Eat your heart out in the Yucatán
The Yucatán Peninsula and especially the state capital Mérida is a safe and beautiful city with an all-year-round tropical climate, laid-back people who are incredibly hospitable, many historical sites of cultural importance and beyond all an incredible and unique cuisine that is considered different to the rest of Mexico. I had no difficulty in finding places to eat that offered good, cheap food with excellent service. From home-style taco stands to gourmet restaurants, you will be hard-pressed to keep those extra kilos off your waist BUT the diet always starts tomorrow, right? So without further ado, here is a list (by no means exhaustive) of the 7 typical Yucatecan dishes that I strongly urge you should NOT leave the Yucatán Peninsula without trying:
1. Sopa de lima:
Although it seems counter intuitive to have hot soup in the warm climate of the Yucatán Peninsula, this delicious lime soup is very light and refreshing with prevalent notes of lime which accounts for the citrus base. This lightly spiced soup is normally accompanied by shredded chicken, skinned tomatoes, coriander, diced onion and fried strips of tortilla that add a crunchy element to the dish. I normally added the juice of 2 or 3 more limes to really amp up the citrus flavour and that extra hit made it really difficult to put down my spoon.
If you find yourself in the Yucatán Peninsula during the month of November, you will be lucky enough to try pib. It is normally prepared to celebrate the Day of the Dead during the Hanal Pixan, which is a Mayan tradition of offering food and drink to the deceased. It is a dish predominantly made out of masa (a starchy, corn-based dough), filled with chicken, pork, beans and other vegetables, wrapped in banana leaves and cooked slowly underground. The best part about pib is no doubt, the crunchy edges that are slightly burnt during the cooking process.
3. Relleno negro:
On first glance, relleno negro seems hardly edible or fit for human consumption. It is definitely not the most visually appetising dish whatsoever. However, don’t let appearances deter you and make sure you try this fascinating, slightly spicy, traditional Yucatecan dish. As implied by its name, relleno negro is completely black, almost like charcoal, which apparently is due to the toasted chillies. It is ideally served with turkey but I tried mine with chicken and it tasted perfectly delicious. It’s also served with hard-boiled eggs and a special type of giant meatball where the meat is covering an egg. I had mine with tortillas but you cant also have them as tortas (rolls) or tacos.
4. Tortas de lechón:
As mentioned above, tortas are basically french bread rolls with meat and vegetable fillings. You can have tortas of everything, from the classic ham and cheese to the delicious, juicy lechón strips. Lechón refers to suckling pig and although it sounds cruel, the meat is deliciously rich, juicy and falling apart from being soaked in its own fat and juices. Pair this with a crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside, freshly baked bread roll, topped off with crunchy, pickled red onions and you have a flavour explosion in your mouth.
5. Cochinita Pibil:
A ‘must-try Yucatecan dishes’ list would not be complete without the mention of Cochinita pibil. Cochinita is without a doubt, the most famous dish of the Yucatán. It is a slow-roasted pork dish marinated in orange juice or any other acidic citrus and other spices, which is then wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in an underground oven. Like the lechón, it can be eaten as tortas or tacos with pickled red onion or with freshly made corn tortillas and refried beans. Unfortunately, I was disappointed numerous times with the cochinita as the meat was too dry for my liking.
Marquesitas are like crispy, paper thin wafers rolled up with your choice of topping/s and can be made either savoury or sweet. The mixture is poured out thinly on a special marquesita hot plate which is then pressed down to form its thin and light texture. Once it has crisped up, they then add the toppings, which are normally grated Dutch edam cheese with cajeta (Mexican caramel made from goat’s cheese), Nutella, chocolate or jam. They are incredibly crispy until the final bite and you have to take care not to waste the shards of wafer that tend to go everywhere. I first tried marquesitas at Progreso, a port city around 45 minutes drive from the state capital Mérida. The boardwalk along the beach is full of carts placed every 3 metres from each other, advertising marquesitas. With so many carts, it can be difficult to select one where you can actually try a decent marquesita, but thanks to the tips from my host mother, it doesn’t have to be all hit or miss. Rule 1: Make sure the vendor is clean or at least has clean hands. Rule 2: Head for the cart that has a queue. Simple, right? The best part about marquesitas is the price. 20 pesos ($1.65AUD) for one topping and 25 pesos ($2.05AUD) for two toppings.
For those wondering whether sorbets are worthy of being on this list, they clearly haven’t tried the deliciously, fruity, fine sorbets of El Colón. While exploring Paseo Montejo in Mérida, there will be one place that will immediately grab your attention with the tables outside and inside filled with people enjoying heaping mounds of sorbet. So naturally, being a huge lemon sorbet fan, I had to try. There is a multitude of flavours to choose from, including dairy-free options, such as strawberry, lemon, banana, coconut, peach, corn etc. The lemon sorbet was my boyfriend’s and my personal favourite and the reason sorbet became a weekly Saturday ritual for us. It was punchy with a strong lemon flavour, incredibly refreshing and so addictive. They’re 36 pesos ($3AUD) each and come with a glass of complimentary water. El Colón also has traditional cookies, sweets and milkshakes. You can also find them in Mérida’s Centro (opposite the Cathedral) and in Gran Plaza.