Yucatecan cooking: Don’t call it Mexican.
People on this peninsula will be quick to tell you that they are Yucatecan, not Mexican; their food also has a flavor very different from what’s found elsewhere in the country. The region’s dense jungles yield wild rabbits, turkeys, and quail, the primary sources of protein along with fish from the Gulf coast. The influence of the early Maya is very much alive here: many popular dishes, such as sikil p’aak and cháamchamitos (a kind of tamales) still go by their Mayan names.
Crops like corn, squash, beans, cacao, and vanilla, which form the foundation of the Maya cuisine, were grown here long before the first Europeans arrived. Yet despite their staunch regionalism, Yucatecan cooks have still absorbed many influences from the Spanish, Dutch, and Lebanese (who came in large numbers during years of turmoil that preceded World War I). The Yucatecan larder is incredibly diverse, reflecting the region's rich history. Here are a handful of ingredients that help define this distinctive cuisine.
Achiote—Ancient Maya used these seeds to make brilliant red ink, fabric dye, body paint, and to enrich the color of chukwa, their sacred chocolate drink. Today achiote is primarily used as a food coloring in tamales and rice, and for recado rojo, one of the region’s signature spice blends.
Chile habanero—Among the hottest chiles in the world, these fiery, fruity peppers are eaten at almost every Yucatecan meal.
Mamey sapote—These fruits have a fuzzy brown skin and a vivid coral-colored flesh. Soft and sweet, their flavor lands somewhere between a peach and a cantaloupe. They’re pureed in drinks and a wide range of sweets, including milkshakes and sorbets.
Pepitas—Squash seeds are as important to Yucatecan cooks as the squash itself. They appear in savory sauces and desserts, and are the main ingredient in the Maya pumpkin seed dip known as sikil p’aak (see our sikil p'aak recipe).
Sour oranges—The Spanish brought these bitter fruits to the region in the 1500s, and they quickly became a staple. Also known as Seville oranges, they're used in many salsas and to season the grilled pork cutlets known as poc chuc, one of the peninsula’s most famous dishes.