A trip to Yucatán is fabulous for exploring beaches, archaeological sites, and nature, but also the scents and flavors of the delicious local cuisine which has been named as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Yucatán. The variety found in contemporary Yucatecan cooking is a result of mixing Maya ingredients and techniques – such as underground ovens – with Spanish and Cuban influences.
Here are some flavors and dishes that you can sample on your next visit to Yucatán, and that will stay in your heart forever.
Habanero Chili Pepper
Even though it’s one of the spiciest chilis in the world, it’s a basic ingredient that’s used in the salsas that accompany pretty much every Yucatecan meal. Habanero adds a little zing to tomato sauces and beans, or it is prepared in Xnipec along with chopped tomato, cilantro, and onion. If you’re really adventurous, you can bite right in.
Xcatic Chili Pepper
This pale yellow, long, and thin chili has a hint of spice and is a key ingredient when making Pavo en Escabeche and cream dips that are served as snacks.
This is a leafy green that grows along walls and in Yucatecan backyards. In Maya it’s known as Chaykol or Xchay. It’s used in Vaporcitos and Tamales, in cheese-stuffed Empanadas, in scrambled eggs, and blended into Aguas Frescas. It has many nutritional properties that make it a Yucatecan superfood.
Along the coast, you can enjoy coconut water and scoop out the pulp directly from the fruit; but you can also find it as the star ingredient in confections, custards, ice creams, cakes, beverages, or even in fish and seafood dishes.
Citrics: Sour Orange and Lime
Naranja Agria or sour orange is another essential ingredient for dishes such as Cochinita Pibil, soups, and Aguas Frescas. Its juice is used as a marinade for meats like Poc Chuc. Regarding the Yucatecan lime or Lima, these are less bitter and slightly sweet. They’re mainly used in Sopa de Lima, another superstar dish that combines turkey or chicken with garlic, onion, cilantro, and lime juice.
A stingless bee which is endemic to the state – the Melipona – makes this prized honey which is renowned for its properties. It’s sold in small jars so that you can enjoy it as a sweetener.
Pepita, or Pumpkin Seed
Mainly, it is used in two very traditional dishes: Brazo de Reina and Papadzules. In the first dish, Pepita and tomato sauces are served over an egg and Chaya-based tamal. Papadzules are prepared by dipping tortillas in a smooth Pepita sauce, and then stuffing them with chopped eggs or veggies.
This is perhaps the best known (and most beloved) dish in Yucatecan cuisine. It features ingredients – like Achiote – and techniques – such as wrapping food in banana leaves and baking it in the underground oven – inherited from the ancient Maya civilization; and combines them with pork which was imported from Spain during Colonial times. Eaten in tacos or tortas, and always accompanied by pickled onions and habanero chili, Cochinita Pibil is a breakfast staple.
Achiote deserves special mention. It’s used to add a distinctive flavor and color, not just to this dish, but many others.
Frijol con Puerco
A tradition that lives on in today’s Yucatecan homes is that every Monday, Frijol con Puerco is served for lunch; however, you can find it most days in restaurants statewide. It’s made with black beans and chunks of cooked pork; it is served with a roasted tomato sauce known as Chiltomate, radishes, cilantro, onion, and habanero chili. On Mondays you can also find a very unique ice cream inspired by this dish at Pola Gelato.
This delicacy is originally from Valladolid. It’s a pork sausage flavored with achiote, vinagre, pepper, clove, oregano, salt, cumin, and garlic. It’s grilled and eaten in tacos, or scrambled with eggs for breakfast.
Made with dried and charred chilis, pork, and turkey meat, it’s one of the most iconic dishes in the state. Here the spice blend known as Recado Negro is the main ingredient and gives the dish its distinctive color. It’s served with stewed turkey meat and But – large meatballs stuffed with egg. Very unique, and very Yucatecan.
This is one of the signature flavors at Sorbetería Colón. The recipe includes milk, guayaba paste, vanilla, cinnamon, candied egg yolks, and rum. Order it as a Sorbete (a scoop of ice cream) or as a Champola (served with milk).
Rice horchata is a classic beverage that also includes cinnamon, almonds, sugar, and water. People drink it at breakfast, lunch, and dinner; and always serve it with lots of ice.
A sweet yet savory crunchy dream. Cut into squares or triangles, this dessert features layers of puff pastry stuffed with ham and cheese in its original version. This combination of tastes and textures have made it a classic at Yucatecan bakeries.
Editorial by Violeta H. Cantarell
“Meridana,” traveler, animal lover, passionate reader, commentator, and enthusiastic promoter of the natural and human beauty of Yucatán.
Photographies by Museo de la Gastronomía Yucateca, Loboluna Producciones, and Yucatán Today s for use in Yucatán Today.
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