A Culinary Journey Through Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula

“Come in,” says Eliodoro Xicum Cobá with the broadest smile as he greets us at the gate of his soon-to-open restaurant, Xicum, a few blocks from Parque Principal Francisco Cantón Rosado in the city of Valladolid. We are the first guests to taste the young chef’s menu before it is presented to the public.

Behind Xicum, in his open kitchen, Eliodoro’s staff is busy pressing tortillas by hand and preparing the grill. His concrete table, adorned with a stone mortar in the shape of a rooster, is whitened by coal ash. The enchanting city of Valladolid is the first stop on my culinary journey through the Yucatán Peninsula, a region known for its diverse gastronomy inspired by Mayan culture. In addition to cooking traditional dishes in rustic kitchens, I’m here to meet a new breed of award-winning young chefs who are at the forefront of Merida’s culinary renaissance.

“In my kitchen, we tell the stories of our ancestors,” boasts the Chumayel-born chef. Food was never his first passion. He wanted to be a lawyer. “I went to culinary school because, as a Mayan, I thought food was the best way to tell the story of my culture and its rich history.”

The ancient Mayan diet consisted mainly of corn, squash, beans and chili peppers. Corn was often ground and rolled into tortillas to wrap meat and beans. Walking through the colorful streets of the historic center, you can smell the aroma of corn coming from every corner. “This is our staple food. We eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” grins Elio as he grinds a handful of spices.

“The food scene in Yucatán has evolved tremendously. Young chefs like me have traveled through Europe and other parts of Latin America and have been inspired, not only in terms of flavors but also in terms of techniques. Here at Xicum, I combine both.”The smell of fresh corn and charred meat fills the air as we sit in the stifling Yucatán heat to sample his multi-course meal. We start with fresh elongated (Spanish sausage) tortillas, chaya-warma soup made with a spinach-like vegetable found in the Yucatan, and shredded chicken sak-k’oola thick white sauce, with olives.

Elio Xicum owns a restaurant in Valladolid (Radhika Aligh)

Elio Xicum owns a restaurant in Valladolid (Radhika Aligh)

When asked where his products come from, Eliodoro says part of his mission is to advocate for sustainable cooking practices and reduce food waste. “I want to work with farmers in and around the region to promote fresh herbs and local meats. We want to use every part of the animals we slaughter, from head to toe.”

The Yucatán’s fertile soils, with year-round sunshine and underground water sources, are perfect for farming. In the small town of Dzitnup, on the outskirts of Valladolid, Mestizo Misterio Culinario grows most of its produce just a few meters away. Located in Oriundo, a luxury property with seven villas surrounded by nature, their fusion menu combines native ingredients such as chaya (tree spinach), corn and spleen tomato (local tomato) with macaroni and cheese or spaghetti.

Most of the fruits and vegetables used in Mestizo are grown in the Selva Maya eco park, which is also home to the famous Saamal cenote, a natural sinkhole created by collapsed limestone beds that expose groundwater. The Mayans used cenotes for water supplies—and occasionally for sacrifices.

At Selva Maya, the cenote waters the garden, where herbs are grown in the traditional Mayan way: in wooden crates raised off the ground to avoid being destroyed by iguanas and rodents. On the other side of the field, carrots, tomatoes, papayas and tangerines grow alongside native fruits such as mamey (also known as (sapote)Even the honey used in Mestizo comes from the farm itself.

In a small open hut, Melipona bees create their colonies jobsa hollow trunk of the ramón tree used by the Mayans for beekeeping. These stingless sacred bees are endemic to the Yucatán Peninsula and are said to have medicinal benefits.

I can show people a part of Mexico through food, smells and presentation

Chef Marcus Meneses Duay

In 2019, tourism authorities launched the Maya Village Project to focus on rural tourism in the Yucatán. On my second day, we drive an hour and a half west to the village of Yaxunah, located 20 km from the tourist hotspot Chichén Itzá. With a population of just 750, the community of Yaxunah has preserved its cultural identity and developed sustainable tourism practices to promote Mayan heritage. A small museum houses replicas of archaeological finds, while a communal botanical garden grows herbs, which are free for all residents to access.

Pollo Pibil cooked in a piib with tortillas (Radhika Aligh)Pollo Pibil cooked in a piib with tortillas (Radhika Aligh)

Pollo Pibil cooked in a piib with tortillas (Radhika Aligh)

“Food played a central role in Mayan culture,” Holga Tamay tells me. She has been teaching the culinary-curious traditional cuisine for eight years. She invites me to sit next to her at a stone metatea grinding stone or millstone consisting of a large stone with three legs and a smaller stone that is rubbed against the larger stone. Maya metates were porous volcanic stones used to grind or mill foods such as corn and cocoa beans.

We prepare a popular Yucatec dish, kitten with a kittenslow cooked pork rubbed with a paste of black pepper, gloves, annatto, charred garlic, oregano and cinnamon. Holga gathers a small amount of everything, adds a little water and places them on the metateThe grinding process is tedious and takes several passes. Annatto, derived from the seeds of the achiote tree, has given the paste an orange-red hue.

The meat is covered with the fragrant paste and placed in a pot with tomatoes and onions. A piece of banana leaf covers the mixture before it is transferred to a piss or piiban earthen oven commonly used in the Yucatán Peninsula. Holga brings out the pot after two hours and serves the meat — which falls off the bone — with piping hot tortillas, pickled red onions, habanero peppers and a pitcher of chilled water of Jamaica or hibiscus tea.

While individuals like Holga pass down age-old recipes, young chefs in Mexico are experimenting with Yucatecan cuisine and fusing it with Western techniques. Merida, a two-hour drive from Yaxunah, is at the heart of this exciting culinary shift. The 47th Street Gastronomic Corridor has become a magnet for locals and tourists alike, who enjoy Merida’s culinary diversity and unique architectural facades.

Located on Calle 60, just off Parque Santa Lucia, NOL draws inspiration from Yucatecan cuisine and chef Erick Bautista’s Oaxacan roots. Plates of food here are beautifully presented and bursting with unique and unexpected flavors. From tamales to tetelas and from corn to ceviche. The menu changes every two months to showcase the seasonal produce.

Yucatec cuisine is each person’s own interpretation of the region’s rich agricultural and cultural heritage

The opening page of the menu is a micro-dictionary of Mayan ingredients to help readers better understand Bautista’s vision, followed by the names of their suppliers of meat, seafood, chocolate, wine and beer. We begin our meal with fish tartare made from the catch of the day, brined with citrus, pickled tapioca, habanero and lime sauce. Towering rabbit or brown corn sprinkled with grasshopper powder is another unique appetizer.

The main course was fish on a bed of fragrant red sauce with corn and a mushroom salad. Bautista’s innovative take on Mexican cuisine has earned him much recognition, including a win in the S. Pellegrino Young Chef Academy competition for Latin America.

Chef Marcus Meneses Duay in the kitchen of Casa Lecanda (Radhika Aligh)Chef Marcus Meneses Duay in the kitchen of Casa Lecanda (Radhika Aligh)

Chef Marcus Meneses Duay in the kitchen of Casa Lecanda (Radhika Aligh)

“A lot of chefs are experimenting with Yucatecan food,” chef Marcus Meneses Duay tells me. My next cooking class is at Casa Lecanda, a colonial house turned boutique hotel in the heart of Mérida. High ceilings, floral tiles and original wooden doors, the interior displays vintage charm in abundance, with furnishings dating back to the Spanish occupation.

In the terracotta-floored kitchen, we make a ceviche-style fish appetizer, a green tomato, poblano chile and onion sauce, and an avocado mousse with almond milk. I learn about the different chiles and their heat intensity. “In the Yucatán, we cook with ingredients that are native to the region. It’s rich in milpa, bitter orange, avocado, tomatoes, chiles, melons, jicama, amaranth and sweet potato. I love what I do because I can show people a part of Mexico through food, smells and presentation,” Marcus tells me.

Marcus’ sentiment applies to every region of the Yucatán I’ve visited. From a small Mayan village hut where Tamay preserves its traditions to the kitchens of innovative chefs like Xicum and Bautista, Yucatecan cuisine is everyone’s interpretation of the region’s rich agricultural and cultural heritage.

For more information on what to see, do and eat, visit yucatan.travel.

Where to stay

Valladolid – Each villa at Oriundo Luxury Nature Villas is beautifully furnished and features a private pool and outdoor terrace. Rates start from £600 including breakfast.

Merida – Rooms at Wayam start at £130 including breakfast.

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