Mexican food has gathered steam in America for years, evidenced by the fact that Taco Bell and Chipotle currently rank among the top 10 QSRs in the U.S. in terms of systemwide sales.
Now, a lesser-known subset of Mexican cuisine – from the Yucatán peninsula – is gaining popularity. The rise of Yucateco dishes has brought new flavors into America’s culinary scene.
The growth of Yucateco cuisine is apparent at establishments like El Molino in St. Louis, where acclaimed chef Alex Henry grinds corn varieties at the shop’s window front and sells masa-based products.
Yucateco cuisine has gained popularity in America “as the culinary scene in the United States begins to engage more with Mexico’s ancient traditions and rich cultural and culinary diversity,” Henry said.
“People in [America] have begun to wake up to the complexity of Mexico.”
Mayan and Spanish cultures heavily influence the Mexican state of Yucatán, located in Southeast Mexico. From a dining perspective, that fact has resulted in a mix of common Latin American ingredients such as corn, wild turkey, tomato and beans with those unique to Yucatán, like habanero chili, sour orange, and achiote paste.
“The peninsula has a huge variety of Caribbean spices,” said Cesar Tamariz, a native of Veracuz, Mexico, who currently serves as executive chef at Denver’s Kachina Cantina. “Yucateco cuisine reminds travelers of enjoying the beach, family, and friends, immersing themselves in a different culture and relaxation. It’s no wonder they want to taste that again once they return home, [to] relive their travels.”
These days, the most popular Yucatecan dishes include the following.
- Cochinita Pibil: flavorful pork (often slow-cooked for 24 hours, Tamariz noted) marinated in achiote paste and sour orange juice, wrapped in banana leaves and traditionally baked underground
- Pan de Cazón: a casserole that’s prepared like lasagna, using layered, lightly fried tortillas with shark meat
- Kaxil Sikil: a vegan dumpling dish made from ground pepitas (pumpkin seeds) in a broth flavored with charred garlic and Mexican spices like epazote
- Huevo Motuleño: an egg-topped tostada served atop beans, with ham, Colby cheese, chunks of fried plantain, and dressed with pea shoots
- Pulpo en su Tinta: tender octopus braised in a sauce of its own ink
Dishes like panuchos and papadzules, are also slowly making their way onto American restaurant menus.
“Traditional Yucateco dishes are fairly easy to execute if you have the right ingredients and know the flavor profile,” Tamariz said. “Cochinita pibil is a great example of an easily added menu item; it’s familiar to the American diner – everyone loves pulled pork – and it offers a flavor profile that’s distinctly Yucateco.”