One of the great joys of living in Yucatán is the absolutely wonderful gastronomy. Much is made of the ingredients, the condiments, the methods used, which are all quite different from what we would expect when thinking of Mexican food.
One cooking method, an ancient form of food preparation common to many cultures, is what the Maya call the “pib,” or earth oven. In fact, food cooked in this manner in Yucatán usually references the oven in its name; like Cochinita Pibil or Pollo Pibil.
Also known as cooking pits, they are used by many peoples around the world including the Maori Hangi, the Fijian Iovo, and more recently, citizens of New England for their clam bakes.
The technique, in case you are not familiar with it, goes something like this: a very hot fire is built in a rectangular almost coffin-shaped pit filled with a layer of firewood covered by a layer of stones. The stones heat up from the fire underneath and end up on the floor of the pit as the wood is burned away. On these hot stones, a rectangular tin box is placed, containing the food to be cooked. The pit is then covered, usually by corrugated metal roofing panels, and finally sealed with earth.
What is being cooked determines the cooking time, which can range from a few hours to up to 22 hours in the case of pork Cochinita or Lechón.
There are few limits to what can be cooked in this way. The most well-known items here are Cochinita Pibil, Pollo Pibil, and Lechón, all well known and delectable pork or chicken specialties, and of course the Mucbilpollo, a large baked Tamal made especially for the Hanal Pixan (Day of the Dead) festivities. Perhaps you have just hunted a deer and need to cook a leg of venison. But counter-intuitively you can also cook semi-liquid items like Frijol con Puerco, Pozole, turkey in Relleno Negro, and even a fish dish called Tikin-xic, a marinated and banana-leaf wrapped fish of your choice baked this way to delicious perfection.
There is more to it than simply a pit, some food, some rocks and some heat. In many cases, branches of local trees called Jabín or Roble are added before sealing the pit so that the heat may make the leaves and branches smolder, adding smoke and flavor to the food being prepared. The wood used for the fire is also important so it burns at the correct rate – not too fast, not too slow – to heat up those rocks properly. The most common woods used are Chukum and Catzín. The stones, about the size of two hands, will, after much use and reuse, need to be replaced as they will start breaking down.
The tradition goes back to ancient Maya times and is an efficient way of cooking large amounts of food without too much intervention. There is time to perform a ceremony and prepare other aspects of a feast without having to constantly check and stir the contents of pots.
Nowadays, the pib is used when it is a special occasion. A baptism, birthday, or other celebration, usually of a family nature, is when cooking something underground is called for. In general, these feasts, like the event they are accompanying, are family affairs and as such, overseen by the senior women of the family. They are the ones in charge of organizing the cooking, from preparing the food to be cooked to preparing the oven. The men are in charge of all things physical, like cutting and stocking the firewood, cleaning the pit, arranging rocks, wood and tin, shoveling earth, and removing tin when the food is done.
In the case of a commercial enterprise that specializes in Yucatecan food cooked this way, it is not uncommon that the men running the business also run everything related to the cooking and pib preparation. These pibs are used on a regular basis: every two-three days or every weekend.
Thankfully, the use of the pib is once again becoming something that is more visible and accessible to everyone, not just for those of us lucky enough to know or be related to someone in one of the villages. More and more Mérida restaurants are now featuring Yucatecan menus with food prepared in an authentic pib, and some are even installing the pib right there for all to see.
If the opportunity presents itself, try to be there at the moment when the food is being taken out of the pib, that exquisite moment when the scent of hot earth, fragrant smoke and mouth-watering food combine to provide you with a truly sublime and unforgettable Yucatán experience.
Editorial by Ralf Hollmann
Photography by Yucatán Today for use in Yucatán Today
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