By Mauricio Muñoz
For Blog Xcaret
Let’s talk about food. And I mean good food. Like the one that reminds you of the best days of your childhood, when your mom made your favorite dish and had it ready for you when you came back home from school. That moment when you were happy and didn’t know it. Let’s talk about cochinita pibil.
Before you start wondering why you haven’t tried cochinita pibil before, let me introduce you to this Yucatecan delight. Before tasting it, it is good to know its history.
It turns out that, like today’s Mexico, this dish, as we know it now, was a result of the Spanish conquest, but its origins date back to much earlier in history. The ancient Maya discovered and mastered the technique of preparing food buried in a hole in the ground. This hole is known as “pib” that translates as an earth oven.
This pre-Hispanic dish was prepared by the Maya people with pheasant, wild boar or deer meat and was cooked for Hanal Pixán, which is the day when the souls of the deceased visit their relatives. This happens from October 31 to November 2, indeed, the same dates that Mexico celebrates the Day of the Dead.
The cochinita pibil, along with other typical dishes of the Yucatán Peninsula, accompany the offerings made to the deceased so that they can taste them in their day.
When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, they brought pork meat and it was like joining two pieces of a perfect puzzle. At that time, the cochinita pibil was born as we know it today. You can find it all along the country, but there’s nothing like tasting it in Yucatán or Quintana Roo, states where Maya culture dominates to date.
You already know a little about its history, and now it is my job to make you run for a sample of this Mexican dish. But first of all, I offer an apology if you salivate or feel a little envious, but I hope you understand that tasting different styles and ways to prepare cochinita pibil is my job. I know, it’s a big sacrifice, but I want you to know that I never stopped thinking about you and all the cochinita I ate was thinking about you.
How is the cochinita pibil prepared?
The recipe indicates that we need pork leg, pork loin, banana tree leaves, achiote, orange juice and salt. From this point on, it gets a little tricky. Each business and family prepares it differently and assures that their way is the correct one. Some say it needs oregano, others state that white pepper is the way to go, a few others say that chile guajillo is necessary, and so on to infinity…
The only truth is that they are all very tasty and, precisely, in the variety of recipes, is where we find the beauty of this dish.
What does cochinita pibil taste like?
It is very difficult to describe such a flavor in detail, but I will do my best. You face a very characteristic flavor that can vary drastically from recipe to recipe, but there is always a slightly acidic touch with juicy and very soft meat that needs no chewing, it melts in your mouth. While the flavor of the marinade is predominant, it does not dull the texture and taste of the pork meat.
It is not spicy or has a taste of chili, but its best friend is habanero. It also has no onion flavor, but all good cochinita pibil is accompanied with purple onion, lemon, and a touch of oregano.
In conclusion, it is a pleasant taste on the palate with the pork meat highlighted and accompanied by a kind of marinade with an acid touch, very juicy, and delicious.
How do you eat cochinita pibil?
Every good Mexican dish is eaten in a taco. And, of course, this is no exception, although I dare to say that it is not the best way to eat it.
You can order a cochinita pibil taco of pure meat with no fat, or you can order a complete ecstasy of flavor that is a taco with meat, fat, and pork skin called “cueritos”, a touch of flavor that melts your saliva.
Another very tasty way to eat it is in a panucho. The panucho is a tortilla stuffed with beans and passed through lard so that it is halfway between a toast and a soft tortilla.
But, hold on and get ready to eat what I think is the right way to eat cochinita pibil: in a sandwich. But this is not about a normal sandwich. In Mexico we have a type of bread called bolillo, you can eat it stuffed with different dishes and, cochinita pibil, is not an exception.
Once you have your taquitos or your cochinita pibil torta (bolillo sandwich), how to accompany it? The rule dictates that the only companions are the purple onion and the habanero pepper (you must be very careful with it; it is the spiciest Mexican chili). But if you want to taste something different, add lemon and, in some establishments, guacamole. Well, what can I say about the Mexican avocado? It always accompanies everything very well.
Now, it is time to taste.
Different ways to prepare cochinita pibil
Cochinita pibil cooked in an oven.
As I told you, the traditional way to make cochinita pibil is in an earth oven, but today it is more difficult to make a hole in your patio than to put it in the oven of your stove. Therefore, many businesses have adopted this technique to get the best out of it.
Cochinita pibil from “Los Vecinos” located in Cancun, Quintana Roo, uses this technique to prepare their recipe. Daniel takes care of serving cochinita in the backyard of his house on Saturdays and Sundays. He undertook this business to generate extra income and the recipe that he follows was taught by his father to him and his sister.
The secret touch of “Los Vecinos” is the warmth and attention with which Daniel and his wife attend you. Although if we speak only about food, it’s simply delicious. It has a very particular flavor and they have a technique in which they toast the bread so that your torta keeps a crunchy surface and a soft center.
In addition to the taste of cochinita pibil, they have enough supplements such as lemon, sauces, and onions that accompany the food very well.
This, without a doubt, is one of the best options in Cancun to taste cochinita pibil.
Cochinita pibil, as it was meant to be.
In Leona Vicario, a small town on the way to Yucatán, you can find a business near the road that sells one of the best cochinitas I ever tasted.
Since you park you can smell the burning wood and the pork meat waiting for you to taste it. It is a business that follows the ancestral recipe, with its respective improvements, of making cochinita pibil in a hole on the ground.
The waiter who attended us made emphasis in telling us that the cochinita pibil was brought directly from Mérida, the capital city of Yucatán. And that they follow the ancestral recipe.
Let me tell you that it has a completely different flavor to the one made in a conventional oven, for a very simple reason: smoke. The smoke gives a very particular taste to the pork.
If you are looking to experiment, this is not the place, because here the cochinita is eaten as it should be eaten. Only with purple onion and habanero pepper, in a torta or a taco. There’s nothing else. But believe me, you don’t need anything else.
A sample of cochinita pibil.
If you read this and you’re dying to taste the cochinita pibil, but it’s difficult for you to move around the city, I have good news for you. In Xcaret, Xplor, Xel-Há and Xoximilco, you’ll find a sample of this dish in some of the restaurants found in the parks.
It is a cochinita that follows the basic recipe prepared in a conventional oven and have some complements that make it perfect. Personally, it is a great example that will not disappoint you and is very close to the great taste of this traditional dish.
The best way to serve it in the parks is in a taco. Serve the meat and accompany it with the purple onion and the sauce that you prefer. You will not regret it.
Now you know a little more about this ancient dish, how to eat it, and what to expect from it. The important thing is to open your palate to new flavors and enjoy each and every one of the recipes that exist. Discover more experiences and, above all, enjoy them.