Finally! Now I can get to write about Yucatán! Neither of us had ever been to Mérida, the capital of one of Mexico's most interesting states, so we took a short week off in October to go and see ourselves what so many people rave about (including a colleague of mine, from Mérida, who made it very clear this was the best destination one could have chosen, EVER).
Now, I said a "short week". But the experience was so intense and rich I'm going to have to split the narrative into a number of posts, like I did with Brazil. And I'll start with one of the best things to do in Yucatán: eating!
Mexican cuisine is really diverse – probably one of the reasons it made it to UNESCO's intangible cultural heritage list –, so it was no wonder what Mérida had to offer was going to be different. But really, you have no idea how absolutely different it indeed is from the rest of the country! The mix of an incredibly strong Mayan substrate, an immigration history different from other regions, and relative isolation due to its geography definitely had a radical effect. This is but a very simple tour through a cuisine I couldn't have enough of!
Fried tortilla; a layer of black beans; a sauce made with tomato, ham and green peas; cheese; plantains. Originally from the city of Motul. And my first realization that Yucatecan cuisine was not spicy! Yes, you always have an impossibly hot habanero sauce nearby, but in their natural presentation the dishes are tasty yet not hot (at least not for this Mexico City native, LOL).
A whole lot of goodness
Sorry for the title, but we were at this restaurant (Mansión Mérida on the Park) at the cutest of squares (Parque Hidalgo) and they had a tasting platter with so many bite-sized samples of local cuisine! This one had salbutes, panuchos, brazo de reina, papadzules, deer tzic, frijol colado, Yucatec tamal... Explaining each would be too complicated, so just look at the picture and trust we were delighted with the newness and deliciousness!
And then, as if the food and the square and the service were not enough to charm us to bits, the restaurant offered us a free shot of good tequila! Nope, not mezcal. Not cheap tequila. Nice, smooth, delicious tequila. Yeah!
Turkey in a black sauce. A sauce so complex it became the main part of the dish for me. It contains who knows very many kinds of chili, orange, pepper, cumin, clove and who knows what else, the combination giving it the characteristic black colour. Definitely one of the most unusual dishes I tried. It's nothing like mole (found in the centre of the country), by the way. Nothing at all like that.
OK, definitely not haute cuisine here. But I mean, can you imagine getting a rolled crêpe with... Gouda-like cheese!? On just your average ordinary street stand? Interesting. I found the combination of the slightly sweet crêpe with the very strong cheese rather difficult. But interesting nevertheless.
Tikin xic fish
Wood grilled fish with a delicious achiote sauce. Achiote is a Latin American and Caribbean reddish spice. I can't quite describe the taste... sorry! But as many other dishes, the dish is brought to a new level by the use of sweet and sour oranges, as well as different kinds of pepper and whatnot. Simple is something this cuisine is not, at all.
Helados de Colón
So, there's this ice-cream place, Dulceria y Sorbetería Colón. A traditional place with a 100 year history or so. And they had quite a few water based (ie, vegan) ice-creams. I tried a number of flavours, but the lemon and vanilla ones? Out of this world! Lemon is my favourite since forever, so I've tried it at a number of places all over the world. And this one was perfect! Tangy, soft but not too creamy, white as snow... And the vanilla one! Like, real vanilla! The colour was beautiful! And the flavour was so deep and real! I had so many scoops (and some other stuff) at this place. And I could have had way way more. I was so grateful nothing was exceedingly sweet! In fact, this seemed like a common theme: nothing was too hot, or too salty, or too sweet... Balance...
It took me a while to learn the difference, but salbutes have a fried tortilla as base, while panuchos have a black bean filled fried tortilla as base instead. And then on top you have chicken or turkey, avocado, lettuce, tomato and the ultra super delicious traditional Yucatecan bright pink pickled onion. Simple. Delish. From a place near Merida's centre.
Not sure how these tamales are prepared, but I think that at the beginning of the process you pass the mass through a colander. We had these at a market. With a delicious and not too spicy red sauce on top. Wetter, softer yet with more body than the ones from the centre of Mexico. And yummy.
Ha! If you have any relationship with Middle Eastern cuisine you should recognize these. Kebbé (or however you may spell them, kibbeh, kibbe, kebbah, kubbeh, kubbah, kubbi)! Well, it seems the Lebanese made their mark here, eh? Specifically with the hollow kind of kebbé! Completely naturalized in Mérida, sold just like that on the street.
Longaniza de Valladolid
We went back to that wonderful restaurant by Plaza Hidalgo a number of times. Including for breakfast. And besides enjoying a crazy refreshing agua de chaya, a sort of juice made with a kind of spinach native to the region, I tried some tacos with egg and sausage from the city of Valladolid, whose sausages are famous for the whole process involved, which gives them a special flavour from pepper, clove, chili, cumin, garlic, and so on, and from being smoked. I'm no sausage connoisseur, but this breakfast was pretty good!
Lomitos de Valladolid
This was my last authentic traditional meal, so I chose something I wasn't that crazy about but that I hadn't tried yet. Another dish from the city of Valladolid, this one uses pork. I'll say, it wasn't bad. But it wasn't my favourite. It probably relied too much on the meat (which was very tender) and me, with not that much experience valuing dishes from their meats instead of their sauces or condiments, probably wasn't in the best of positions to appreciate it. Sorry Valladolid!
But what followed the lomitos was certainly more to my liking. Called caballero pobre (poor gentleman) apparently because of the low cost of the ingredients and popular presence at many parties. I guess in a way it could resemble a french toast. But very moist, with more vanilla and cinnamon. Nice last bite in Mérida.
Now, to be honest, I tried at least 2-3 other things that I'm not posting here because they were part of visits to other places. But, overall, I was very impressed by how I didn't know the vast majority of the dishes I tried, how I hadn't even heard their names before, and how good and elaborate in general they were. What a nice surprise!