The Yucatán Peninsula is home to a melting pot of populations who settled in the sunny spot separating the Caribbean Sea from the Gulf of Mexico. The state’s unique cultural mix has enriched the local gastronomy, making it one of the country’s most celebrated regional cuisines, popular the world over.
In the final instalment of our five-part series on Mexico’s distinctive combination of fine dining and street food, we take you through the ancestral cuisine of Yucatán.
1. Pastes – the flavour of Yucatán
Yucatán cooking is based on four kinds of pastes, or ‘recados’ – elaborate mixtures that provide the flavour behind a variety of dishes.
The main mixture combines clove, black pepper, roasted garlic, coriander seeds, oregano and cumin and then cinnamon for steak; annatto seeds, wormseed and carbonised chilli seeds for black paste (‘recado negro’); annatto seeds and sour orange for red paste (‘recado rojo’); and cinnamon and sour orange for white paste (‘recado blanco’). Steak paste is used for pickling, black paste for ‘relleno negro,’ red paste for ‘cochinita’ and white paste for ‘puchero’.
Relleno negro made with black paste
2. Typical dishes
There are countless dishes to try when visiting Yucatán, but the following are absolutely unmissable:
Cochinita pibil – Slow-roasted pork marinated in red paste, served with beans, tortillas, pickled red onion and habanero sauce
Relleno negro – slow-cooked turkey stuffed with ground beef with black paste, which may be served as a broth with hard-boiled egg and habanero chilli sauce
Escabeche – chicken or turkey marinated with coriander, salt, vinegar and other herbs and served in pieces or shredded for tacos, with pickled red onion and habanero sauce
Sopa de Lima – chicken broth with sweet tomato and chilli, served with fried tortilla strips and lime slices
Frijol con puerco – cooked pork with beans, served as a broth with chopped onion, tomato and radish
Panuchos and salbutes – both are made with fried tortillas; the first one is prepared with beans, while salbutes may have pickled sauce or black paste and are mostly stuffed with cochinita
Panuchos and salbutes
3. Mayan dishes
Yucatán was an important region for the Mayan culture, and many traditions remain alive. It’s not uncommon to find dishes whose names describe their preparation, such as ‘poc chuc,’ meaning ‘roasted’ and ‘pibil,’ meaning ‘baked underground’ or with ashes. There are many others, such as papak tsul (‘soaked’), tzic (‘striped’), and x'nipec (‘dog’s snout’), so named because the habanero chillies make it so spicy it makes your nose run.
4. Typical ingredients
Think of Yucatán food and the popular habanero chilli comes to mind – famous as one the hottest chillies in the world. But the region is also home to milder chillies, such as ixcatik, which is very similar to the spice used in Spanish cuisine, or sweet chilli, comparable to sweet peppers. And that’s not forgetting colourful annatto seeds, which are the main spice used in cochinita pibil; in addition to lemon and sour orange, which give a tangy kick to various foods. Then there are dried pumpkin seeds, which have been used since pre-Hispanic times, and pickled red onion, a popular accompaniment to pretty much any dish in the region.
Cochinita pibil with habanero chillies
5. Food for religion
Death may be the most enigmatic and mystical concept in the world, but Mexicans have been celebrating it since pre-Hispanic times with parties and festivals to honour their deceased loved ones. The Day of the Dead is celebrated across Mexico on November 1st.
In Yucatán, these celebrations are called Hanal Pixan, where dwellers take food offerings to the cemetery to place on the graves of their relatives. The ceremonial dish for the event is called mucbipollo or pibipollo: a large tamal, stuffed with chicken and pork, with annatto seeds and a thick maize dough called kool on the side. This is wrapped in banana leaves and cooked underground.
A Day of the Dead mask
6. Origins of Yucatán cuisine
Those visiting Yucatán from abroad may be struck by how similar its cuisine is to that back at home. That’s because of the combination of international flavours involved. Spanish and Arab ingredients arrived in Yucatán after the conquest, while Asian and Lebanese people came later, when trading routes opened up, further enriching the region’s culinary culture. Add that to the Mayan and Caribbean ingredients that were already firmly installed in Yucatán cooking, and the resulting gastronomy is one of the most sophisticated and delicious in the world.
7. Export ingredients
Even those who’ve never set foot in Yucatán will be familiar with some of its ingredients and flavours. Anything from the orange juice and honey on the world’s breakfast tables to dried pumpkin seed snacks and octopus and lobster dinners could come from the region. That’s because the state’s combination of varied natural resources, hard-working producers, varied products and ingredients make it a world-class exporter.
Octopus in its ink with potatoes and Valladolid sausage from Quintonil in Mexico City
8. Varieties of honey
Next time you add syrup to your pancakes, think of Yucatán because it’s very likely your breakfast topping comes from there. The Mayans have been using honey as a sweetener since pre-Hispanic times, so bee-keeping is a long-established trade. Back then, a sting-less bee called a melipona was used to produce the sticky, sweet ingredient, which is considered rich in nutritious properties and is also used in rituals. Nowadays, most kinds of honey come from ordinary bees and the product is widely appreciated for being organic, handcrafted and exceptionally tasty due to the wide vegetation in the peninsula.
Those who enjoy sweet beverages should not miss xtabentún, an enchanting liquor made of rum, fermented honey and anise. Its name comes from the Mayan legend of two beautiful ladies: Xtabay, who had a good heart and Utz-Colel, who was cold and proud. When Xtabay passed away, her tomb was filled with aromatic flowers, which are the source of the liquor and lead to intoxication.
Chef Roberto Solís’s guide to Mérida
With such a wide range of flavoursome dishes, it may be handy to have a local guide to the beautiful city of Mérida in Yucatán. So we asked chef Roberto Solís of Néctar restaurant to share his favourite picks for the so-called White City.
One of Roberto's colourful dishes from Néctar
Tacos Don Irineo
Prolongación Paseo Montejo, entre 19 y 17, Mérida
Must-try dish: Cochinita pibil and pickled brine tacos
Calle 57 No. 523 x 64 y 66, Mérida
Must-try dish: Cherna fish taco - a fatty, tasty fish similar to grouper
Calle 27 no. 299, entre 28 y 30, Izamal
Must-try dish: Poc chuc - thin pork slices, marinated in sour orange and charbroiled, served with tomato sauce, lettuce, radish and pickled red onion
Avenida 40 392 por 40 Lindavista Chenku, Mérida
Must-try dish: Castacan tacos with ‘queso bola’ (cheese balls)
Calle 12, Celestún, Yucatán
Must-try dish: Crab ‘manitas’
Calle 5 no. 68, Carrillo Puerto, Mérida
Must-try dish: Castacan - fried pork belly