November has arrived and we have satisfied our craving for corn Masa with abundant helpings of Hanal Pixán Mucbilpollos, chased down with countless Tums. We have sworn we won’t eat another Tamal (at least for a year) and we can now turn our culinary attention elsewhere.
On this occasion, we’ll leave out the usual and well-known favorites and move into more unfamiliar territory. It is high time we brought into the light some of the more “exotic” items on the Yucatecan menu, including those that may be challenging for some to swallow, so to speak, let alone read about. Continue at your own risk.
One of the reasons why there are such interesting creatures on the menu is because (fact alert) apparently México has 23% more mammal species (barring whales) than the U.S. and Canada combined in an area only 10% as large. Researchers say this is because of the vast variety of biomes (habitats, climes) throughout this country. These range from lowland tropical rainforest, to deserts, mountain forests, and alpine tundra.
But, enough with the scientific facts – let’s eat!
Game, gamey, and wild
There are animals that are considered endemic to the tropical forest of the Yucatán Peninsula and that have, since colonial and earlier Maya times, formed part of the diet of many a villager. These animals, that appear on European or North American restaurant menus under the exotic designation “game” include deer and the local “hairless pig” variety. These items would be considered a luxury in a snazzy Paris brasserie and a staple in many tiny Yucatán villages.
The hairless pig known as Box Kekén (black pig in Maya), is often raised non-commercially and free-rangingly* in backyards and small family farms; and is a descendant of the Iberian, Asian, and Celtic varieties brought by the Spaniards 500 years ago. It has evolved to be highly resistant to diseases and features a notably lower amount of fat. The difference in flavor between a factory farm-raised pig and the hairless pig is notable, as are the health benefits of not ingesting steroids, hormones, and lord knows what else. Both Poc Chuc and Cochinita Pibil are two classic dishes that showcase this difference in both flavor and texture.
If you have ever been to a small village in Yucatán where the men have hunted and brought home a deer, you might have been lucky enough to taste a chunk, freshly extracted from among the blackened cooking stones of a Pib. It’s chewy and you will be glad to have packed that dental floss to be sure, but the flavor is sublime. If you take that cooked venison and painstakingly hand-shred the meat, you will be on your way to preparing a unique local dish called Dzic de Venado, In this dish, the meat is served cold and is combined with chopped onion, radish, cilantro, and sour orange juice, accompanied by the ever-present habanero chile and fresh corn tortillas, preferably hand-made in the moment.
These two examples are the most common, but also on the informal menu in many villages one can find rabbit, armadillo, and iguana.
Rabbit? Who knew that while those of us here in the city pay through the nose for something as exotic as rabbit, in the rural areas this is as simple as grabbing a shotgun and, as Elmer Fudd would say, “catching a wascally wabbit.”
Bunnies are, at least to some of us, not a particularly exotic protein option. It’s on some menus in the more daring restaurants in North America and completely normal in Europe. Getting over the cute factor is a challenge, but once you have that out of the way…you’re good to go.
But iguanas? Armadillos? These are definitely not cute and have probably not graced your table recently.
Iguanas – those lizard-like mini-dinosaurs that bob their heads up and down and scamper suddenly from under your feet at Uxmal – are caught, cleaned via a serious scrubbing, gutted, and spread out on a grill. Once the white meat has been cooked, it can be served up in a fresh tortilla, or mixed with tomatoes, onions, and lime or sour orange to eat Ceviche-like with tostadas.
There are recipes online for armadillo, known in Maya as Huech or Wech, and in the state of Tabasco, where anything that moves is edible, Jueche, clearly a term lifted from the Maya language. I have not tried armadillo. The idea of ripping off its shell and slicing it up somehow doesn’t make me feel like eating. But folks who have mention a marine-like taste, which means that it tastes like funky, slightly overdue fish.
If you’ve had grasshoppers in the state of Oaxaca or eaten frozen ants in the Brazilian Amazon, you will want to try this next tidbit. Yucatán has a few delicacies of this sort worth seeking out. This one is called Ni Chac.
In our dry tropical forest, you can find all manner of creatures, many of which are edible, and yes, these include insects. In this case, we are focusing on those that fly; namely wasps. They lay their eggs in hand shaped vertical-hanging hives, which can be picked off the branches they are attached to.
With great care as to not get stung too much, the hives are popped into a bag brought along for that purpose, and taken back home. There, the hives are dropped onto the Comal, a flat metal griddle placed on three stones over a fire, which toasts and dries the hive. The little white larvae then become loose, making it easy to shake them free and/or pick them out individually to place in a bowl. The space under your fingernails will be black and supremely attractive – don’t worry about it.
Mixed with tomato and lime, they are eaten Ceviche-style in warm corn tortillas or with a corn tostada. I admit I was squeamish about trying this novelty item, but with everyone looking and the feeling that this was a delicacy, I bit into my larvae taco with what I hope looked like enthusiasm. The taste was predominantly lime and tomato, with a meat-like substance thrown in, but without much flavor. Trying one on its own, I was able to confirm the larva’s lack of flavor along with the squishy texture of chewing it for a short time, then quickly swallowing it down.
“¿Quiere algo para tomar?” I was asked, and my host held up a glass and a bottle of cold Coca Cola.
“Si, por favor,” I replied and resumed attacking my taco.
*Yes, I occasionally make up words.
Editorial by Ralf Hollmann
Author of Modern Yucatan Dictionary
Founder of Mayan Xic
Director of Lawson’s Original Yucatán Excursions
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