Searching for an ancient dish in a new city
Cochinita Pibil in Cancún
Cancún is an invented city, created from nothing a mere 49 years ago, a project conceived by the Mexican tourism board to transform a strip of dunes on an island that was home to scarcely populated coconut plantations. The island became the Zona Hotelera, a 14-mile homage to beach luxury (or cramped condominiums, depending on your budget).
Cancún sits on the tip of the Yucatán, the peninsula jutting into the Gulf of Mexico. Mayan tradition managed to survive hundreds of years of conquest, imperial administration, and oppressive statehood. The Yucatán is a chimera of indigenous longevity and colonial transformation, where Spanish is spoken side-by-side with Mayan.
But you can still find the cuisine of the Yucatán in Cancún. You just to have to get out of the Zona Hotelera to find it.
When the city planners constructed Cancún, they needed a place for the banks, markets, and of course, places for the workers serving the resorts to live. This became El Centro, or downtown Cancún, a sprawling series of intersecting avenues with five lanes of traffic and unnervingly unofficial crosswalks, dotted with squat concrete buildings and the occasional palm tree.
Because of my travel preferences—wanting to avoid the resort strip and subsisting on a grad student’s wallet—I stayed in El Centro for the first two nights of my trip into the Yucatán. My hope was that in El Centro, a lagoon away from the resorts, the food would reflect the cuisine of the region.
In particular, I was after the Yucatán specialty of cochinita pibil. Cochinita is suckling pig, and the dish is usually made from pork shoulder. Pibil is a Mayan word that means buried, referring to the traditional preparation of the dish.
Cochinita pibil is a perfect representation of the syncretism of the Yucatán. Two of the main ingredients—pig and bitter orange, were brought to North America by the Spanish in the 16th century. Achiote seeds, the foundation of the seasoning paste, are native to Mexico, with achiote derived from the Nahuatl word axiotl. The Maya considered achiote seeds—with their distinct, blood-red hue—to be sacred. Wrapped in banana leaves and slowly roasted, the dissonant origins meld together.
What downtown Cancún lacks in city planning, it makes up for in food. You can find tacos, panuchos, quesadillas, and tostadas at open-air parks like the vibrant Parque de las Palapas, and at more traditional restaurants such as Tacos Rigo that rival the taquerias of Mexico City. Still, the morning we were about to leave for Valladolid, I had eaten carnitas, lengua, suadero, and al pastor—what can I saw, the tacos are small—but only one sub-par pibil quesadilla.
We were staying in a small house off one of the main drags—one of the streets with several lanes of traffic that turn crossing the street into a game of Frogger. We had seen a spot called Mr. Bean across the avenue. Hopeful that it referred to coffee and not frijoles, we went over in search of caffeine. It was, for some reason, a salad shop, so we resignedly went to the convenience store next door to pick up a consolation banana. In front of the store, though, was a little stand with a sign: “Tacos, Tortas, Cochinita.”
I asked for a torta, and the woman behind the stand dipped her tongs into a metal tray and picked up the pork, falling apart at the touch and swimming in a fatty, bright red sauce. She deposited it on a roll, and insisted on making us a taco as well, to which she added pickled red onions and biting salsa verde.
After taking a bite of each, my disappointment with Cancún washed away. Cochinita is the type of dish that has such depth of flavor that it doesn’t only take hours to properly cook—it takes hundreds of years of development. While Cancún might only be a few decades old, it is now part of that culinary story, at least by proximity. Satisfied and ready to explore the peninsula, we left Cancún, biding the minutes until it was acceptable to eat lunch.
Av. Palenque, 29
Cancún, Quintana Roo, Mexico