Street Eats in the Yucatan
Living in Canada great Mexican food was a dream. So when we decided to move to Mexico (a little village called Chelem) we chose to live near Merida. The Yucatan peninsula is the safest area in Mexico and a haven for expats escaping from the colder climates. Our adventures included searching for the best street food and Mexican dishes we could find. The Santa Lucia Parque area is the best in town for authentic Mexican cuisine alongside the newer innovative Mexican restaurants. However just wandering around any area in Merida will result in you finding some fantastic refrescos and fabulous street foods.
Street eats in the Yucatan are a totally different category of street food from your usual Mexican taco stall. If you are visiting or staying anywhere along the Emerald Coast, you will see a multitude of little homemade stalls purveying a variety of street eats in the Yucatan. These vary from small cobbled together wooden booths to red plastic Coca Cola sheds. It can be a little intimidating if you do not speak Spanish or know what is being offered. This is a little guide to help out.
Much of what you see street side along the Gulf in villages like Chuburna and Progreso will be coconut based, as this is the traditional means of earning primary or secondary income for many local families.
The coconuts are harvested all year round and for the most part landowners allow the gathers to collect the coconuts free of charge from their land. It is an exchange that benefits both as coconuts when ripe can cause a great deal of damage when they fall to both people and property. The collectors generally come into your property, harvest the ripe coconuts and take away all the coconut tree debris and branches that need to be trimmed and cleaned up. Most homeowners offer the workers refrescos or a little propina (tip) to buy some Coke with when they are finished harvesting.
Street Foods in the Yucatan
The main items you will see at the roadsides are Coco de Pays (coconut custard pie), Coco Flan, Coco Frio (cold coconut water), Coco Cremitas, Bolitos de Coco and Coco Paletas (a coconut popsicle).
For Rick Bayless who first tasted Pay de Coco in the Yucatan it has become a real treat. Traditionally made with sweetened condensed milk the pie is dense and chewy, rich with fresh grated coconut. It stays fresh for a few days and is not a fragile pie. You can find an adapted recipe on the Rick Bayless website.
Coco cremitas are a popular dessert here in Yucatan, very similar to a flan, the coconut is thickened with cornstarch and eggs into a simple pudding, which costs around 10 pesos. You will find an excellent recipe here on the Remixto Blog for Mexican desserts.
Coco Frios are lovely green coconuts with the top chopped off and a straw stuck in to get at the delicious and incredibly health coconut water. Bolitos de Coco con Camote are little round balls of sweet potato flavoured with Mexican honey or sugar and cinnamon. The mixture is formed into a ball and then rolled into freshly grated coconut.
Raspados are found all over Mexico and they are essentially a snow cone, but with one significant difference, the origin of the verb raspar means “to scrape” and the best raspados are hand scraped from a huge chunk of ice. The raspado is then flavoured with fruit syrups, a pinch of salt and a drench of condensed milk and chamoy if requested. A sweet, cold treat for the hot summer months raspados come in a variety of flavours from coconut to mamoy, pineapple and many more.
Paletas in the Yucatan are a cool Mexican popsicle treat. Made from fresh fruits and fruit juices the combinations are endless but at the roadside stalls, the main flavour is coconut. An old Mexican legend says that the Aztec emperors had servants who would bring ice from the volcano, outside Mexico City. The emperors would eat this ice, mixed with fruits. In the 1940’s, one of the most famous Mexican heladerías opened for business — La Michoacana. Typical flavors include watermelon, lime, mamey, mango, coconut, and pineapple with chili powder, cucumber with chili powder, pecan, pistachio or tamarind. Sometimes they are covered with chocolate or nuts, and sometimes they have layers of different flavors.
Mexican street food in the Yucatan does include the familiar tacos, tortillas, and tortas but it also includes some items that are uniquely Yucatecan.
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.
“Merenque, merenque, merenque” is a call you will hear very frequently on the beaches of the Yucatan, pastel coloured Italian meringue whipped by hand is piped out onto paper-covered tables, and then baked from above by placing red-hot coals atop a large steel drum that covers the merengues. The merenque is also shaped into a spiral and a stick placed on one end for a children’s treat, these merengues are usually brightly coloured.
As you pass through rural areas and fishing villages (as well as in Mérida) you will often see hand written signs advertising kibis it may seem strange to see this Middle Eastern treat here in the Yucatan but there is a large Lebanese immigrant community that has made these little stuffed treats a great street food snack. Kibis are made from roughly ground wheat kernels (similar to bulgur). They are football shaped and then deep fried, once they come out of the oil they are then stuffed with fillings that include; meat, cheese, cabbage, habaneros and onions.
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.
Elote’s are a grilled corn on the cob that is then dressed with a lime-flavoured crema (mayonnaise), dipped in cotijo or queso fresco (which is cheese) and then sprinkled with chili pepper. Unlike North American sweet corn on the cob, Mexican corn has a solid very starchy and sweet kernel. Esquites are from the same corn but removed from the cob and served in a cup.
Everyone loves a tamale but here in the Yucatan tamales are a rare thing to find as street food. 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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