February 1973. My mother and I step out of the plane in the Yucatan. Atop the mobile staircase a blast of hot air slaps my face. I detect the scent of corn, burning wood and flowers. I’m 13 and it’s my first time in Mexico, the country that would become my own.
We’ve landed in Mérida, capital of the Yucatan, a torpid, provincial city of faded glory. Cortez and his conquistadors had little interest in the hot, sparsely populated region where little grew and gold and silver weren’t to be found. Riches were made in the 19th century when it was discovered that henequen, used for rope, could be produced here. Many Lebanese immigrants, versed in shipping skills, arrived and ran the haciendas.
The author in Cozumel, 1973
World War II brought acrylics to replace the henequen, and carriages turned back into pumpkins. But Mayan culture endured, as ruins were unearthed and marketed. And a few years ago foreigners found that the glorious mansions of those henequen days could be bought for a song and revamped. Now tourists and locals alike stroll down Merida’s streets, and gussied pastel facades, the colors of Necco wafers, reflect the harsh tropical sun. Palm-leafed plazas provide respite from the heat.
We check into our colonial-style hotel and then walk down the street. The driver of a horse-drawn carriage beckons. We ride up to the Paseo Montejo, a grand boulevard in the Parisian tradition, lined with glorious French-style mansions, all faded, some abandoned. Forty years later most are gone, victims of callous development.
The sun is setting and we’re hungry. So we enter a typical white-table-clothed middle class restaurant, with aire acondicionado, promising platos típicos. My mother, an artist who had lived in Mexico, orders sopa de lima and tacos de cochinita in her somewhat clumsy Spanish. Having grown up in New York City, surrounded by ethnic cuisine and its purveyors, I’m eager to taste the “real thing.”
Discovering sopa de lima
The sopa de lima arrives. A bowl of steaming soup! How illogical, I think, scalding soup in a hot climate.
Little did I know, at that time, how small a part logic plays in Mexican life. The soup is a rich chicken broth any Jewish grandma would be proud of, loaded with shredded meat and perfumed by toasted strips of tortilla and slices of lima, a heady aromatic citrus native to the region. Its exotic scent, so veryMexican, became an indelible part of my psyche at that moment. A sip today conjures magical worlds for me as Proust’s madeleines did for him. At our meal pallid bread is served (that’s what they thought all gringos wanted), but I request tortillas, which makes the waiter chuckle. But he brings them, my first taste of the real McCoy.
Yucatecan food can be magnificent. And the celebration of its brilliant complexity is in a revival. From market stands to highfalutin experimental restaurants, the eating out scene in Merida is hopping. Like all Mexican regional cooking, it is a true fusion of traditions, in this case primarily Mayan, Spanish, Lebanese and French. Nowhere else in the republic are these influences so obvious.
Pollo alcaparrado is chicken in a caper sauce, direct from Andalucía. Kibbeh (or kibi), Lebanese wheat dumplings, are sold here in markets just like they are in the Middle East. Pan de cazón, tortillas layered with shredded epazote-perfumed shark, refried black beans and chile-tomato sauce, is pure fusion, an adaptation of Spanish cooking style to local ingredients.
And then there’s the truly indigenous: the Mayan pib, a pre-Hispanic method of anointing, marinating and then roasting meat, fowl and fish. The settlers brought pigs, but local cooks quickly substituted them for regional game.
The late David Sterling, formerly of New York, taught Yucatecan cooking at Los Dos Cooking School and authored the magnificent book Yucatan (see my review). He explained that “You have to remember that even just 15 or 20 years ago, this was still ‘the provinces’ — folks cooked and ate at home exclusively. The dining scene has changed dramatically during the last several years. There are more and more regional options too. In terms of quality. … in general it’s progressing, albeit at a glacial pace. I think that’s inevitable as Mérida continues to grow and more outside influences come in.”
Cochinita pibil, the quintessential Yucatecan dish, is suckling pig, slathered with a sauce made of achiote (annatto), sour orange juice, garlic, oregano, allspice and pepper, then wrapped in a banana leaf and slow roasted, preferably over coals. It is eaten as tacos, in soft corn tortillas, or tortas, on white flour rolls, with fiery habanero sauce. The Yucatan produces the most picante salsas in the country, if not the world. Today, few people make it at home, preferring to buy from the experts.
One locally famous stand appears Friday through Sunday in front of Panadería La Ermita in the plaza of the same name. Neighbors gather to eat there, fragrant meat heaped on fresh baked bread and spiked by pickled red onions. Some buy kilos to go. And everyone knows to come early, since by noon it’s run out.
Tamales, ubiquitous in Latin America, are sold in the market as they have been for centuries. Customers in the know vie for a place at the long table at Jugos Mario for hot tamales. Called tamal colorado, they are the regional variation on a theme. Corn masa is ground to a custard-like consistency and flavored with chile and achiote, then steamed in a banana leaf. A dash of habanero salsa adds fire.
At the other end of the spectrum, Ku’uk is a restaurant whose name comes from the Mayan word meaning “sprout.” It has done just that, sprouting like an experimental lab in a sea of conservative tradition. It’s the venue for young chef Mario Espinosa, an academy-trained veteran of Mexico City’s renowned, avant-garde restaurant Pujol.
Here, old-fashioned Yucatecan cooking is deconstructed and reinterpreted. The kitchen has a traditional pit oven for cooking “pib,” but contemporary molecular gastronomic trends are introduced as well. And although traditional ingredients are incorporated, they are reconfigured with the chef’s creative flair. The market favorite castacán (deep fried pork belly), usually eaten with a little salsa in tacos, is elaborated into “castacán, prawn, string cheese from Tabasco, fava bean broth and dried shrimp.” The breakfast standard chaya con huevo (eggs scrambled with the regional bitter green herb chaya) is refashioned as a “transparency of potato and herbs, egg cream, and chaya.” So, while one foot stays firmly planted in local culinary heritage, the other dances a postmodern rhumba.
As the food-minded public becomes aware of Mexican cooking in its intricate variety, regional adaptations will continue to be unearthed and celebrated. That’s a good thing.
And I, although intrigued by these recent developments, stay admittedly “in search of lost time” as I continue to seek out the best bowl of sopa de lima I can find.
This article was first published in zesterdaily.com, 4/12/2013