Quintana Roo and its Mayan Arts
© Cyril Belshaw
NOTE in 2001 : This was intended to be a chapter in a travel-food book. Details will have changed enormously since 1990, but the general principles, the distinctions between foods, will be much the same. HOWEVER I would be most interested if you can send me information about those changes and what you find. Do so by email here — appropriate comments will be incorporated into the text. I Will add images when I find them !!!! You can submit images too…………..
Quintana Roo, as a phrase, probably doesn’t mean much to you. The Yucatan Peninsula probably means more. Cancun is that place in the sun that is touted as Mexico’s greatest shopping spree, the centre of the best scuba diving in the world, the resort you are planning to go to some day. They are all linked together.
The Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico has a line drawn through it, more or less NE to SW. On the western side is the State of Yucatan, capital the old Spanish-colonial city of Merida, most famous archaeological site Chichen Itza, where the Toltec observatory and pyramid do fabulous tricks at the equinoxes and solstices, attracting visitors like circus performances.
The indigenous people, and majority population, of Yucatan are Mayan (the Toltecs conquered them and were rulers for a time until the Spaniards put them in their place.)
On the eastern side of the line is the State of Quintana Roo, which contains the magnificent Mexican Caribbean coastline, with its resorts, beaches, reefs, environmental parks and non-Toltec ruins, each in competition, mostly destructive. Quintana Roo has only been a state since 1974. The people of Q.R. are Mayan too, but Mayan with a difference. They have been, and in some respects still are, determined separatists. Like the Indians of British Columbia, Canada, they do not consider themselves to have been legitimately conquered; but they lack the means to make an independence stick.
To understand this, you must know some things that are not in most of the history books. I looked through all the history books in English that were available in the poorly stocked book shops of Cancun (when you go to Cancun, the theory seems to be, you don’t go to read), many of them classics. Most of them do not even have Quintana Roo in the index. They give chapters to the wars and the twentieth century revolution; and the works of Presidents constitute the organizing themes, like the works of Renaissance princes (who did a lot better). But the Mayans of Q.R.? Zilch.
(There is a monograph I have not been able to consult by Nelson Reed, The Caste War of Yucatan, Stanford University Press, 1964; and a good summary of many features, but mainly dealing with events outside of Quintana Roo, in Demetrio Sodi Morales, The Maya World, published by Minutiae Mexicana, third edition, 1989.)
The Spaniards made their influence felt, I won’t say dominant, from the very earliest years, from the sea. The first Spanish explorers were scared stiff at what they saw, sailing past the coastal fortress and religious city of Tulum, afraid of its extensive population. For years after some of the coastal islands became playgrounds of Caribbean pirates, literally. But eventually, by persistent efforts, the Spaniards prevailed, on the surface. From time to time they were faced with Mayan armed protest, sometimes small, sometimes massive, not only in Quintana Roo, but in Chiapas and Yucatan
In the middle of the nineteenth century, from 1847 to 1901, when their leader Santa Cruz de Bravo was captured and executed in the mystically famous town of the Talking Crosses, Chan Santa Cruz, the Mayans were in full fledged politico-religious revolt, known as the war of the castes. That was a long long time to be omitted from the history books. And long after the death of Santa Cruz there were forceful and psychological resistances in Quintana Roo. In all parts of Mayan country there are major examples of continuing religious syncretism, many with significant political overtones.
But then even by comparison with other states, to Mexico Quintana Roo and its Mayans were marginal. There wasn’t much of an economy — a little fishing, and great copra estates on the coast. For the rest, the Mayans were, and to some extent still are, hidden in the forests of the great limestone plain.
Once the revolt was officially quashed, the Mexicans didn’t quite know what to do. They named Quintana Roo, not after a geographical or ethnic entity, but after a nineteenth century leader who was on the side of joining the Mexican State. The name continues to rankle among some. They gave Chan Santa Cruz the new name of Felipe Carrillo Puerto after a Mexican Revolutionary Governor, and made sure eventually that the streets of new towns honoured national Mexican patriots and archaeological sites, rather than Mayan heroes. They recognized that the Mayans of Q.R. were less tractable than those of Yucatan, within whose boundaries the territory formally lay, or at least they were less overlaid by Spanish-Mexican power — sporadic revolts were still going on. The solution was to create the present boundaries and establish a political Territory, directly ruled from Mexico.
It didn’t work. As I say, I don’t have a history book to tell me why. The period is an embarrassment to officials, politicians and historians. All I know, and of all things it comes from the text attached to a poorly drawn map of the area, is that in 1913 Q.R. was attached to Yucatan, in 1931 it was moved into the State of Campeche, and in 1935 after only four years it became a federal Territory again — until 1974. That does not sound like an easy-going peaceful kind of place.
If you cull the guide books carefully you occasionally get other snippets of information. You learn that much of the resistance was centred on the archaeological sites of Tulum and Cobal, and that Mayans still hold Tulum in religious awe, using it for ritual. In Tulum there is continuity.
Cobal is different. It was built by people with Guatemalan roots, then mysteriously abandoned, and only re-occupied by Mayans late in the nineteenth century, Mayans who had lost contact with it and who, as it were, began all over again. Although, probably because it was in an isolated inland situation, it became a resistance headquarters, its religious significance had to be re-invented. Today local people use it for Christian based worship, re-naming one of the most easily accessible pyramids “La Iglesia”.
It does not take an anthropologist long to imagine and hypothesize the existence of significant messianic elements in the resistance, and quite possibly in some Mayan thought now. I looked through a bibliography of Quintana Roo in the little Cancun Museum, destroyed by hurricane Gilbert in 1988, and found nothing on this aspect of Mayan life. In fact there is very little written about Q.R. as such except for technical archaeology, economic analysis, and legal status. Perhaps if I looked through overseas journals I would find a little more.
I will get to food. If you are a tourist going to Cancun, what you as a consumer find by way of food will be influenced by the hidden history of the people who serve you in the hotels, drive your taxis, cook your meals, clean your rooms. Those who teach you scuba diving, comment on the tour buses, sell you condominiums, are more likely to be from Merida or Mexico. The population of Q.R. is being overlaid by national immigration. Mayan food, even that from Yucatan, is being hidden too. I wonder why?
Mexico, like France, despite talk of regional autonomy in both places, and despite the overt importance of Indian culture in that of the country, is a highly centralized state. As such it is in a continuous dialectic with a troublesome multiculturalism that the political system has not fully accommodated to. There is no university as yet in Q.R., no institution of higher learning, and the policies of research institutions such as those that deal with archaeology or museums are dictated from head offices in Mexico.
For most of its life the economy of Q.R. could be left in peace to muddle along in happy Caribbean fashion, supported by smuggling and tax free privileges in the capital of Chetumal, far to the south, on the Belize border. But the time arrived, in the ’70s, when that could go on no longer. The copra industry was totally destroyed by the fall in world prices, world over-supply, and food-oil and soap-oil substitutes. Apart from fishing, there was nothing else. The people knew of greater wealth. The place, despite minimal social services, was a drain on the central government. Something had to be done.
As in so many poverty stricken resource poor Third World countries there was one answer. Tourism. Only the Club Med had discovered Quintana Roo, its unspoiled beaches and reefs. France was showing the way — those magnificent built from scratch resorts along the Mediterranean coast. The Mexicans tried something similar.
Aided by computer analysis, the Mexican Government decreed the establishment of a world class resort at Cancun, centred on an island to be linked by small bridges to the mainland and an airport. It cannot be a coincidence that the establishment of the State and the opening of the first resort hotel both took place in 1974. By that time the essential decisions had been taken and the infrastructure put in place. After statehood, the people would have a fait accompli. Since the huge development, with over two hundred hotels established in Cancun itself in sixteen years, would act as an enormous pole of attraction, it would pull in thousands of workers from the neighbouring districts, and managers from Mexico, not so subtly altering the political as well as the economic balance. New hotels are still being constructed, and the beaches all down the coast, as well as on the islands of Isla Mujeres and Cozumel, are being occupied. It is very difficult, until you get quite a long way south, to find a piece of beach that is not claimed by some development; and then, even south, it is one end to end line of litter. Only in the hotel areas is litter, partially, under control.
So what do you, my dear consumer of sun and sand, do with all this? If you are adventurous, knowledgeable, and lucky, and probably independent minded, you can explore what is left of nature before it goes. You can go off shore to scuba dive in and out of the boats that take you there. You can go south and inland into the reserved forests and take your time to explore the flora and the fauna. There is magnificent bird life, if you know where to look for it. You may be lucky, as I was, even without that knowledge, and see a troop of thirty ant-eaters scuttle in ones and twos across an isolated road. You will have difficulty camping on your own resources because of the high lime content and rarity of water supplies that characterize this huge once-underwater reef that constitutes Quintana Roo. If you are well-heeled you might try deep sea fishing.
The chances are you are not like that. If you come off the huge jets that land many times a day, you are here for a week, maybe two, of living it up. The hotels will help indeed. With a very few exceptions, their buildings and pools are Americanized blah, one hotel much like another, and almost all American owned. (A few Spanish.)
But they compete to provide good restaurants with “international” food, and around and about you will find Mexican food designed for the overseas palate, even a little Mexican nouvelle cuisine, a bit of maybe Brazilian or Thai, quite a bit of Spanish. You will find McDonald’s, Denny’s (Mexicanized somewhat and with a bar, for gosh sakes’), Soft Rock Cafe, lots of Tex-Mex places catering to the world of the U.S. young, Pizza Hut, Señor Frog’s. And outside there are taxis with drivers panting for your custom — and line-ups to get in.
You might say, why come to Mexico for that? From this point of view there is not a thing here that you cannot get as well in Miami, Honolulu, or, better, in its French versions like La Grande Motte. So, soak up the sun, visit the magnificent walled site of Tulum if you can push past the other fifty tour buses (yes, I counted them) to enter the crowded cattle pen, and go home.
You might of course rent an apartment and a car to be a little more independent. You have heard about the cheapness of Mexico, so why not? You will find beautiful apartments at $200 a night, and Volkswagen Beetles and the like for $1200 a month. Yes. That is if you book from abroad. To do otherwise takes the time of searching around and bargaining like crazy. And if you are stuck on American food you find it alright and pay enormous prices in specialty supermarkets.
Pay in advance can be the key. After all they then have the use of your money. When I went to an international car company to bargain I used a local advertisement which said $19.50 a day — instead of $40 — for a Beetle. Sorry, they said, that is only a promotion if you are staying in such and such a hotel (the ad. didn’t say that) — and you must pay 17 cents a kilometre as well. A bit more persistence, some pro forma discussion with head office at the airport. O.K., tell you what. We give you a nice Beetle. It’s waiting for you. Two months. 10,000 kilometres a month free. Good deal? $20 a day. But you pay one month cash now. Second month you can pay credit card. OK? OK.
Later I found deals could have been struck without the monthly ploy. And all around the hotel zone there were the little car hire firms that had touts offering cars for $15 a day, unlimited mileage.
Outside the hotel zone, on the mainland, is the large attractive city of Cancun itself, population 650,000 according to brochures, known as Cancun town in the local patois. It has large boulevards, parks, many fine hotels that have much more character than most of those in the hotel zone, often in quiet suburban streets. It has a main drag called Avenida Tulum, with six lanes of traffic neatly separated by great bird-filled trees, even pedestrian cross-walks that really work — and a couple of other main streets, that are full of what the tourist imagines as Mexican restaurants — and boutiques. Many of the restaurants are open to the air, full of action, touts calling you in, menus full of lobster and steak, huge breakfasts, mariachis, everything for a holiday. There are side streets off Tulum where you find even more restaurants, with names like El Pirata or La Bucañero. Sometimes you can get really fresh fish. There’s an Italian restaurant where you can get tiramisu made with rum, and some very fancy hacienda type places with beautiful sculpture and fountains, and international food (Mexican, Spanish, French, Japanese, Italian). The ambience is often smart and romantic, and in the hotel zone the vistas of sea and light can be out of this world.
But I was, alas, not looking for romance. I wanted unusual food. I did not spend my time trying to determine whether the Italian was as good as in Rome or the Spanish as in Madrid. Why come to Cancun for international food? You are in Mexico, and not just Mexico, you are in the midst of Yucatecan Maya culture. Don’t they have food?
So I searched for it, and found it. It is not your North American Mexican, or even national Mexican, food. You will find some reference to some Yucatecan dishes in Mexican cook books, but, for example, one very good one that I have, written and published in Mexico, gives only three in the whole book. Ortiz identifies some dishes as Yucatecan or Mayan in her cookbooks on Latin America and on Mexico; the otherwise excellent book by Diana Kennedy hardly at all (although both books refer to dishes such as muc-pil chicken, ixni-pec sauce, fish in mac-cum, which I was unable to find anywhere in Quintana Roo, though they are probabaly available in Merida).
As with politics, Cancun offers a food conspiracy of near silence. The tour guides don’t feature it, and there is only one Yucatecan restaurant in the whole complex that is somewhat known in the tourist advertising world, Los Almendros. Yet, if I may say so, it is damn good cooking, with often beautifully subtle sauces, different herbs, and lots of fun.
I cannot pretend to know what there is to know about this extraordinarily rich kind of food. In the first place I don’t know Spanish, and many of my conversations had to be in pidgin Spanish or sign language. Still, it is remarkable what can be communicated sometimes. Further, many of the words used are peculiar to Mexico, and still more, limited to the Yucatan. They do not appear in Spanish dictionaries. (Another complaint: Spanish dictionaries are poor on Mexicanismos, and all dictionaries are poor on food terms.)
Hence if you come to Cancun and look for Yucatecan food, treat this as an opening chapter, a place from which to depart, the beginning of a world of exploration, to mix the metaphors. You will go further than I did, and be quite content as a result. Ignore all that stuff in the hotels, except perhaps for the odd dinner — or, better, to find ways in which the hotel chefs incorporate Mexicanisms into nouvelle cuisine. A very few do it, and there is an annual gastronomic festival in which they show what they can do — rarely, though, incorporated into standard menus.
You notice I said Yucatecan food. It would be too subtle to distinguish Quintana Roo from the totality of Yucatan. What we mean here is Mayan food, as presented to the mostly Mayan public in restaurants and taco stalls. It does not necessarily correspond to what you would get in a Mayan home, but it is closely linked. (For example, you might find venison in Mayan homes, but you can’t find it in Cancun.) And the best restaurants for this kind of cooking — and for many other Mexican kinds — are to be found, so I am told, in Merida, not here. And what is very special to Quintana Roo is the seafood, of which more later. And I must of course try out some Mexican restaurants along the way, to notice the differences, and see what nouvelle cuisine can do with it.
But I am a consumer’s representative, so off I go consuming, to see what I can find. Let it come as it may.
How to start? In the tourist brochures there are passing references to Yucatecan food, and sometimes you notice the word Yucateca, or something like it, attached to a menu item. But, with the possible exception of Los Almendros, one of a Merida based chain, none of the restaurants I eventually found figure in the listings. Nowhere in any of the tourist literature do you find “a visitor’s guide to Yucatecan, or Mayan food”. Like the Mayans in politics, it is hidden from foreign sight, except when it is transformed, as I shall show, into tourist food. Yet it is there. It has to be. The bulk of the population is Mayan.
So you ask.
One natural bias of many informants is to confuse ambience with good food. They want you to have a good time, an interesting one. So several people put me onto La Prosperidad de Cancun.
Thus I drove out along the Avenida Jose Lopez Portillo, a resounding political name of a street that would, if you let it, take you hundreds of kilometres to Chichen Itza and Merida, almost in a straight flat line. I reached the darkness at the end of the city and turned back on myself. Not far there was a brightly lit modern inn, crowded with parked cars, lively music flooding onto the street. I screwed up my courage and went in.
The ambience reminded me of a Mexican version of a North American beer parlour, except that at the checkered covered tables there were a few families with children. In the centre of the double room a band was revving up. A mature happy looking woman put me down at a table where the stage was inescapable. An older waiter with no English took an order for tequila. On the table was a form menu with a few items price listed. Very few struck me as having anything specially to do with Yucatan — perhaps the cochinitawere pibil, but that was not indicated, and at $30 who was going to find out? There was poc-chuc, a kind of mixed grill, and longaniza, a spicy sausage, but no prices, so not available. The rest, though probably good, were entirely Mexican — flautas de mole, cabrito Norteña, res de carne tampiquena, of which more later.
The band got to work with a handsome lead singer, and a chorus of young skimpy ladies cavorting in limited salsa movements, occasionally taking over the microphone with not bad voices, sometimes calling up a man to strut around licentiously, but all in all very innocent. The families had left, and most of the audience were men.
A young waiter helpfully practised his English on me. Sorry but the food service stopped half an hour ago — at 6 pm. He saw my discomfiture, brought me another tequila. All of a sudden three plates were put in front of me with a huge basket of tortillas. Hard boiled eggs (three) with mole sauce; something that seemed like spiced ground beef with a few carrots; something that seemed like ground pork with garbanzo beans. It was cold but tastily edible, and it was very thoughtful of them. I like those surprises, which tell me that people are thoughtful and kind — I was very hungry. And it’s one way of getting interesting food, though it may not be what you came for.
And, though I didn’t stay any more for the tinselled dancers, they charged me only for the tequila.
Another, less pleasant, way of getting misled, is through the touts who are the curse of the area. They do not perambulate the streets selling drugs and sex of all kinds, as in Bangkok, nor do they push their wares in front of your nose with pressing “bargains” as in the souks of the Muslim world. They stand outside their offices asking you to come in to look over the specs of a condominium for sale, or to hear about a special tour, to get a car at a cut price. Or they flash menus from the restaurants and offer discounts and all the booze you can drink in a night for free. They don’t bother you if you just walk past. What amazed me was the high proportion of tourists who allowed themselves to be drawn into fruitless conversation — fruitless because what the touts had to offer was not in the priority zone of their hoped-for clients.
One day I was outside the Federal Express office waiting for it to open so that I could collect mail. When it is being regular it opens about half an hour after the posted morning and afternoon times. Sometimes as in this case it is irregular and you either give up or wait patiently for an hour or so. Today was one of the latter occasions, which gave a tout from the next door tourist office a chance to talk to me, and tell me about Federal Express – and restaurants.
He heard I was interested in Yucatecan food. Well, he said, it so happens…….. The upshot was that he gave me a voucher for a free lunch at a hotel where he said the buffet featured Yucatecan specialties. My part of the bargain would be to meet him there and he would show me the hotel and get a commission. Fair enough, because quite often (but not it seems in Cancun) hotels in exotic places do a great deal to show-case indigenous food, and prepare them in ways that retain their qualities but make them appeal to visitors — witness the marvellous activities of the Intercontinentals in francophone West Africa, and hotels in Mauritius and Fiji and Kenya. Furthermore my new found friend, for I was beginning to think of him as that, rattled off in a most impressive way the ingredients and herbs in several Yucatecan dishes. He knew the subject, and I fantasized I would invite him here and there to assist my explorations.
So off I went to the rendezvous. The lobby was crowded with U.S. jocks and their girl friends, eyes glued to basketball game on a huge TV monitor. The steps were filled with baggage, and young people disconsolately waiting for tour buses to take them to the airport and home. This was American Spring Break, the beginning of weeks of beer drinking, hoopla, beach parties, and, if you are in the wrong place, rape.
No sign of Andre. Twenty minutes later still no sign. I went to the restaurant, showed my voucher, checked the buffet — standard blah, wilted salads, heavy desserts, cold cuts. I said to the manager I would like your Yucatecan specials, because I hear they are very good. Yucatecan specials? Sometimes we have Mexican but never Yucatecan….
Next day I sought out my friend. Where were you? he said as he rushed to meet me. In the lobby. I couldn’t find you. Did you have your lunch? No, there’s never been any Yucatecan food there. Oh, did you hand in your voucher? Of course not. Are you sure, didn’t the manager take it? Certainly not. His face fell. End of commission. He was not at all interested in whether my need for Yucatecan food was fulfilled — his only concern being that I turned up, handed in the voucher, and made him eligible for his payoff.
But by that time I had started on other leads, and was making progress, adding a few observations of my own as I drove the streets. Here is a list, without which you can do no wrong, believe me. I am not a tout. I have no vested interest.
[Note: Some of the places will have by now closed or been replaced: but others will be open—go find.]
The one that will be mentioned to you by almost anyone you ask (though I did hear one lady criticize it), is called Los Almendros (Almonds) on the peripheral street called Avenida Bonompak — right opposite the stadium that serves as the bull fighting arena. It even gets into the tourist brochures occasionally.
I’ll tell you about the food soon. It is a big place in two brightly clothed rooms, adopting the style of Mexican restaurants that show the process of cooking with the kitchen before your eyes. Except that here much of what goes on is behind glass and invisible, the visible part consisting of hot trays with finished results being kept warm. Los Almendros is part of a formula chain based in Merida, and though it is streets away from such places as Denny’s, the formula influence prevails. So the food in the trays does tend to dry out, and many of the dishes suffer as a result.
The sauces were, however, a taste bud opener, as we shall tell. Soft, spicy where required, complex in their tastes, but their tastes always available to the palate, truly worthy of great international cooking.
Another interesting place is also tucked away a bit, on the corner of the great Avenida Uxmal, where it narrows into a small street, and joins Avenida Jose Lopez Portillo. The first time I went to Los Venados (venados = deer) I was out of luck. Like many of the “people’s” restaurants, it shut down firmly at 6.30 (opening toward mid-day). This taught me to watch it, reminding me that Cancun is full of the oddest eating hours. Some of the fancy restaurants in the hotels have two “sittings”, one for the North American early birds around 5 or 6, the other around 9 for the Spaniards, bourgeois Mexicans, and other assorted Europeans. Restaurants in the old town can have lineups from mid afternoon into the late evening; tacos bars, unless dealing with things like late movie goers, go for the lunch time jugular, and can shut as darkness comes. And some of the American style or little tacos places are open twentyfour hours (with varying degrees of alertness…..)
The second time it was a bit better. Self-conscious for arriving around five, I was confronted with a small smiling woman who rattled off a list of dishes in the fastest impossible to follow Spanish with a Mayan accent (even Mexicans find Mayan Spanish hard to follow). I grabbed hold of one word I heard and had it — succulent, large spicy meatballs. No booze. No credit cards.
The room is “typical”, that is compromises not one whit to tourism. The ladies are in their normal dress, which means beautifully embroidered garments as you would see in a village, kerchiefs, and smiles. They can’t be bothered helping you if you are having language difficulty — except for the large ebullient manageress who spends most of her time watching TV. In one corner is an old bent lady busily making tortillas by hand, the guarantee for which is her finger marks on what you receive. And excellent they are, too.
The third time I came I made the waitress give me her words one by one, and wrote them down. That time I made a more careful selection. And then I noticed as I went to photograph the tortilla maker that there was actually a chalk written menu board. But by 5 p.m. most of the items were finished.
Then, more or less by accident, I came across an empty looking quite modern simple cafe style place at the magnificently strategic corner of Avenida Tulum and Avenida Cobal. I’d passed it many a time but did not think it had much to offer. But by then I’d started to get into Yucatecan snacks, and I noticed its name, Antojitos Yucatecos, i.e., guess what, Yucatecan Snacks.
So I went in. And was very glad. Simple indeed, with a little lady and a couple of helpers doing the work, not too many people, tourists going by but passing because there was no tout and no mariachi band and no Mexican stuff like fajitas. It may not be the greatest cooking in the world, but if you want to know what Yucatecan cooking is like, for next to nothing by way of cash, and with friendly people who may not be able to talk to you much, but who are totally willing to give you what you convey to them you want, this is it. Tops in my book. Without any fussing, they broke up the dishes as described on the menu, and allowed me to taste, say, three delectable mouth watering yummies I’d never had before, instead of being held to one plate of three of the same.
Three seafood places figure on my list.
I would never have found La Calamar had it not been for a lady behind one of the desks at Cancun Tips. It is away from every boulevard and side restaurant street, not far from Avenida Uxmal. Like any really local place, it too closes down the kitchen at 6.45. My first time I arrived at 6.30 but they served me with grace anyway.
It looks simple inside, neat but unpretentious. The proprietor was a fisherman who began the place fifteen years before my visit. On the walls are photographs of every celebrity in Mexico, all in the company of the owner. It is nationally famous, and unknown to the tourist. The food is exquisitely prepared and of the most evident, refreshing freshness you could imagine. You know how cold raw fish can tell your palate straight away that there’s been no monkeying around; and you know that that quality can survive cooking and marinading if the skills are there. It may be the owner is sitting with his back to you with a group of friends; it may be that only one of the waiters can communicate, but graciously; it may be this is not the place for gringos really; it may be that vegetables can be banal; but it is the place for beautiful fish and its sauces.
Another place also recommended in the same way, but which I did have on my list, was Los Flamingos, almost at the end of the eight kilometre or so drive, between the Isla Mujeres ferries at Puerto Juarez and Punta Sam. (There are several promising fish restaurants along this stretch of road, some of the very simple, but reputedly worth the drive).
Los Flamingos is big and bouncy, well patronized by Mexicans and tourists alike, some chic, mostly just there for the food. There is a great maritimely decorated banquet hall, an open style dining room and a verandah that juts onto the beach facing Isla Mujeres. The waiters were busy and ignored me as I chose a table. After a suitable period of suspense, one brought me a menu.
Total disappointment. Nothing but your ordinary “fish as you like it”, lobster, garlic or meuniére. I showed my disappointment and again was rescued by a young junior waiter wanting to play with a little English. “There’s another menu,” he said, “It’s got more on it.” Marginally, it did have, and at least gave me a chance to go further with Yucatecan styles. It is a fashionable place for Cancun family and group Sunday outings.
The third place I found accidentally, named after the island of Contoy at the northern tip of the Peninsula, a name that was hidden from me by various awnings and decorations. It is in a part of town tucked between the junction of two Avenidas, Uxmal and Chichen Itza, only a few yards from each, yet an island of local activity where the tourist is as rare as jaguars in Mexico City. The area is known as Mercado 23, and consists mostly of small covered shops selling everything from shoes and clothes and hardware to vegetables, spices, poultry, meats, fish, shellfish.
I had come there in search of a Mexican popular (in the sense of “people’s”) restaurant called La Flor de Hidalgo, of which more later. It was shut, so I was walking disconsolately around, and noticed Contoy at the end of a street. It advertised mariscos (shellfish) from the island, and a notice board listed some unusual lunchtime tacos that I did not get a chance to explore. It was a simple place, decorated with fishnets and models of tuna and swordfish, people dropping in for real meals, discussing and enjoying their food. The payoff, as I enjoyed my meal, was a waiter who, though having no English and me little Spanish, took great pains to tell me what was what, what the chiles were, and the herbs, with no reticence and much care.
One of the first and best, for food, I found driving back into Cancun from the south along Avenida Kukulkan before it becomes the hotel zone. A sign on the seaward side said Restaurant Rio Nizuc – Cooperativa — Pescados y Mariscos. So I drove off the road down a pot-holed track and found a small group of parked cars. A few yards further was the bank of a river or estuary joining the inside lagoon to the sea, with a highway bridge over it. A boardwalk led me along the side of the estuary toward the sea, with flamingos and pelicans and frigate birds. It was a Sunday. Mexican families were coming back carrying picnic gear, and some food wrapped in tin foil. I wondered if, at five o’clock, I was already too late, or even that I’d missed the restaurant entirely.
But in the end, there it was, a small kitchen building with a large thatch out-jutting roof, a few iron chairs and tables roughly set out underneath, families outside and on the tiny isolated beach. You would not have known that the next habitation along the coast was the famous Club Med…. Rough direct service, beer from the bottle with a paper napkin around the top to indicate hygiene, no menu. With some difficulty, a waiter was found with a few words of English, “Good grilled fish….” It was the best ceviche of shellfish and fish I had anywhere, and as for the tikin zic, wait until I describe it. I had to come again with my friend Jaime Rubio to sample it, the small sward covered with eating and picnicking families, Mexican, Mayan, and some tourists off the beaten track.
There are of course innumerable seafood restaurants around town, serving excellently fresh produce, well cooked, and worth your visit if seafood is what you like. But very few indeed make any attempt to present Mexican, let alone Yucatecan, versions. An extremely popular place, which can have line-ups from four in the afternoon, is Il Pescador, off Avenida Tulum. It is unpretentious with a highly charged crowded atmosphere, with nothing Yucatecan. Less excusable is the Hyatt Hotel’s Seafood Market, a pleasant open air casual place with a chef who is a member of the Chaine de Rôtisseurs and makes a show of presenting his “regional adviser”. All the fish is on display, fresh and sparkling from the sea. Just about the only sauce you can get is meuniére, and there isn’t a trace of such things as chile, achiote, or Mayan rellenos (stuffings). You’d think an ambitious chef could do better than that. Perhaps he’s not ambitious. The attitude is perfectly summed up by the words of the maItre d’, totally taken aback by my observation — “But, sir, we don’t have Mayans here…..” On the other hand, to be fair, the Bucañero has one dish called Yucatecan, cooked with achiote. I didn’t try it, but in view of my experience with Stelae in a similar matter, I have my grave doubts (see below).
From this I think you may gather, correctly, that top flight genuine Yucatecan food is not to be found in the fancy highly be-sculptured tourist restaurants. There are some Yucatecan dishes in such places, and in the tourist places of less pretention, such as Garibaldi or Mexicana or even Bellini, and several seafood restaurants offer the passing dish with a Yucatecan base. Nearly all such places do what Americans do with it — they destroy the unique and special qualities, beginning of course with the chiles. They try to link it with something you know, or know about, turning Veracruzana sauce into a variety of ratatouille or spaghetti sauce, totally losing its character. What an enormous pity.
Even the Mexican restaurants will do that, if you don’t watch out. They aim to please, not to educate. After all, that is where the money seems to be. Alas.
It is time to move away from the locations, to see what emerges when the product appears. What can a tourist like myself find for Yucatecan food?
First some mea culpae. In two months I cannot be an authority, and don’t intend to become one. I can tell you what I found. The boundaries between Mexican and Yucatecan are not firm, and I am not setting up artificial ones. What I discovered was in and around Cancun; not in Merida, where it would be possible to find foods totally missing here. I am not always sure that what I tell you about is Yucatecan in the indigenous sense, or Yucatecan in the sense that the country is now part of Mexico, writ large. It is not comida casera, home cooking, except perhaps for one or two antojitos and perhaps for Los Venados. But I am sure that is it what you will find, and that if you persist you will find many other fascinating things too.
So let’s get on with it and find out.
As everywhere in Mexico the basis of eating lies with the tortillas, served as part of the dish itself, or on the side like our bread. Sometimes, because of the deep influence of bakeries of French origin (going back into history) you will find bollitos, hard rolls, or even French bread.
Here as elsewhere, corn tortillas are the thing, and hand made at that. Except at Los Venados, do you think that’s what I was eating? Wrong. And in fact I did not once have corn incorporated into my main food, except when I had a light pork soup with salad floating on it at the home of Jaime Rubio. No wonder, especially with free trade and cheap imported corn on the horizon, the Mexican government, with an eye to voting patterns, is afraid for its peasant corn farmers.
Not once did I see corn tortillas on sale in any supermarket, as is possible in New Mexico or Vancouver. They were all factory made wheat tortillas (de tinga). In one or two places you could also get pita bread, calle pan arabe. (There is a long standing Lebanese influence in this part of the world). Residents tell me that if they want corn tortillas they either make them themselves, or buy them fresh in the outdoor markets early each morning and put them in the refrigerator.
The variety of things that can emerge from tortillas is legion, and totally confusing, since the same word can mean different things in different parts of Hispanic America, or within Mexico; and nowadays tortilla based snacks are competing with various kinds of bread sandwiches. Given the nature of competition and public presentation, words are also deliberately made ambiguous so that customers may be seduced, and there is a certain amount of slippage because of the nature of transliteration. Thus bollitos are hard crusted French rolls, but bollitos are also sandwiches, like anywhere in the world, with any kind of filling, made of French style wheat round buns. These are sometimes called tortas on the road sign of the snack bar, but tortas is a word reserved for sandwiches made from lengths of French baguettes, very popular indeed.
We are sliding into the world of antojitos, loosely translatable as snacks or hors d’oeuvres, one of the most marvellous and rewarding elements in Mexican, and Mayan, cooking. The French influence has, for centuries and even before the French imposed the Mexican Empire on the people for a few short years, dominated baking, apart from tortillas. Since the Spanish influence has been even greater, and was responsible for the introduction of a range of food products that was at least the equal to the indigenous, it is extraordinary that one of the most typical Spanish institutions is totally unknown — tapas and the tapas bar. Whenever I raised the subject I got blank looks, even among many sophisticated Mexicans — what are tapas? (See Segovia Chapter.) Until I learned that cantinas in Mexico City are full of such things, under the name of botas, where you go to eat inventive nibbles as much as you do to drink. But not in Yucatan…. (I did see some places mentioning botas on their signs, but they were simply tacos and enchilladas and so on and had none of the required inventive delicacy.)
But the Mayans have something that almost takes its place, the antojitos. As with pita bread or a pizza you can load anything you like onto a tortilla. The tortilla can be small or large, thick or thin, crepe like or doughy, flat or rolled, sandwiched, toasted, lightly fried in oil or fat, deep-fried to become crisp. The only version I didn’t find here were the puff-balled sopapillas of Santa Fe. Nor did I come across any of them served with honey, though that must surely happen, since bee-keeping and honey are so important locally.
The simplest forms, loaded with food like an open-faced sandwich, are the tacos, with their derivatives that give rise to a host of names, sometimes based on the shape and material of the taco, sometimes based on the filling.
An anthropologist, José N. Iturriaga, has written a marvellous little book which is an ethnography and cook’s guide “De Tacos, Tamales y Tortas” as presented in roadside stands and cafes throughout the country, with literally scores of descriptions. There are a few special sections on Yucatan, but not specially Quintana Roo. Needless to say, some of the fillings he mentions I didn’t come across — such as those made with turkey and black sauce, or with venison sausage — others I mention he didn’t catch up on, since the possibilities are infinite.
The first local taco I had was at a simple stand by the ferry terminal at Punta Sam. The tacos were loaded with chicharrones, dried pork rinds, broken onto thin tortillas, with chopped onion, cilantro leaves, red bell pepper dices, slice of avocado. Since there are no implements bar a paper napkin, you fold the tortilla over by yourself and eat hamburger style. The stand’s salsa on the side was excellently strong and pungent with roasted habañeros chiles that made all the difference, onion and cilantro. You can usually depend on simple cafe and road stand salsas much more certainly than restaurant ones, which are toned down for the tourist and often have less flavourful chiles. And often the food depends entirely on the fact that you will be using a salsa, so if one is not evident, don’t hesitate to ask. It will always come, even at a place like Bellini in a shopping mall, designed for tourist relaxation — it takes the cook just seconds to put it together.
Usually tacos at a stand will consist of something like those called salbutes, fried on a hot plate, loaded with chicken strips, salad, tomato, maybe a slice of avocado, cilantro or mint. At Antojitos Yucatecos the tortilla was made from masa de mais, literally a lump of corn dough, and raw onion was more prominent, without the avocado. Ortiz’ Latin American book has recipes under the name sambutes.
Antojitos Yucatecos is in fact a marvellous place to get a run through of many of the different ideas. One of my most total favourites, which I am going to learn to master when I get home, consisted of papadzules. (See Ortiz for some recipes.) These are typically Yucatecan. At Antojitos Yucatecos they consisted of soft rolled tortillas containing chopped hard-boiled egg, covered with pumpkin seeds and a salsa ranchera and scattered with egg again. At Los Venados they were very much larger, with invisible pepper inside as well as the egg. They were covered this time with cream and a little tomato salsa, unchili’d. At Los Almendros the pumpkin seed is turned into a green salsa which underlies the egg, with the tomato salsa and additional scattered egg on top.
Huaraches are oval shaped tortillas with a similar range of fillings. There is a self-service restaurant on Uxmal — pay before you eat — which has a wide variety of such things. Mine came loaded with Yucatecan chorizo style sausage, probably from Valladolid, a city famed for such products. A kind of spicy Mexican hamburger — and indeed Mexican chorizo is very spicy indeed from several ingredients, and somewhat dry to the taste.
Sometimes you will see a sign that indicates the food will consist of Mexican antojitos and especially flautas. Unlike flautas you often find in Tex-Mex or North America, these are crisp from deep frying and really are flute-shaped tight rolls. They vary a great deal in width and length. You can even buy them in packages in the supermarkets ready for your own frying. Mostly the interior meats have been dried out by the process so that there isn’t all that much gastronomic interest. But in a little wayside cafe I ordered one each of three kinds — chicken, pork and potato. Without losing any of the crispness of the flauta itself, the filling was jam packed with salad ingredients and overlaid with crême fraiche — just called crema in Mexican.
The equivalent Yucatecan products are called codzitos and are more lightly fried, rolled and more openly filled, preferably containing aromatic leaves. The meat is still dry, moistened perhaps with a tomato based salsa.
Ituriagga mentions that Yucatan is famed for its tacos de ceviche, which I imagine would be very good indeed. The nearest I got to that was at El Calamar, which served me a plate of three, one containing shark (cazón), another the most tender octopus, and the third conch. The marinade was minimal, just a touch of lime and I think cilantro, so that nothing whatsoever interfered with the paradisiac sense of freshness and cool firmly-soft texture. Three stars in my book.
At El Parilla, a place where loud noisy music deafens tourists and makes conversation impossible, where muggy heat is intended to remind you are in Mexico (fair enough), in and out of the clichéd grills, you can find items of interest, and perhaps survive long enough to enjoy them. One such are the tacos de nopalitos.
Nopale are the leaves of a prickly cactus, the idea of which puts people off. But they are delectable and should enter the repertoire of all cuisines, especially since they are available internationally in many bottled and canned forms. One writer has most accurately described them as being between okra and bean in taste, and their tenderness leaves nothing to be desired. Here they were served with slices of onion, the whole tacos fried.
Panuchos are another Yucatecan favourite. At Antojitos Yucatecos they came as tortillas covered with fried beans, slivered chicken, chopped raw onion, and a tomato salsa. There was a tigerishly innocent looking side salsa with chopped onion and chiles habañeros. The Almendros version is more complex still, with turkey.
Enchiladas and empinadas are Mexico-wide. In North America and elsewhere the word taco has been taken over by the fast food companies which market “taco shells”, crispish pre-folded tortillas, into which you can force stuffings much in the manner of open pita bread. In North American Mexican restaurants enchiladas are thought of as rolled. Here in the Yucatan flautas are rolled, but more crisply and tightly, and enchiladas are folded as with North American tacos but softer.
Thus it was with the enchilada de mole at Antojitos Yucatecos, a rolled tortilla.
But what about the filling, and that infuriatingly difficult word mole? One thing it most certainly does not have to be, that is a chocolate flavoured sauce, as in the classic dish mole poblano. By derivation from the Spanish it could imply something mixed or pressed together; by derivation from Pre-Hispanic languages, a chile-hot sauce — or stew!. The Mexican recipe books I have to hand make it clear that almost anything can go into a mole, which can be vegetarian, contain meats, aim at different colours like red or green or black. The one common denominator that I can find is stewing to the point of heavy reduction, the result being either a stew in itself as in mole poblano where the main ingredient of the stew is not even mentioned in the name, or a thick sauce for use over something. Ortiz, however, states that mole is any sauce made from any pepper, which seems a bit broad as a definition to me. It definitely does NOT have to contain chocolate.
In the case of this enchilada all I could infer was that the shredded chicken had been stewed in a dark bean and chile sauce which was used to cover the folded tortilla. But who cares? It was delectable.
Empanadas are simply little pies or turnovers, with a thicker crust than is implied by a tortilla. I didn’t seek them out very much, because mostly, unless you are in Alsace, pies are pies, and the one I remember, stuffed with spiced ground pork and covered with a tomato salsa, was, well, a pie.
At the Contoy fish restaurant there are several other kinds of tacos, listed as “de tinga, de morcilla, de rajas”. I didn’t get around to checking them out. Tinga is a complicated dish with boiled pork accompanied by fried sausage and other ingredients, which hardly seem likely here, rajas are strips or slices, as with rajas de chile, but perhaps used in other contexts, morcilla is a blood sausage. These are available only at lunch.
Of course I came across other tacos which are more Mexican or national, and have their delicious characters. The Garibaldi restaurant, near Avenida Tulum, not always with success, and with a bit too much toutism, nevertheless tries to showcase regional Mexican food. It presents sopes in the form of thick home made pork flavoured tortillas with cold shredded chicken, lettuce, and crême fraIche..
Molotes at the Flor de Hidalgo are like tortilla fingers, closed at both ends, with chicken and tomato filling, sprinkled with powdered cheese. Gorditas at the same very special restaurant are like a fried tortilla sausage roll. Mine was served with a chile-hot orange coloured sauce that looked like jam but was not sweet. Sprinkled with powdered cheese. (Booth mentions a road stand that made gordas on the spot with a mas de mais patted into a tortilla, filled with refried beans, parcelled up and fried).
I didn’t go in for tamales because I didn’t find them very often. Classically they consist of ingredients wrapped in corn leaves and steamed. Any I have had I have found coarse and unappetizing. But in the Yucatan — and I believe in some other countries such as Costa Rica — tamales are made not with corn leaves but banana leaves. This gives an entirely different flavour and quality.
My one and only try was totally delicious. I was walking from the Cobal corner along Avenida Tulum and came across this little somewhat grubby stall selling beer and hamburgers to harassed Mexican shop-wives and drunken beachcombers. But I noticed they listed tamales de chaya and I hadn’t been able to taste chaya leaves as yet. So in I go and order one. Chaya are the leaves of the tallish shrub, much prized for their nutritional value and for their somewhat soft spinach-like taste.
It came with the banana wrapping opened, a pleasant looking lump of whitish green. The mild but palatably tasty chaya had been mixed into a soft mas de ma‹s with mashed boiled egg. I loved it – just the sort of tasty mush I adore. And nowhere, nowhere in any restaurant (though some modern ones do try to use chaya leaves).
The day I wanted to try an equivalent at Antojitos Yucatecos they weren’t available. But the menu talks of vaporcitos, described as tamales containing chicken stewed in banana leaves.
Apart from chaya the two herbs most special to Yucatecan cooking are achiote (axiote) and epazote, together with generous usage of cilantro, and such other ingredients as parsley, mint, camomile, and garlic.
Achiote is a reddish powder made from grinding the seeds of the annatto tree, bixa orellana. It is available in bottled commercial form almost throughout the world, the bottling including, in one form I know, oregano and cumin and vinegar, allowing it to be mixed into a sauce or spread over a meat or fish. This gives a yellowish red colour that is somewhat similar to what you get by roasting with a paprika baste.
Epazote is a flavouring that is special to Yucatan, although it grows wild in many parts of Mexico and the United States. It is the leaves (NOT the seeds) of chenopodium ambrosioides L., which has the common English name of, alas, wormseed. My books say that it is not used this way, even in Mexican cooking, in the United States. If so, pity. [But I have found little plants in herb garden stores in Vancouver]
Lime, orange, bitter orange, are used with considerable effect and delicacy. I did not come across other use of fruit in main courses — unless you count raisins, olives and almonds. And of course sometimes, but not often, and usually on the side, cooking bananas or plantains.
Mexico — and Yucatan is no exception — has to be the land where the cult of the chile is rarified, nurtured to be the sine qua non of the educated person. Never was any waiter at the slightest moment’s loss to identify precisely what chile was being used where. And you do NOT get them mixed up. Any old red chile, any old medium hot chile, any old very hot chile, will simply not do. Every chile has its flavour, and all chiles may, if you wish, be eaten raw, or marinated, or cooked, or baked, or whole, or chopped. But the decision is precise.
The prime chile of Yucatan is small, greenish to white with touches of red, squat, and called, with reverence habañero. [The orange Scotch bonnets of the Caribbean are similar] The more you roast it, marinate it, treat it, the more a pungent full flavour emerges that few other chiles can match. It has its own character that will not be submerged. Many is the time that I have had a salsa or some other dish and searched for the identification of the flavour. Could it be cilantro perhaps? No. No other flavour was needed. It was habañero.
Other chiles are of course used. In most supermarkets there are perhaps half a dozen varieties, some dried. But in the real vegetable stores there will be a minimum of thirty to forty, as there will be in the marvellously localized supermarket on the outskirts of town on Avenida Cobal……
Some Yucatecan dishes have of course entered the national repertoire — cochinita or pollo pibil, pavo de relleno negro, jaiva relleno, huevos motuleños, tikin zic.
Perhaps we can start with breakfast, since this is something you can get in one form or another almost anywhere, from hotels to Americanized places like Super-Deli and 100% Natural to Antojitos Yucatecos. You are likely to get a choice of three offerings: huevos rancheros, huevos Mexicanos, and huevos Motuleños. It is the last that is Yucatecan.
The first can be found almost throughout Latin American in one form or another, but in Mexico has a specific meaning that is different from, for example, the way I was served it in Lima, Peru, where it was rather like a Spanish omelette, spiced. Here it is fried eggs on slightly fried tortillas, with a reduced sauce on top made from tomato, garlic, onion. chiles (probably serrano), herbs, with refried beans on the side. Mexican eggs, by contrast, are scrambled in oil with finely chopped tomato, onion, green chile and coriander, again with refried beans on the side. Restaurant cooks will play with additional ingredients and side elements.
Ideally, huevos Motuleños are more complex. The eggs are fried, and the tortillas soft fried and covered with refried beans. The egg is on top, and then a sauce, usually consisting of mixed tomato, chile and garlic, to which are added separately cooked peas and fried chorizo sausage pieces with herbs. On top of that again is a garnish of onion rings, avocado slices and sprinkled soft cheese.
Antojitos Yucatecos serves another breakfast which I’ve seen here and there called Desayuno (breakfast) — as distinct from huevos — Mexicano. Apart from juice, fruit and coffee, you get a steak with fried egg, refried beans, tortilla and choice of salsa. It is quite clear that in Mexico breakfast is a serious business — especially since it may be eaten late in the morning.
Cochinita (sucking pig) — or its cousin pollo (chicken) — pibil is without doubt the most recognized contribution of Yucatan cooking to the national cuisine. Pit cooking seems to have occurred in most parts of Mexico, since it is a natural form of creating an oven that can be found from Polynesia to Croatia. That is the meaning of the word pibilin Mayan, a word rendered in most parts of Mexico by barbacoa, said to be the ancestor of the North American word “barbecue”. But in pibil cooking you don’t just leave the food on the top of a grill, as in barbecuing. You dig a pit and line it with stones that will preserve the heat, create a fierce fire within, let charcoal form, remove the flames, wrap the food in moist leaves, and bury it on the heat. And you have to judge exactly when it is going to be done — three hours, they say, for a skinned pig — or you might just get a charred mess. (In parts of Polynesia, the red hot stones are doused in water to create steam, and the “roof” of the oven can consist of thick layers of leaves.)
Of course that is not all there is to it. The meat is marinated in flavours, of which achiote and sour orange are the most important, and it is wrapped in banana leaves for flavour as well as protection.
Since no one in these days has an open pit or pib, other devices have to be used. Restaurants wrap the food in the required leaves, then in aluminium foil, and cook in an oven or stove-top container with bottom high steady heat. Great traditional Mexican restaurants like Le Flor de Hidalgo, which I will soon describe, use enormous cauldrons with bottom fire to pre-prepare the food and keep it warm.
Pavo de relleno negro, is turkey with a black “stuffing”. But let’s stop a moment to check out this word relleno which you will often come across in menus, as for example in crab or chile relleno. Like good cooks anywhere, Mexicans take considerable liberties with the literal Spanish meaning of words. Something or other that is described as rellenoin all probability is not, literally, stuffed. Although sometimes the food really is stuffed, as often as not the “stuffing” mixture is served as a sauce or even side garnish.
This can be so even with peppers. At El Parilla the chiles rellenos consisted of bell peppers cut open and laid flat, with ground meat, bacon, mushroom, cheese, green salsa spread over, each ingredient somewhat separated from the others.
So far as I know, there is no such thing as a Yucatecan cookbook, and although I can say for sure that pavo de relleno negro is nationally known as something Mayans do well, it does not feature in the informative Mexican cookbooks I was able to find in Cancun. So I cannot be sure whether, literally, some part of the bird was supposed to be wrapped around the rellena stuffing. It would be very difficult to do, since the relleno is quite liquid, and much more in the nature of a beautifully contrived sauce or gravy.
I had the dish twice, at Los Venados and at Los Almendros, and once something similar under another name, a version of nouvelle cuisine, at Du Mexique. In neither traditional case did the turkey matter much, being stringy and tough at Los Almendros, and chunky tough at Los Venados. It was the juice, the sauce, the gravy, call it what you will, that was superb, and showed me without the slightest doubt that, as sauciers the Mayans can be the equal of any in the world.
At Los Almendros the ingredients included pork and hard boiled egg so finely ground they had no impact on texture whatsoever, together with almonds, epazote, olives, mild quemado chile, and I found a couple of raisins. At Los Venados the juice was a little thinner, and had bitter orange or lime, no raisins. But it came with rice to mop it up, and a roll of ground pork, like a two inch diameter sausage without the skin. The resulting colour of the gravy was such a dark green, from the chile, that at first I thought it was black, and the total concoction was redolent with flavours.
Jaivas in this part of the world are prized smallish crabs, about three inches. I had jaiva (jaiba) dishes twice, and was not thrilled. Indeed at El Calamar, an excellent restaurant, the stuffed crab shells, though powerful with minced crab, seemed to have no other flavouring, and I had to mix them with a supplied side ceviche salsa to make them palatable. Similarly at Los Flamingos a salpicon (mince) of stewed jaiva was just as tasteless. Yet Booth gives a Vera Cruz recipe for stuffing which contains almonds, olives, tomato, onion, egg, mustard and Tabasco sauce…..
And, truth to tell, I’m the kind of person who finds lobster, which also figures highly on all the menus of all the seafood restaurants in Cancun, totally uninteresting unless it is beautifully sauced. I did not find any special Yucatecan lobster sauce at all anywhere, but my French friend Murielle had an extraordinarily delicate Nantua-like preparation in the gourmet restaurant at the Melia Cancun hotel.
The most satisfying nationally known fish dish, which alas you will also not find in the kind of Mexican cookbook I consulted, is tikin zic. I had noticed it on several menus, including Los Flamingos and even places like Bellini in the Caracol shopping mall, and I chose it for the first time at the Contoy. As time went on more and more locals said the very best was at Rio Nizuc. So one day Jaime Rubio, the manager of Federal Express which had been looking after my mails to Canada, and I set off there for a kind of farewell lunch.
The fish was butterflied and grilled with oil, brushed with a sauce of achiote, pimiento, garlic and orange, giving a soft red-brown colour, and crisping the skin, served with a side salsa containing the Yucatecan habañero. The fish was a huge mero (grouper), served for two, the head garnished with marinated jalapeño pepper, and a raw salad mostly of onion. The fish must be butterflied, or the cook cannot brush the dryish paste onto the flesh, as well as on the crispy tasty skin. At Contoy, there was also a side serving of rice. Rice, by the way, seems always to be garnished with a variety of possibilities, most often slightly reddish in colour, perhaps with tomato, minimal chile, beans, peas, and often fried, presented as a mound.
Other dishes are perhaps not so nationally known, at least as Yucatecan specialties. I enjoyed many, from which I select just a few.
At Los Venados, albóndigas meat balls, about an inch and a half in diameter, held together with corn meal, came in a light tomato and lime broth, preceded by a chicken soup with peas and garbanzo beans. On the side there was a large soup plate full of black bean purée, hand made tortillas, and a somewhat runny but flavourful salsa.
Interestingly enough, that most internationally known of all Latin American dishes, ceviche, is not important enough, not Mexican enough, or too easy to manufacture, to figure in the home-grown Mexican recipe books. Naturally enough, in coastal Yucatan, they are magnificent, always featuring cilantro, and a minimum of extraneous material like raw onion and/or tomato, lime, with side wedges, side spicy salsa for those who want chile in it — as was the case at Rio Nizuc. There I had a mixture of white fish and octopus.
Ceviche of conch is almost universal, with an octopus like texture — but makes me wonder where all the conch comes from, and how long it can last, just as I do with crab and lobster, since, I am told, it is not farmed. At the Contoy restaurant the ceviche included mañero chile.
At Los Flamingos, the chiles rellenos de mariscos were utterly superb. Great green bell peppers stuffed to the hilt with all kinds of shellfish, wrapped in corn tortillas, and covered with a red-brown sauce containing orange, tomato, puréed mild chile.
Snapper (huachinango, guachinango) is the most internationally famous of Mexican fish, primarily because of the way it is almost universally served with a Veracruzana sauce in Mexican restaurants outside the country. In Yucatan it is sometimes replaced with a similar fish called boquinete for which I have been unable to trace an English name. In any event, you don’t have to have it with Veracruzana sauce, which, moreover, can be disappointing unless done by the best.
At El Calamar it was offered in four styles, and, exploring as I was, I chose the three that were unfamiliar to me, all on the same plate….. Believe it or not, it worked.
I left out the one with mantequilla (butter) sauce, and instead chose ajo (garlic, out of curiosity), chipotle and xcatic, the last two being varieties of chile. Seldom have I had as pleasing a fish, and, where fish is concerned, I’m very hard to please. The fillets of snapper were grilled in butter, firm, quite thin. On top of one was the chipotle, a red chile, sauce. On the other, the xcatic, a green chile’d sauce with tomatillo. On top of both fillets were tiny chips of roasted garlic, scattered. Nothing else. Alas, garnished pn the side with a useless helping of raw cabbage and some cooked carrots.
Once again it’s time for a linguistic diversion. The Mexicans, who more or less invented tomatoes, don’t use the word the way it is used in English. Our kind of intended-to-be-red tomato is jitomate. Somewhere along the historical line the word tomatillo came into North American English to describe a green fruit, like a tomato, of the genus Physalis. Nobody who writes cook books seems to know how.
Just to confuse us poor foreigners, the Mexican word tomate, sometimes tomate verde, means tomatillo, which, botanically — and don’t let some of the cook books deceive you because they sometimes get it wrong — is not a tomato at all.
There are other interesting foods. Longaniza, a long thin dryish spiced sausage, served as an antojitos with three different salsas at Los Almendros, jicama, a tasteless hard “fruit”, which, however, is capable of absorbing flavours when properly handled, pepino or cucumber marinated with vinegar, lemon and cilantro as an appetizer and salsa (Contoy), sopa Azteca or sopa Maya, chicken based broth containing tostadas (triangular toasted tortilla chips like North American nachos), not very tasty, until you squeeze in juice from the supplied lemon wedges and add some side salsa, when it starts to bear a resemblance to the Greek avgolemono.
But if you are here for any length of time you will want to go beyond Mayan only, and try out the way Mexican food is presented. Rather different. The restaurants divide into three — traditional and family, tourist and bourgeois, and nouvelle cuisine.
The most exciting and genuine of the whole lot can be hard to find. I would not have known of it but for a chance remark of a lady on the staff of the little hurricane-destroyed Cancun Museum. First of all, it is normally open only on Sundays from early morning until three in the afternoon, though in some seasons you can have a meal on Saturdays. It is there for Mexican family Sunday treats, adjacent to Mercado 23 away from the tourist routes, upstairs over a large vegetable and chile store. Flor de Hidalgo, as it is called, is run by a charming lady who will do her best for you even if you have no Spanish and she no English, and seems proud of her enterprise. The main room is huge and packed, and there is another, verandah style, overlooking a square.
Clients come and go, busy, talkative, enthusiastically examining their food, most of the men of huge girth. Tables come together for parties of six, eight, ten, babies, children on laps, balloons in the air. People get up to look at where the food is cooking, others come in and take dishes out wrapped in the universal foil. Flor de Hidalgo is clearly an institution for expatriate Mexicans.
I wandered over to the open cooking area. Girls patting tortillas into shape, frying the antojitos in great pans, huge hot cauldrons of the moles and stews, the back wall hung with equipment and pans of all descriptions, men and women sweating and joking as I photographed, huge pottery bowls of salsas of a dozen kinds.
I had a wonderful ensalada de nopales, prickly pear salad, marinated like a ceviche with onion, tomato and cilantro, molotes I have described above, and for main dish the wondrous mixiotes. Take very tender lamb, marinade it in the outer membrane of the leaves of agave (maguey), a family of spiky leaved plants some of which produce Mexico’s indigenous drinks. In the marinade include ancho chile, garlic, oregano and supposedly avocado leaves. The classic recipe calls for the lamb then to be wrapped in pouches of the mixiote leaves and steamed. Here the lamb was in large chunks, dripping off the bone, wrapped in aluminium foil, and presumably baked in the marinade, the reddish sauce having been brushed over it. Whatever, it was totally seductive. Other items on the menu were just as mouth-watering and away from the tourist clichés.
Flor de Hidalgo, with its nice black skirted white bloused waitresses, if you can pull yourself away from the beach one Sunday, is a must to experience in Cancun.
Among the more bourgeois, atmospheric Mexican restaurants, not quite into nouvelle cuisine, but presenting their food in style, are Rosa Mexicana off Tulum and La Habichuela tucked beside a residential park. For me, the trouble with such places can be that, even when catering to the Mexican elite, they modify their recipes and presentation so as to please, if not to not offend, foreign palates. It is touch and go as to whether you are going to be satisfied, though the style is usually careful and gentle.
Rosa Mexicana is more like the tourist’s expectation of a Mexican restaurant — bright table cloths, candlelight, attractive hostess and graceful waiters, lively music, a patio surrounded by tropical plants, and a menu with most of the expected dishes, plus a few others. I tried my first ensalada de jicama and found it almost inedible, with large slices of wooden tasteless jicama and ordinary salad trimmings. (Jicama is the root of a plant which Ortiz identifies as exogonium bracteatum and Kennedy as pachyrrizus erosus). The supposed marinade of lime and mild chile could not be tasted. Off-putting, but exploration is not always successful. A dessert of dulce de papaya more than made up for it, the papaya baked in cinnamon and honey, tasting for all the world like pear poached in wine.
The main dish, puerco en naranja consisted of slightly dry pork loin slices baked in a banana leaf, in a smooth soft delicious sauce of orange and lime, said also to have ancho chile and garlic which I could not find in my tastebuds at all. Western style baked potato and sour cream, boiled carrot and onion on the side.
La Habichuela (“the bean”) could possibly win the prize for the most romantic (alas I was alone) and expressive restaurant in Cancun. Both exterior and interior is a blend of superb modern-Mayan sculpture, falling water, and tropical plantings. The main dining room, softly darkened, has panelled woods, metal and wood separated alcoves giving privacy, decorated with well chosen artefacts, and the outside patio (reserve for it) is a dream Mexican garden out of a novel by Grahame Greene, D.H.Lawrence or Malcolm Lowry, occupied by the chic and also alas the soul-less. It is the place for you, for you to make your own mark for your inner self. Although many come in casual Cancun wear, it is a place worth dressing for, where you can please your partner’s eyes.
But the food. The Cantina shrimp soup was described as “a favourite of Mexico City cantinas”. Fair enough, but I wondered, in this form. It was a smooth bisque with cosmetic touches of potato and carrot, but no life. On the side were lime and tabasco sauce; the lime at least made a difference.
Chicken Tenango, named for its origin in Tenango City had beautifully tender chicken — in the commoner restaurants one does not expect tenderness — in a totally mild tomatillo sauce. At the side on the plate were the most tender sautéed beans imaginable, guacamole with a minimum of tomato chopped in, cheese, and a purée of dark refried beans. I have no way of knowing the degree to which the character of the original recipe had been removed, but to me it felt like high class Tex Mex.
I wanted to try other classical Mexican dishes that one finds abroad — posole, the corn and meat stew, mole poblano, a really decent snapper Veracruzana — to let me establish standards. Alas, time, and weight, ran out on me.
Twice I did have something called Veracruzana. The first time it was just spaghetti sauce. The second time it did have olives, but the tomato and onion were presented like a thickish ratatouille. Nowhere did I find the jalapeño chile, marinated chile, chile powder, cinnamon, garlic or lemon juice, or the required density of the olives. There should be a law.
And in Jaime Rubio’s home I called one day to find a wonderful pot of mole stewing away slowly and contentedly. In its dark black juice were pieces of meat, whole chayote(small christophene squash, sechium edule), and on a table nearby were sprigs of epazote, tomato and onion to be introduced later.
Mole, once again an untranslatable term. Stew, yes and no. Reduced sauce, sometimes. Black, yes, but it can be red or green. With chocolate as in mole poblano, hardly ever.
Before we conclude with Mexican nouvelle cuisine, a few words about drinks. Here I can mostly only give you hints for you to explore, since I quickly found my favourites and stuck with them, and because many I was not lucky enough to find.
If you buy fruit juice for the frig in your room, and if you don’t like the addition of sugar, you are in for a disappointment. If packaged presentation is any guide, Mexicans must be crazy about sugar. All the supermarket juices have at least 5% and sometimes more. There is one, however, called Delli, which makes the most scrumptiously thick unsugared orange juice I have ever had the luck to find. And Super-Deli carried, expensively, Dutch packaged unsugared juices of various kinds.
Throughout town, though, there are ice cream and fruit juice bars, and even the Americanized cafes, that offer you the most exotic huge glasses of ready made, freshly pulped, whatever you want, including many from fruits like mamey you have never heard of before. They are delicious, as good as anything in any tropical country including Kenya, inexpensive, and come in the hugest glasses — so that on demand you can mix them, as I did, like a combination of papaya and banana.
Atoles are more difficult to find. They are non-alcoholic drinks, designed as refreshment, based on semi-dissolved corn meal, with a variety of flavours, including especially cinnamon and vanilla. The only one I managed to try was a hot chocolate atole that tasted just exactly hot chocolate.
My Mexican friend Jaime Rubio, when he took me home, decided to experiment for his first time with Mayan posole, which is NOT a corn based stew as in most of Mexico, but a corn-based drink. He bought the makings in the market, bringing home two big round balls of a kind of mas de ma‹s, corn meal. With our fingers we made it dissolve in water; to that you can add vanilla or chocolate or anything you like.
The national alcoholic drink of the Mexican centre derives from Aztec times, pulque. It is brewed like beer from an agave similar to, but different from, that from which mescal and tequila are distilled. (Some books, quite erroneously, infer that tequila and mescal are made from pulque — not so, and the plants are different.) Archaeology tells us that pulque had sacred properties, its use limited to ritual. History tells us that the Spaniards recognized a good thing when they saw it, worked hard to turn it into a common popular drink, established agave plantations and breweries, making their fortunes in the process, and, until the government started to get restless, by which time it was too late, inventing pulquerias, or drinking pubs patronized by regular clients, or brotherhoods. They still exist.
But pulque’s fermentation only gives a short shelf life, so that it cannot be successfully bottled for national distribution. It does not survive the journey to Cancun very well. Cancun therefore lacks pulquerias and it is almost impossible to find as a drink. When it is a little past its truly fresh prime, it can be mixed with fruit like a sangria, or otherwise jollied up, but it is not the same. I was given addresses, but didn’t get to taste. Nevertheless, you may be luckier or more determined. Here they are.
There is a cafe on a side street near the main post office — I do not have its name — which has fruit added pulque if you get there at seven in the morning as people go to work…… Le Flor de Hidalgo has two types of pulque on its typewritten menu. The day I was there it was not available. It was firmly promised for the following Sunday, but I was leaving town. My guess is that you would have to be there early.
Tequila, distilled, is a form of mescal made from a special agave in the area around Tequila township, a town of distilleries. There are numerous mescals with their own characters made in different parts of the country, from different varieties of agave. The naming is now controlled, the distillations differing in colour and age.
I confess I like the stuff, but not when I follow the mystiques attached to it. Contrary to Mexican mythology it is not stronger in alcohol content as most distillations in other countries, and it may be drunk with fewer side effects. It is, in fact, an uncomplicated drink with full flavours that is worth sipping.
Because of the mystique of its power, it has become something of a macho drink, which it definitely is not. It is frequently served with slices of lime or dollops of salt on the side. The erroneous but persistent theory is that knocking back a shot of tequila, like the schnapps, requires counter action, so, before or after taking the poison you add a counter irritant — salt and/or lime. This is the Mexican way. I have seen Mexicans put either the salt or the lemon into the tequila, which, to me, destroys it. What a waste of a good drink…
Because of that mystique, foreigners developed the Margarita cocktail, with its salt-rimmed glass and its lime. And you have other tequila based cocktails, mostly to be found in foreign hotels and restaurants and bars. To me they are the pits. To me, tequila does not mix. Its flavour is special, to be enjoyed directly, slowly, savoured. Mixing creates ugly tastes. Leave it alone.
There is, however, one custom that deserves encouragement, and is probably not available overseas. [Wrong. One of the best is at Las Margaritas, a Mexican restaurant in Vancouver, which also has a great selection of the newer specialty tequilas] One way of savouring tequila is to have it in its own shot, with a parallel shot of what is known as sangrita. (No relation of sangria). Sangrita can be found in a commercial bottle, which I think of as thin and weak. Better, barmen make it fresh and the better bars don’t charge extra for it. It is tomato juice or pulp, flavoured with orange, serrano and piquin chile, very slightly sweetened. When properly made it is itself yummy. As something to sip in and out of tequila — but never mixed — it is superbly refreshing. Trouble is, of course, that not all barmen do it right, and sometimes you get a concoction that is probably Clamato out of a bottle.
For centuries wine making in Mexico was illegal. But it happened. And now Mexico has some truly excellent table wines, and an enormous variety of brandies and liqueurs, that go way beyond the over-rated Kahlua. They are not expensive, they are often available in shot sized bottles, and they are well worth experimenting with.
And Yucatan makes some excellent beer. The two I know are from Merida, Montejo and Léon. The latter is especially worth exploring, a dark beer that is refreshingly light in taste.
Cancun, naturally enough, has some pretentious and possibly excellent restaurants catering to the international set. I know for sure that those in the Melia hotels will do you proud, that many of those in other hotels are unimaginative, and that the Italian restaurants, though Mexicans enjoy them, have pretty ordinary menus.
There is actually a festival of Mexican nouvelle cuisine that had its first competition in early 1991. The photographs look great, but then I have learned that in competitions of that kind, even the great international ones, it is the looks and lists of ingredients that count, and the tastes don’t matter. Here in Cancun you get the good and the terrible.
The terrible alas I experienced at Stelae, a pleasant looking luxury place in the Flamingo Plaza. The menu seemed to have at least some challenging dishes, so in I went.
For the adventurous, it said, try our Mayan plate of selected delicacies. I nearly fell for it. Surely this must be tapas-like antojitos or botas? Fortunately, I asked. No, no, said the waiter, it is one plate only of breaded chicken stuffed with shrimp. Chile? No way.
I nearly walked out, and should have done. But there was a filet of fish in chaya leaves. Give it a try. Start with a truly beautifully presented plate of ceviche, then on into the future…. The future came, and it was like a shudder from the past. Pleasantly textured white fish, probably boquinete, with a few distressed chaya leaves trying to say “here we are” through a sickening plaster of floured white sauce, the kind that all fish used to be served with in England. Push it off and try to eat the fish without it. At least the vegetables were not steamed to death.
What a missed opportunity! I can imagine chaya being turned into its own sauce, as a French chef would deal with sorrel…….
From there to the sublime. Well, nearly sublime. A French chef by the name of Alain Grimond operates a chic restaurant in the chic restaurant area of Avenida Cobal, called Du Mexique. It has curved white walls, sea-green-blue decorative plates (for initial viewing, not for eating off, of course), an art gallery of derivative sculptures and paintings, unpretentious service, undemanding musack.
The menu is as imaginative and inventive as anyone could want, based almost entirely on Mexican ideas and ingredients, with fancy and unintelligible Mayan or Aztec names — but the carte does explain. I went wild. I chose the naiysnallo, crepe of cuitlachoche — the fungus delicacy that attaches itself to corn — and tochtlyimmoli, mole of rabbit. Sorry, said the waiter, they are not available……When will they be? Please ask the kitchen, and I’ll come back. Later. Sorry, the kitchen doesn’t know.
Try again, why not. Xocotizin, stuffed apple with jicama. Maybe it will be as bad as Rosa Mexicana. Now, was that something? I realized for the first time the real possibilities of jicama. It was slivered, mixed with raisins and a slightly sweet dressing, loaded into a crisp cool fresh apple, with some also on the side on a lettuce leaf. It was totally delicious, perfect for the palate on a warm muggy day.
Then on to the Iluhicatl Yayanco, modestly described as stuffed chicken Yucatan style. They could have made much more of the description, because this, my friends, was no less than a modernly wonderful relleno negro. Not only was the chicken breast fork tender, but the black-green sauce, judiciously ladled over it, had been inventively modified. In addition to the puréed boiled egg and chile quesada, which gave a sharp peppery taste, Grimond has substituted puréed veal for the traditional pork. If it were necessary, he proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that relleno negro deserves, under its own name, to be in the forefront of the repertoire de la cuisine internationale. The classically light dessert, a tiny tortilla filled and surrounded by a white chocolate sauce, was the final touch of a master.
Enjoy the beaches. Enjoy the reefs. Go to Señor Frog, Mama de Tarzan or the Pizza Hut if you must. But there are other adventures in store — if you reach out.