Cochinita pibil is the most famous dish of the Yucatán Peninsula, the Mexico’s southeast region that includes three states, Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo.
Campeche is best known for its capital city surrounded by XVI Century walls to protect it from invaders.
Yucatan is the true cradle of the Mayan Culture, with fantastic archaeological sites and breathtaking colonial cities.
And Quintana Roo is home to the World Class Tourist Destinations of Cancún and The Mayan Riviera, with white sand beaches and turquoise waters.
But the “Cochinita” is a fundamental part of the local culture, it basically consists of pork that’s been marinated in a special blend of spices and the bitter juices of Seville oranges, wrapped in banana leaves (to keep it moist) and then buried in the earth in a fire pit to slow cook overnight—ready to serve to hungry workers and postparty revelers from the crack of dawn until around lunchtime.
The most important component of the marinade is achiote paste. Achiote, or annatto, is a hardy tree native to the Amazon basin, which was then brought over to Central America and Mexico. Its red seeds are combined with other spices, including cumin and cloves, to create an orange paste that is used in cooking. Thought to have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, the paste was used by the Mayans as a bug repellent, a colorant for a cacao drink and as body and face paint in religious rituals.
Cochinita pibil’s origins are thought to be a mixture of Mayan and European influences, and indeed, it’s in the colonial city of Mérida that people say the dish is at its best. It’s not a fancy dish—some say the only authentic cochinita is found in simple street food setups and taquerias. But it is a melt-in-the-mouth centerpiece perfect for large, informal dinner parties. No wonder that in Mexican homes it’s most often served as a weekend feast, providing a ritual for many families on a Sunday. (A word of warning, though: Achiote stains. Messy eaters, leave that crisp white shirt in the closet).
‘I take a bite and am immediately hit by an intensely rich explosion of flavor: There’s a sweetness to the meat that must come from the spices and orange, but there’s also an almost earthy kick.’
I first got hooked on the dish during a holiday in Mexico, where I spent my days equally feasting on street food and soaking in sunshine. After trying—and failing—to perfect my own cochinita pibil recipe back home in the U.K., I jumped at the chance to go back to the source, tasting as many authentic versions as possible and learning from the pros while on vacation along the Yucatán coast.
Which is how I found my way to a food stand on the edge of Tulum. At Taqueria Honorio, I watch as four women deftly shape and mold saucer-small tacos—none of the frisbee-sized Tex-Mex ones here—and slap them onto a heated pan, where they emit the sweet scent of corn flour as they sizzle under watchful gaze. I take my three tacos, piled high with a terracotta-red cochinita, to one of the taqueria’s red plastic tables. On goes the habanero sauce and some vinegar-marinaded onions. I take a bite and am immediately hit by an intensely rich explosion of flavor: There’s a sweetness to the meat that must come from the spices and orange, but there’s also an almost earthy kick. I devour it in less than a minute. Finishing all three, I retreat—rather like the lazy dogs that sit along Avenida Tulum—to my hammock on the nearby beach for a well-deserved siesta.
Everywhere you go these days pulled pork seems to be on the menu. From street carts to trendy South American joints, the world just can’t get enough of this meltingly rich dish du jour. However, in Mexico they have been serving their own version for hundreds—if not thousands—of years. “Although we don’t really have exact recipes, a variation of [cochinita pibil] dates back to prehistory,” says David Sterling, author of “Yucatán: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition.”
Taqueria Honorio, Tulum, Quintana Roo.
IT’S ONLY 8 A.M. but already there’s a line snaking around Taqueria Honorio as the air fills with the sweet, hunger-inducing scent of cinnamon, cloves and unctuous slow-roasted pork. Dogs doze lazily under the squat palm trees that line this quiet avenue on the edge of Tulum. Bubbling away on the stovetop of the jauntily painted food stand are four caldrons of rich concoctions, each different, their perfumed clouds colliding. But there’s only one I’ve come here for: the cochinita pibil.
Taqueria Honorio is always-packed with local workers and hungry travelers that come to feast on cochinita tacos. (They also serve other types of tacos, including suckling pig, and turkey.) Tortillas are made to order, and there are a range of salsas to accompany the succulent dish. The pork is prepared at the home of owner Honorio Chay Cavich, in the nearby jungle. His sons, who are also part of the business, squeeze oranges in industrial quantities each day for the marinade. After the meat is soaked for two hours, it’s placed in a fire pit and baked with local zapote wood until 4 a.m., when he drives it to Tulum. Be sure to get here early! Tacos are served from 6 a.m. until around lunchtime, when it closes. 13.50 pesos, or about 75 euro cents, a taco; intersection of Avenida Tulum and Satelite Sur.
THE ROAD STOP // Taqueria Don Beto, Tulum, Quintana Roo.
Just outside Tulum, a stone’s throw from the exit to the Mayan ruins on the road from Cancún to the south of Mexico, is Taqueria Don Beto. Another family affair, Don Beto’s wife and sisters run the place, beaming wide gold smiles as they deftly churn out tortillas in the kitchen and whip up the accompanying onion salsa.
Take a pew on one of the rickety plastic tables and order the tacos one by one. As you savor what is possibly the most succulent cochinita in Tulum, watch the steady stream of hungry pit-stoppers pulling in off the highway—maybe even getting some tips from the bare-chested surfers heading to Tulum Beach. 13.50 pesos a taco, 27 pesos a torta; off Highway 307, near the Tulum Ruins exit
THE UPSCALE EDITION // Hacienda Teya, Mérida, Yucatán.
Housed in a beautiful terracotta-red colonial building 12 kilometers from Mérida, Hacienda Teya gives street grub a slice of glamour. Once a granary store, the restaurant has been serving up traditional Yucatec cuisine since 1974.
At the popular wedding venue, which includes a guesthouse, the cochinita comes as a sumptuous main course, with onion salsa, refried beans and an artfully arranged tortilla chip. Served on proper plates, you can even use cutlery if you so desire. Round the meal off with a delightfully wobbly flan. 150 pesos for entree ($12 USD); haciendateya.com
THE HOLE IN THE WALL // Taqueria Hunucmá, Mérida, Yucatán.
A dimly lit room with a few plastic tables dotted around, this tiny taqueria is the place for tortas. Taqueria Hunucma sandwiches its pork in the best bread in Mérida, sourced from a bakery called Panadería y Pastelería Liz. And since bread is key for tortas, a stop here is a real treat.
Though the room may not be much to look at, you’ll want to take your time as you soak up the spicy juices of Hunucma’s cochinita—made by the family every night in their backyard and served from the crack of dawn—with the bread’s pillowy folds. 13.50 pesos a taco, 27 pesos a torta; Avenida Canek, +52 999 199 8467
THE MARKET STALL // La Socorrito, Mérida
If you want to experience the true hustle and bustle of daily life here, delve into Mérida’s Lucas de Gálvez market, where you’ll find everything from juicy mangos to religious candles and electrical wares. Native fruits such as mamey and chaya are piled high. But the real delicacy is directly inside the main entrance: a row of cochinita pibil and lechón al horno vendors that will have your mouth watering before you have the chance to even think “yo quiero” (I want some).
The best of these is La Socorrito, situated next to Mayan women selling fresh fruit and vegetables they have harvested in the wild. Barely more than a countertop with stools, La Socorrito’s cochinita pibil—made by the family—is moist and intensely flavored with spices. Come on a Sunday to see it at its busiest. 13.50 pesos a taco; Lucas de Gálvez Market, Calle 56A, between Calle 67 and Calle 69
HOT STUFF // Cochinita Pibil Around the World
Copenhagen // Yuca Taco. Yucatán food served from a converted VW camper van, in roaming locations, Wed.-Sun. 25 kroner, or €3, a taco; yucataco.dk
London // DF/Mexico. At this casual diner, you order at a bar and food is brought out as it’s ready. The space is bright and convivial, especially after a few delicious frozen margaritas. £6.10 for two tacos; dfmexico.co.uk
Madrid // Entre Suspiro y Suspiro. Resplendent with Mexican art, this restaurant’s cochinita is served with lime, chili-packed guacamole and rice. €19; entresuspiroysuspiro.com
Mexico City // Azul Histórico. This is high-end cochinita, served in the beautifully restored surroundings of a converted colonial mansion. About 190 pesos, or €11; azul.rest
New York // Fonda. The cochinita pibil at any of the three branches of Mexican-born chef Roberto Santibañez ’s restaurant is a fun sharing dish. They also do a mean brunch and happy hour. $19, or €15; fondarestaurant.com
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