Fragrant and spicy, Yucatecan cuisine is influenced by the cooking of various cultures, but the ingredients are distinctly Yucatecan. Here, isolated from the rest of Mexico, a unique culinary tradition was born. In days gone by, this area was home port to the Dutch, French, and Spanish and the influx of cultures had a fascinating impact on the local cuisine. The region’s contemporary fare is an interesting combination of European and Caribbean flavours as well as Lebanese culinary traditions and regional dishes from other parts of Mexico.
The trinity of Yucatecan cuisine is naranja agria (sour orange), annatto (a seasoning made from the seeds of the achiote tree which have a distinctive blood red colouring) and habanero chilli pepper. Pipian, a sauce made from ground pumpkin seeds is also popular.
Initially devised as a way to preserve meat in the tropical climate, Pibil has become the region’s most famous dish. A Mayan word that means to bury, or to cook underground, Pibil is pork, or other meat, wrapped in banana leaves and marinated in sour orange and annatto, which is then baked in a cooking pit for several hours. Annatto has been called the saffron of the Yucatan and is used to add earthy flavour and and of course the searing heat of the habanero is a staple.
Sour orange is indispensable in the Yucatán. Mixed with water and sugar, the juice of sour oranges is made into a beverage called naranjada. More importantly though, unsweetened, it is used like vinegar to pickle vegetables, and is a primary ingredient in the famous Pibil dish when mixed with achiote, or on its own in the wood-grilledpork dish, poc chuc. Annatto has been called the saffron of the Yucatán and is used to add an earthy flavour and colour to various
Queso Rellenos is another true Yucatecan dish, which is found nowhere else in Mexico. A rind of Edam cheese is wrapped around a filling of caramelized ground beef, raisins, almonds, spices, and olives, which is then wrapped in banana leaf and steamed.
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.
One of the best places to taste some superb authentic Yucatecan cuisine is Chaya Maya in Merida, and if you want some outstanding new tastes try Apoala. Both of these restaurants can be found in the Santa Lucia Parque.
Spice mixes are known in the Yucatán as recados. David Sterling, a chef and food historian based in Merida believes that these seasonings are the original pillars of Yucatecan cuisine. Each recado was created for a specific purpose and is a blend of spices, chillies and other ingredients. The strong and spicy recado negro blends charred chiles with a range of other spices including achiote seeds, cloves, peppercorns, cumin and oregano. The harsh process of burning chillies produces a Üerce, acrid smoke and as a result, the process of making recado negro within the Merida city limits has been banned. The resulting black paste from the chillies is then used as either a rub for meat or as a sauce. Recado roja, a less harsh alternative, uses sour orange and annatto to create a deep red-coloured marinade.
Tamales are an art in the Yucatan, and have been dated back to the ancient Maya people, who it is believed prepared them as feasts as early as 1200 BC. Made of a starchy, corn-based dough, tamales are steamed or boiled in a banana leaf wrapper, which is discarded before eating.
Try any of these dishes with a glass of Xtabentún, a liqueur made from anise seed, fermented honey and rum and you’ll never want to leave the Yucatan.
Even tamales are made differently here in the Yucatan, wrapped in banana leaves instead of palm leaves and always made with fresh corn dough you can find the recipes here.
Learn more about Yucatecan street food here.
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