Fearless Foreign Foods: Yucatan (including Cancun and Cozumel)

This essay includes: Culinary traditions, Unusual ingredients, Classic dishes, For the meek, For the bold, and For the digestively challenged.

A word to the wise: Your digestive system may not be accustomed to foreign microbes. If you want to try local fruits or vegetables, prudence suggests that you make sure you wash them thoroughly or buy them at an upscale restaurant that’s used to catering to the delicate constitutions of tourists.

Culinary traditions

Isolated from the mainland by mountains, the residents of the Yucatan Peninsula developed a distinctive cuisine influenced by the Caribbean and Europe as much as the rest of Mexico. Mayans feasted on venison, wild turkey, squash, bananas, tomatoes, pumpkin seeds, corn, chocolate, honey, achiote and chilies. The Spanish introduced ingredients such as chicken, beef, pork, garlic, oregano, cinnamon and cumin. Trade with the Dutch brought a fondness for cheese – Yucatan markets still offer plentiful supplies of Edam and Gouda, used in queso relleno. In the late 19th century many Lebanese Christians fled here from the Ottoman Empire, adopting their cuisine to the ingredients available in the Yucatan: tacos al pastor, pork roasted on a skewer, is an adaptation of shawarma, made in the Middle East with lamb.

Seafood is plentiful and fresh, as are tropical fruits such as tamarinds, plums, mameys, and avocados.

Unusual ingredients

Achiote: from the seeds of the annatto plant, used for flavor in some recados and to add deep golden color to other dishes.

Adobo sauce: tart and sour sauce of ground chilis, herbs and vinegar.

Epazote (a.k.a. pigweed, skunkweed): herb with a slightly bitter but lemony taste and a strong fragrance that has been compared to citrus, petroleum, mint or putty; often used to flavor beans, corn and fish.

Habanero pepper: one of the spiciest chili peppers

Nopal cactus: appears on the flag of Mexico. Its fleshy paddles are served as vegetables. (Yes, they do remove the thorns.) Its fruit, the prickly pear, can be eaten raw or fermented into beer.

Nopal cactus (Wikipedia)

Nopal cactus (Wikipedia)

Pepitas (pumpkin seeds): ground to use for flavoring.

Recado: spice paste with some combination of cloves, cinnamon, black pepper, oregano, cumin, garlic, coriander, vinegar, and sour orange. Comes in many variations, of which the most common is achiote recado, used in dishes such as cochinita pibil and pollo pibil.

Salsa mexicana: tomatoes, onion, Serrano or jalapeno chili peppers, salt, lime and cilantro; very hot.

Salsa verde (green sauce): made from roasted tomatillos and hot chilis, garlic, cilantro and onions; mildly hot.

Sour (Seville) orange: green, thick-skinned orange, often used in sauces; tastes like a combination of lime and orange.

Taco: fresh corn tortilla.

Tomatillo: small, green relative of a tomato, very tart.

Xnipec (SHNEE-pec) salsa: habaneros, tomatoes, sour oranges – very spicy.

Classic dishes

Cochinita pibil: one of the Yucatan’s most famous dishes; suckling pig rubbed with achiote recado, wrapped in banana leaves and slow cooked – traditionally, in a pit.

Empanadas: pastry dough most often filled with beef or cheese, fried.

Frijoles con puerco: pork and black bean stew, seasoned with epazote and chilis.

Huevos motulenos: breakfast dish of tortillas topped with black bean paste, fried eggs, green peas, cubed ham, cheese, and salsa.

Panuchos: half-fried corn tortillas stuffed with beans and topped with chicken, cheese, avocado, and pickled onions. Salbutes are similar, but don’t have the beans.

Papadzules: chopped hard-boiled eggs wrapped in corn tortillas dipped in pumpkin seed, recado, topped with salsa mexicana.

Pastores: pork cut into thin strips and marinated in adobo sauce, skewered and cooked over low flame, then piled on soft tacos with onions and sometimes pineapple.

Pescado Tikinxic: fish rubbed with achiote recado and charbroiled or baked in banana leaves.

Poc-chuc: pork marinated in sour orange sauce and achiote recado, then grilled.

Pollo pibil: chicken rubbed with achiote recado, wrapped in banana leaves and cooked slowly, traditionally in a pit.

Quesadillas: flour tortillas with cheese and other ingredients, baked or fried until the cheese melts.

Queso relleno: hollowed-out Edam or Gouda cheese stuffed with spicy minced pork or beef mixed with raisins, olives, almonds and spices, then steamed until the stuffing is runny. Served in slices covered with cream sauce.

Sopa de lima: soup of chicken or turkey with vegetables, flavored with lime and a touch of habanero pepper.

Tamales: steamed corn dumplings pressed into a corn husk, then filled (often with pork) and steamed.

Drinks

Aguas frescas: water with pulped fruits (watermelon, cantelope, mangoes, tamarind, etc.) and sugar. Ask if the water is bottled.

Horchata: blend of finely ground rice, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, and sometimes milk; non-alcoholic.

Micheladas: dark Yucatan beer such as Negra Modelo mixed with lemon or lime juice, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, and Tabasco.

Xtabentun: alcoholic liqueur (30%!) made with honey, rum and anise seed; like very sweet Sambuca or ouzo with a honey aftertaste. Used in Mayan coffee.

For the meek

Empanadas or quesadillas with cheese, sopa de lima.

For the bold

Xnipec salsa: the hottest the restaurant offers (perhaps on panuchos)

For the digestively challenged

Low carb & diabeticcochinita pibil, pollo pibil, pescado tikinxic, poc-chuc, queso relleno

Low fatpescado tikinxic, pollo pibil, sopa de lima

Vegetarians: perhaps a nopal cactus salad (ensalada de nopales) – check the menu for ingredients