For Proust is was madeleines. For me, it’s sopa de lima. My initial trip to Mexico at age 14 was to Mérida, capital of the Yucatan. It was a thrill I’ll never forget. The first thing I ate was a bowl of sopa de lima . The memory of that soup, with its perfumy aroma of limas (a non- acidic citrus native to the area) and crispy tortilla strips, still fills me with a sense of wonder and discovery. Since then I’ve gone on to experience the wide range of flavors that Yucatecan cuisine has to offer. The cooking of the peninsula, with its spicy, tart, and fruity flavors, is among the most distinctive and exciting in Mexico. Fortunately, Yucatecan food is readily available here in the capital, so I don’t need to travel 1000 miles to wax nostalgic.
The Yucatan peninsula is geographically isolated from the rest of the country, so its culture, heavily influenced by Mayan civilization, is unique. Spanish, Caribbean and even Lebanese (who controlled the hemp industry in the 19th century) immigrants have made cultural and gastronomic contributions. The food is characterized by very hot sauces (typical of very hot places) and local ingredients like pumpkin seed powder, red onion, sour orange, sweet pepper, lime, a marinating paste known as "achiote", capsicum pepper (xcat ik), habanero pepper, and coriander, as well as the aforementioned lima . Turkey, wild boar, venison and cazón (a small shark) traditionally provide the protein.
I’ve tried just about every venue for Yucatecan food in el D.F. over the years, and none has matched the quality of Coox Hanal (pronounced “coosh anAHL”). This popular restaurant was founded by ex-boxer Raúl Salazar from Mérida, and it offers Yucatecan fare just as it's done in Don Raúl's hometown. Located over a billiard parlor in a non-descript building in the centro, this restaurant is popular with people who work in the neighborhood and with families--there’s even a small rooftop playground for the kids. It’s been around since 1953, so you know they’re doing something right.
Of course, I always start with the fragrant sopa de lima, hearty and well-balanced. Then I move in for the hard stuff. The peninsula’s most famous dish is cochinita pibil. Shredded pork is marinated in a paste of citrus and achiote, then wrapped in banana leaves and roasted until it’s falling-apart tender. The meat is eaten as tacos with pickled red onions and fiery habanero salsa. Alternatively, it is piled on a thick tortilla over a slather of black bean paste, and called a ‘panucho’. Meaty, spicy, the flavors distinct--the cochinita pibil at Coox Hanal hits all the marks. But don’t expect to stay on your diet –a greasy puddle is part of the package.
Papadzules are tortillas filled with chopped eggs and covered with a sauce made from ground pumpkin seeds. The pale green sauce is nutty and creamy, but contains no dairy – the seeds do all the work, augmented by onion, garlic and epazote ( a medicinal tasting herb used only in Mexico). This earthy and satisfying dish is a good choice for vegetarians.
Pan de cazón (tortillas layered with fish, black beans and mildly spicy tomato sauce) is a another good alternative to the heavily carnivorous options. (Beware the chile perched on top—it’s for decoration or dare-devils only).
Poc chuc, grilled pork marinated in sour orange juice, is a typical regional dish. Here it’s tender and mild, good for those for whom the other stronger flavors are too much.
Chamorro, a big hunk of roasted, marinated meat pork shank that would appeal to Fred Flintstone – is very popular, but I find it rather messy to eat and less subtle tasting than the cochinita.
Also on the recently expanded menu are “recados”, thin, mole-like sauces served over meat. A smoky flavor dominates, but they are mild, a little thin. This is something I put in the ‘acquired taste’ category.
Ice cold horchata or a León or Montejo beer, direct from the Yucatán, are beverages of choice.
Prices are reasonable – a big lunch won’t set you back more than $100 pesos per person.
Do be careful of those salsas! They’re pretty to look at, but hotter than Dante could have imagined!
Isabel la Católica 83, near Mesones, upstairs, Centro
Open daily 10:30am-6pm
This article was originally published in The News Mexico City