Once a thriving Mayan Indian territory, the Yucatan Peninsula encompasses a wide region that includes the Mexican states of Yucatan, Campeche, and Quintana Roo (home to Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and the Riviera Maya). Although part of Mexico today, the region is still considered Mayan country and their influence lingers, from the ancient Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza to the fascinating flavors of Yucatecan cuisine.
Initially, the Yuctacea Maya cooked conservatively, using their principle agricultural food staples such as corn (maiz), beans, pumpkin, squash, tomatoes, chiles, avocados, tamarinds, guava, lime, and bitter orange − frequently used in Yucatecan salsas and marinades − other fruits, and seeds such as annatto − an essential ingredient in their traditional achiote marinade paste. Main sources of animal protein for the Maya were turkey, chicken, pork, eggs, and fish.
Eventually inheriting new foods, seasonings, and spices from the Spanish, French, Lebanese, Cuban, Caribbean, and other European settlers, the Yucateca Maya developed a spicy, tangy, citrusy cuisine with a tantalizing combination of flavors that burst in your mouth. Here are three traditional Yucatan recipes:
1.) Turkey Lime Soup − a great option for those holiday turkey leftovers.
- Skinless, cooked and chopped turkey (3 cups)
- Chicken broth (4, 14.5 ounce cans)
- Crushed garlic cloves (12)
- Large onions, trimmed and quartered (2)
- Whole cloves (4)
- Jalapeño pepper, quartered (1)
- Fresh cilantro, chopped (1/4 cup)
- Fresh lime juice (1/4 cup)
- Lime wedges, optional (4)
Combine crushed garlic, quartered onions, whole cloves, quartered jalapeño, and chicken broth in a Dutch oven and simmer over medium-to-high heat. Cover and cook for 30 minutes. Strain and save broth in a bowl with a colander, and discard the solids.
Pour the cooked broth into a pan, stirring in the chopped turkey, cilantro, and lime juice. Cook over low heat for 5 minutes or until thoroughly heated, and serve with warm, corn tortillas. Garnish with lime wedges.
2.) Pollo Pibil − variations using turkey, pork, and salmon are also popular in the Yucatan.
- Boneless, skinless chicken, quartered (2.5 to 4 lbs.)
- Garlic cloves (3)
- Onion, peeled and sliced (1)
- Tomatoes, sliced (4)
- Juice of bitter oranges* (4)
- Banana leaves (1 large or 2 small)
- Achiote** paste or red chile paste (2 tbsp.)
- Fresh epazote*** (1 sprig)
- Butter (1 cup)
Mix the achiote paste, orange juice, garlic, and salt well. Add the chicken and marinate for at least 2 hours, poking it with a fork for tenderness. After marinated, pre-heat the oven to 350° Fahrenheit (177° Celsius). (Note: The ancient Mayans baked them in a six-foot underground ‘pib,’ a hand-dug pit lined with stones and hot coals.) Place the mixture on top of the banana leaf, and top with tomatoes, onions, epazote, and small dollops of butter.
Fold the banana leaf over the mixture, rolling it over so the weight of the chicken keeps the leaf closed, and tie with an oven-safe string. Place the wrapped chicken in the oven on the top rack, on the lower rack, place an oven-safe bowl filled halfway with water. Bake for about 2 hours until tender. Remove chicken from the banana leaf, and serve with warm corn tortillas, fresh salsa, and pickled red onions.
* Bitter orange (Seville orange) or substitute equal parts of grapefruit juice, orange juice, lime juice, and white distilled vinegar.
** Achiote paste: slightly bitter, earthy flavor with red annatto seeds, spices, and tomato.
** Epazote (skunkweed): a pungent, slightly bitter herb with a hint of lemon flavor.
3.) Pickled Red Onions − a mild, tangy food staple at nearly every Yucatan table.
- Large, red onion, thinly sliced (1)
- Banana pepper, x’catik / guera (blonde) pepper: roasted, broiled, or charred (1)
- Bitter orange juice (1 cup)
- Bay leaves (2)
- Allspice, ground (1/4 tsp.)
- Black pepper, ground (1/4 tsp.)
- Sea salt or kosher salt (1/2 tsp. or ‘to taste’)
Mix the bitter orange juice, black pepper, allspice, and salt, adding the red onions and bay leaves. Roast, broil, or char the banana pepper in the broiler or on the grill for 3 to 6 minutes, turning once or twice until the skin is charred; then add to mixture. Toss and allow to pickle at room temperature for 1/2 to 2 hours. Cover and refrigerate (lasts up to 2 weeks).
At Hacienda Tres Ríos Resort, you can enjoy some Yucatan specialties at our Chef’s Table.