The Yucatán Peninsula is in the far southeast of Mexico; a piece of the north American continent that is bordered by the Gulf of Mexico to the north and west, and the Caribbean to the east. Yucatán is the heartland of the Mayans, and the distinct Yucatecan culture is strongly influenced by this. Like the rest of Mexico, Yucatán is full of bright colours, intense sunshine, and super spicy chillis.
The food we have been eating in the Yucatán is some of the best we’ve eaten for months (have a look at our other travel food stories if you’re interested in what else we’ve been eating). A lot of typical Yucatecan dishes are heavy, meaty and fried. As we don’t like heavy, meaty, fried food, we haven’t eaten most of these things, but we’ve found some other deliciously fresh, wholesome foods that we want to tell you all about! The flavours that typify our experience of Yucatecan food are maize, black beans, lime, avocado, chilli, tomato, queso fresco (a fresh semi-hard white cheese), and finely sliced sweet white onion.
We always love street food, and there are some quintessential Yucatecan street foods. One of these is the marquesita. As the afternoon wanes, street corners and plazas are gradually occupied by little hand- or motorcycle0-driven food carts with colourfully striped roofs.
Behind these stands, men (and they are almost all men, as far as we have seen) call out to passers by “marquesita, marquesita!”, and whip up delicious salty/sweet snacks throughout the evening. A sweet waffle-like batter is cooked into a thin pancake, pressed in a double-sided pan. Quickly, while it is still hot and soft, the pancake is filled with a selection of ingredients and rolled into a cylinder that quickly turns wafery and crispy as it cools. Marquesita vendors have an assortment of fillings, from cream cheese to chocolate spread, but they generally say (and we agree) that the best filling is simply grated hard salty cheese. This produces a crunchy tube of sweet, salty deliciousness that makes a perfect treat while wandering the streets in search of tacos or salsa dancing.
Historically, maize has been a really important grain in Mexico, and is still a staple for much of the country. There are countless cultivars of maize, but most are hard, starchy varieties rather than the soft sweet corn we generally eat at home. Maize is ground into flour for tortillas, steamed in banana leaves to make tamales and humitas, or cooked whole on the cob. Street food stands sell elotes – boiled maize, on or off the cob, served hot. Most people eat this with a decadent combination of sour cream, mayonnaise, cheese and chilli, but we prefer the simplicity of just chilli, lime and salt.
While not exclusively Yucatecan, we’ve really been getting into tacos. Tacos are fresh and wholesome and delicious. They involve soft maize tortillas, spoonfuls of black beans (or meat, but we’ve been sticking to vegetarian), piles of crisp, fresh raw vegetables, avocado, a little queso fresco, and an assortment of tasty salsas made from different chillis combined with tomato, tomatillo, and/or other mystery ingredients. We’ve eaten tacos for breakfast in hot, bustling restaurants; we’ve eaten tacos for lunch on paper plates from tiny street corner taco stands; we’ve eaten tacos amid the hubbub of the evening salsa crowd. We just really like tacos!
Everywhere we’ve travelled in coastal Latin America we’ve found ceviche. Ceviche is a dish based on raw fish and lime, and each region seems to have a different variation on this theme. Yucatecan ceviche is almost like a salad, with tiny pieces of lime juice-marinaded seafood combined with finely chopped tomato, fresh coriander, and sweet white onion. It is served with bowls of crunchy fried maize tortilla chips, and an assortment of condiments, like extra onion, coriander, lime, and as many different chillis as you can imagine. Our ethics don’t normally permit eating seafood from unknown sources as one can never tell the sustainability of a mystery fishery, but very occasionally our curiosity for culinary adventure outweighs these ethics and we simply must try something! Yucatecan ceviche, eaten in the comedor of a crowded market, was well worth the ethical angst.
It’s a well known fact that possums love chocolate. You simply have to look at the number of chocolate-based posts on our recipes page, or spend half a day in our company, to understand how essential this food to our existence. Coincidentally, the Mayans also love chocolate! Some historians say Mayan society once used cacao as a currency for trade, and it was an integral part of their diet and culture from birth. During our days in the Yucatán area, we consumed a lot of chocolate, primarily in liquid form. In the market one can buy hard disks, or tazas, of drinking chocolate that are often sweetened with granulated sugar and sometimes spiced. These are traditionally finely grated, melted into a cup of hot water, and whisked until smooth.
We’ll leave the Yucatán in a few days with pockets full of chocolate and the taste of chilli burning on our lips!