Yucatan Peninsula Foods Mix Mayan With European Influences to Create Delicious Cuisine

Mexican food evokes images of refried beans and tacos, but there are distinct regional differences. The cultural foods of the Yucatan Peninsula include unique recipes with a Mayan and European history.
By John Jacobs

Do you know what makes Mexican food … well … Mexican? There are Mexican restaurants in almost every city and town, and often the menus are similar from restaurant to restaurant. There are tacos, refried beans, burritos and other popular foods that make diners crave a "no. 7 combination plate."

The truth about Mexican food that has not been Americanized is that authentic Mexican food is varied because there are multiple regions throughout the country, and each region has a unique food culture.

The traditional Yucatan Peninsula food has its roots in the culture of the indigenous Mayan and was heavily influenced by European settlers. The result are foods that are diverse, unique and often surprising.

Food Reality
The ancient Mayans found their way to the Yucatan Peninsula around 2500 B.C., and Europeans first arrived in 1517. These two groups of people have had the most influence on the food of the Yucatan Peninsula.

Most of the peninsula is Mexican, with the rest being part of Belize and Guatemala, and this is why people think of Yucatecan cuisine as being nearly identical to the stereotypical Mexican food in general. The reality is quite different. The food in this area is unique because of the unusual combination of Mayan and European influences.

A good example is cochinita pibil, which fuses Mayan and mostly Spanish ingredients, some by way of the Caribbean. This is one of the most familiar dishes in the Yucatan. Cochinita means suckling pig, and pibil is a Mayan word for underground. Putting the words together, cochinita pibil is pork wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in the traditional Mayan way – in an underground oven. The pork is marinated in bitter orange juice, and the seeds of the achiote tree are used for seasoning. Livestock like cattle, pigs and goats were introduced to Mexico by the Spanish explorers.

Before the various European meats were introduced to the peninsula, Mayans ate food like beans, corn, squash, tomatoes and chili peppers. They did cook wild game and turkey, but the introduction of pork, beef and lamb into the diet added much more variety. The Spanish conquistadors also brought cheese, nuts, spices and sugar cane.

Mayan cooks combined everything to create unique and delicious recipes. Poc chuc are pork slices marinated in sour orange juice and topped with pickled onions, and cooks stuff peppers with Dutch Edam cheese. Turkey remains the most common meat eaten in homes.

Habanero on the Side
There are common ingredients found in many of the Yucatan recipes.

Annatto seed from the achiote tree is one. It gives food a reddish colour and is used in pastes and marinades. The paste is used as a marinade for Yucatecan tamales that are filled with chicken or pork and cooked underground or in an oven. Recado rojo is the most common spice mix and is made from crushed achiote seeds with liquid added. Recados or spice mixes are made in various ways to serve different purposes, like as a thickener or a rub.

Habanero peppers are commonly found in meals but are often served as an accompaniment. For example, cochinita pibil can be served with tacos and habaneros on the side.

Tropical fruits are also commonly used in salsas. Common fruits include tamarind, avocados, bitter oranges, mamey and plums. Seville oranges are used in many recipes, like chile tamulado which is a puree of raw habanero and sour orange juice.

At one time, the Mayan diet consisted mostly of vegetables and turkey, and some fish for those living on the coast. Today, the common vegetables, besides corn, are zucchini, black and espelones beans, squash, tomatoes, and chaya. Chaya is like Swiss chard and is cooked alone or with eggs, and brewed as tea.

It should be noted that there are some foods in the Yucatan that were influenced by Lebanese immigrants at the beginning of the 20th century. One of the most familiar is the taco al pastor which is like a gyro. Other Middle Eastern foods include dolmas wrapped in chaya and kibbeh made with beef instead of lamb.

Food of the Gods
To the delight of chocolate lovers, the Mayans called chocolate the "food of the gods." The chocolate was (and is) made from the seeds of the cacao tree. Hot chocolate is served with cinnamon and crushed almonds.

Some of the more unusual foods of the Yucatan are basically deep-fried pig, like chicharrones or deep-fried pork rinds. That may not sound unusual because Americans can purchase bags of pork rinds in grocery stores. In the Yucatan, the chicharrones are the base for a meat salad. Tsi'ik is shredded meat to which radishes and vegetables are added. The salad is served with a sour orange dressing and a garnish of chives and cilantro. Tsi'ik is just one type of meat salad, which gives people a way to use meat leftovers.

The Yucatan does have some familiar sounding Mexican food like tamales, but even in this case, there are unique differences. One is that most tamales are wrapped in banana leaves instead of corn husks. Another difference is how some of the regional tamales are made. Tamales colados is made with dough that is strained, making it smooth. A gravy filling is mixed into the dough, creating a tamale like no other.

Dzotobichay is a tamale made with masa and lard, and seasoned with habanero and achiote. The tamale is filled with pumpkin seeds and wrapped in chaya leaf. Served with a sauce, it is an unforgettable culinary experience.

It is remarkable that the influence of the ancient Maya remains so strong in the recipes of the Yucatan Peninsula. Once the uniqueness of this region's food is understood, the term "Mexican food" takes on new meaning. Many of the dishes served in the Yucatan are also healthy because they are filled with vegetables and served with fruit salsas.

There is no doubt that the ancient Mayans continue to influence modern people, and that too is a remarkable fact.