I knew I was on to something. The street markets with the freshest produce sold with more joy than anywhere I’ve ever seen in the U.S. to the smoked meats of the carneceria – home away from home for this butcher’s son – launched my fourth excursion to discover more of the flavors, aromas and textures of cuisine in the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico.
Big mistake, however, to take my gringo travel partner, Chris, who doesn’t speak Spanish and isn’t very adventurous to the carneceria, or butcher shop, before eating what ended up being my favorite dish of the entire trip, Pollo Asado. Chris enjoyed the dish but I think he would have liked it better without the preview!
Chicken marinated in citrus juices, allspice, garlic and black pepper and grilled over charcoal, Pollo Asado is a dish served from end to end of the peninsula. From the smallest pueblito with 100 residents to the largest towns, it is the pervasive dish in the region. While each locale may offer a slight variation, it is always marinated in citrus and always grilled. I’m offering a version of this dish at my Flavors of the Yucatán cooking class at Nothing To It in March.
I have to say one of the coolest things about visiting Mexico is the regionality of the food. Panucho, a refried tortilla layered with refried black beans, pulled chicken, pork or any meat, tomatoes, avocado (the freshest you can possibly imagine) and pickled red onions and jalapenos, topped with chopped cabbage, is seldom found outside the Yucatán. It is the inspiration for my own panucho style appetizer with corn tortilla stuffed with tahini, topped with hot smoked salmon seasoned with coriander and peppercorns, garnished with pickled red onion and radish.
The most unique regional food I ate on this trip, Pan De Cazón — baby dogfish shark chopped up and layered on corn tortillas with black beans and a sweet tomato sauce, is something local to Campeche. They fish for the dogfish sharks in the port of Campeche on the Gulf Coast.
We stopped in Pomuch, a pueblo known for its bakeries. For 50 pesos, or a little less than $2.50 USD, we purchased some amazing breads to munch on our way to find Mayan ruins in Chichen Itza, known to have been one of the largest Mayan cities. Vaporcitos con Pavo (little steamed tamales with turkey) for breakfast and Monjitos de Congrejo (stone crab) for lunch set the stage for the Pollo Asada at Los Pajaros, one of those awesome little eateries known for its hospitality.
The Yucatán Peninsula is a study in contrasts. It’s no more than 250 miles long, but in those miles, you drive through every ecosystem from desert to rain forest. Americans and Europeans are seldom seen on these two-lane highways. We purposely looked for small eateries and seafood stands alongside the ocean. We stopped at one in Champoton about 40 miles south of Campeche, visibly startling the owner!
She peered at us through a window and I asked for a table in my rough and basic Spanish. She broke into a broad smile and seated us immediately. I asked her, in Spanish, to make us her favorite dishes and she proudly served us ceviche and Caldo de Mariscos (seafood soup with octopus). Chris had a ham sandwich.
I can’t wait to go back and continue my exploration. I’ve covered maybe 80% of the Yucatán and will head into Tabasco and Oaxaca next. The people of the Yucatán are the nicest, coolest people I’ve ever met — so very generous and welcoming. Many live in poverty in cinderblock buildings, cooking over wood fires outside, without the creature comforts we take for granted. But they share what they do have. People living on 1,000 pesos, around $50 USD, a month, use everything available to them – nothing is wasted and everything is shared.
It’s a life lesson for all of us!