Tastes of Yucatan

chopped chilis for yucatan cooking
Photo by Mike Petrucci

Alanna and I have made plenty of meals from Barbara Hansen’s classic cookbook “Mexican Cookery” that we bought after coming home from many travels in Mexico.We had done well by using her wonderful recipes but after 30 years since being in the back roads of Yucatan we thought it might just be time to go back and refresh our memories with the real thing.

We set out on a 10 day trip that took us into the heart of Yucatan in search of food, and we found much more.

Our first stop was in Cancun on a direct Westjet flight from Edmonton. Cancun is on the Yucatan peninsula, but it’s not in the State of Yucatan. It’s really in the State of Quintana Roo. (This small factor can be quite confusing when you’re planning around bus schedules and airline departures because once you cross the state border into Yucatan, not far away, the time zone changes to one hour earlier.)

We had obtained some pesos in advance so we went directly to the auto transport bays outside terminal 3 and bought two tickets to downtown. Fancy resorts not for us this time. We chose a small hotel across the street from the ADO bus terminal called the Hotel Plaza Caribe. It was terrific for location and relatively quiet even though there was a lot of traffic.  The hotel was a typical well worn Mexican establishment serving travelers and locals, not the package vacation trade.Staff friendly, check in easy, room clean, need some TLC. We felt safe there

That evening, the restaurant at Plaza Caribe proved to be exactly what we’d expected, with standard Mexican favourites like enchildadas verde and pollo a la plancha. Good staple food. Breakfast the next day was about the same, but for one thing. The restaurant was full with a lively group of Mexican bus tourists that reminded me how socially stunted we North Americans can be around meal time. Meals in Mexico are as much social affairs as they are eating events. In fact, most of life in Mexico is social and even though there is a deep love affair there, as everywhere, with smart phones.

After a run around buying a new battery for my watch and locating a good place to change dollars to pesos we embarked on the start of our journey to a town we visited once before, and have wanted to revisit ever since.

It takes about 2 hours to go by bus or car from Cancun to Valladolid on the toll freeway. This is a nice looking city with very good street signs and a more or less grid layout. There is some encroachment of the ugly north American cul de sac culture and gated communities but mostly the original city plan dominates. The central part of Valladolid hosts several buildings of the colonial style and has some nice parks and public spaces. The city square, the zocalo, is alive with people: street food vendors, news magazine sellers, shoe shiners and park benches with people resting in the mid-day heat. Our stop was to a random restaurant on the perimeter of the zocalo in the Hotel Maria de la Luz.

I ordered a plate of panuchos and Alanna ordered the pibil yucateca. These are two standard items in our home menu typical to Yucatan and we wanted to taste how our home cooking compared.

Panuchos are tortillas with a topping. The recipe we use is called panuchos Merida and uses a wonderful preparation of red onions called cebollas Yucatecas and the meal I had a lunch was very similar to Barabra Hansen’s recipe.

Later when I was following up on this story I found another great looking recipe by Mexico’s Sonia Ortiz from her youtube channel Cocina al Natural. It’s in Spanish but you can follow it pretty easily. The red paste she uses at the beginning can be found in Mexican grocers here called Achiote and the meat she is using is chicken that’s been flattened gently. She makes a standard recipe for the tortillas made of Maseca corn flour that you can buy at any Mexican grocer or large supermarket with a good selection of Mexican foods. The rest is pretty self evident.

This is a very tasty snack that usually turns into meal. The recipe in Barbara Hansen’s book puts a layer of black refried beans on the tortilla and uses the cebollas Yucatecas that Sonia pre-made. The result of our taste comparison? Our panuchos stood up well, but we have to adjust our tortilla mix a bit. The tortilla should be slightly crispy on the outside and steamy soft on the inside. When you bite in you should get this release of flavour of the masa joining the mix of chicken, beans, onions and other garnishes. This is not a powerful, spicy, up front blast of tastes but a complex arrangement of individual flavours and aromas.

For Alanna’s meal we also found our recipe very close to what she ate, which is once again a Yucatan classic. It is very tropical using spices, citrus juices, achiote and cebollas to flavour the chicken. As you’ll see in another video from Sonia, a key ingredient is banana leaves. These are hard to find locally. We used to have a potted banana plant that supplied leaves but it was lost in a cold Alberta winter one year.

This video should be fairly easy to follow, but you can get very similar recipe versions online. The mix of onion and achiote steamed with the chicken juices and citrus is marvelous.

This is a very tasty chicken preparation that uses less expensive cuts – legs rather than breast meat. Try it.

If you’d like to learn more about Yucatan cooking and foods in Mexico, stay in touch with me for any tours or events by adding your name to get blog updates, or if you are thinking of going to Mexico right now, contact me here.