Mayan Munchies

Atsuko Quirk Issue: Section:

On my recent trip to the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico, I enjoyed so many things: the clean water of underground rivers called cenotes, seeing the great Mayan ruins, and of course, the beautiful beaches with 80-degree weather. What I enjoyed most was the regional Yucatan cooking.
My image of “Mexican food” was tacos, guacamole and tamales. But Yucatan cooking is a different cuisine. They use a flavorful red paste called “achiote paste” which is ground annatto seeds mixed with spices, vinegar, salt, garlic, and cornmeal. The red color comes from the annatto seeds which have been used as a dye for fabrics and body paint since pre-Columbian times. We were staying at a nice cottage with our friend who showed me a big brick of paste and said, “Taste it.” I was blown away by the deep flavor of that red paste. We went nuts. We marinated chicken with it, sautéed shrimp with it -- achiote goes well with almost anything. When we visited Tulum, we had a dish called “Cochinita Pibil,” which is slow cooked pork marinated with achiote paste. Oh, my, it was gooooood.
The word cochinita refers to baby pig, the Mayan word pibil means buried. This dish typically would be a pit-cooked suckling pig, smeared with the uniquely savory achiote seasoning and served with a drizzle of habanero fireworks and the citrus sour of pickled red onion.
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The one from this particular restaurant was cooked in soup, which is a little different from the typical cohinita pibil. But the broth had the great flavor of the achiote paste with the pork. You can choose what you want to eat from the big pot of pork, beef, or shrimp. They were all delicioso!
The combination of deeply flavored broth and the refreshing squeezed lime juice reminded me of Japanese cooking. My mom used to make chicken soup with all kinds of root vegetables in Kombu (Japanese seaweed) and bonito stock. She adds some fresh squeezed Yuzu (Japanese lime) and Yuzu zest. The fresh aroma of the citrus gives the dish a three dimensional taste.
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You can buy achiote paste in a Mexican grocery, but if you want to make your own, here is the recipe.
5 tablespoons achiote (annatto) seeds
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
8 whole allspice berries
1/2 teaspoon whole cloves
3 habanero peppers, seeded
1/2 cup orange juice
1/2 cup white vinegar
8 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons salt
5 lemons, juiced
1 teaspoon premium tequila

1. With a spice grinder, grind the annatto seeds, cumin seeds, peppercorns, allspice berries, and cloves to a fine powder.
2. In a blender or food processor, mix the ground spices, habanero peppers, orange juice, vinegar, garlic, and salt. Blend until smooth. Mix in the lemon juice and tequila.

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