Food in the Yucatan Peninsula

Being foodies, we always pay a lot of attention (maybe too much attention?) to the cuisine of places we visit. What do local people eat, and when and how do they eat it? What do the local specialties taste like?

Although you can find staples such as tacos, quesadillas, salsas, and guacamole just about anywhere in Mexico, this country is known for its distinct regional cuisines. We’ve found that food in the Yucatan Peninsula, strongly influenced by the area’s Maya heritage, is mild and very appealing.

Yucatecan cuisine rulies heavily on spice pastes (often including a mild-flavored, red-tinted seed called achiote) and citrus (lime and orange). There are all of the usual meats, such as chicken, pork, and beef—sometimes grilled, sometimes baked in a banana-leaf bundle. Near the coasts, there is also plenty of good seafood.

As in most of Mexico, corn is important here. Tortillas are generally made of corn (though some touristy places also serve the flour ones popular in the United States). Yucatecan tamales are meat wrapped in corn dough and baked in banana leaves; corn meal is used to thicken soups; and roasted corn is a favorite street food.

Vegetables, however, are relatively scarce in the Yucatan. We’ve seen only onions, peppers, and a little squash in cooked dishes. Carrots, radishes, and lettuce or cabbage are sometimes served raw as taco toppings. Sliced onions pickled to a bright pink hue are a common condiment. Despite the disconcerting color, they taste fine.

What it lacks in vegetables, Yucatecan cuisine makes up in fruit. There is wonderful fruit everywhere! In every town and village, vendors sit on corners peeling fresh fruit to sell in small bags or cups. Oranges, limes, grapefruits, mangos, papayas, pineapples, coconuts, watermelons, cantaloupes, and other things we don’t recognize.

Nearly every restaurant or taco stand sells a range of fresh-squeezed juices and aguas de frutas (fresh fruit and water mixed in a blender until it’s frothy—super refreshing on a hot day!!). Locals seem to drink more agua de fruta than anything else, including alcohol. In fact, a selection of beers, cocktails, or hard liquor is a sure sign of a tourist place. Teetotaling Melissa is in heaven with such a wide range of yummy drinks that would be ruined by alcohol back home!

Here are a few local specialties:

  • Cochinita pibil—pork marinated in achiote, orange juice, peppercorn, garlic, and cumin and then baked in banana leaves
  • Panuches—handmade corn tortillas stuffed with refried beans and covered with shredded meat, that pink pickled onion, and lettuce or avacado
  • Sopa de lima—a soup of turkey stock with shredded turkey meat, strips of fried tortillas, and lots of lime
  • Gringas—we knew what the word meant (the female of gringo, a catch-all term for white North American/European folks), but we weren’t sure what it was doing on a menu. Can you really order up white women? So we asked a local for a translation. It turns out that besides us, gringas are also tacos in white-flour tortillas.

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