Culinary journalist Kendall Hill writes in the Australian Financial Review that Mexican cuisine is a true world treasure and tastes even better on its home turf. Here is Hill’s report from Yucatan.
IZAMAL, Yuctan — The butterflies in the garden of José Nicolás’ village home make clacking noises with their wings – they sound just like marbles colliding – that keep distracting me from the task at hand.
In Nicolás’ outdoor kitchen, in the yellow-painted city of Izamal, an age-old ritual is taking shape before my eyes.
Another villager, Hermelinda de la Cruz, is kneading 2.5kg of corn dough, seasoned with pork fat and salt, in the stifling Caribbean heat. She forms a well in the masa (dough), stuffs it with shredded chicken and pork, then slathers the meat in earthy red achiote (annatto) paste and kol, a thick cornmeal gravy spiked with chilli, tomato and meat broth. De la Cruz seals the filling inside the dough to make what is, in effect, a giant tamale.
After rubbing it with more achiote and kol (“to give it more flavour”), it’s swaddled in banana leaves and tied tightly with plant fibres. Nicolás then lowers the 3kg pie into an earthen pit oven lined with stones and hot embers, covers it with kindling and earth, and announces that lunch should be ready in two hours. “It’s much better for the flavour, in the ground,” explains de la Cruz. “It’s more smoky – especially with the achiote.”
Mukbil pollo, or buried chicken, is a relic of their Mayan ancestors; millennia ago, before the Spanish arrived with chickens and pigs, this dish was made using a breed of hairless dog. Many generations later, in the Mayan motherland of Yucatán, Mukbil pollo is still the meal prepared for major festive occasions – especially the Day of the Dead, when it is served with drinking chocolate, another indigenous invention. The Maya started cultivating cacao – and refining the art of chocolate appreciation – in about 400BC.
Three years later, UNESCO also admitted the Mediterranean diet to this elite diners’ club, but Mexico remains the sole nation whose entire food chain, from planting to plating, has received the global body’s endorsement.
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