Bienvenidos a Los Dos: Yucatan: A Culinary Expedition

About Chef David Sterling
The Yucatecan Market
Fresh from the outback
AS A STRANGER LIVING IN A VERY STRANGE LAND, I am often jolted out of my supermarket haze by frequent reminders that many people – in fact, about half the people in the world – still live close to the land. One such reminder was recently published in Diario de Yucatán – the peninsula’s top newspaper. It offered a whimsical yet realistic view of the fact that while some comestibles may be bought – others are caught. The remarkable thing to me is that none of the following foods is considered all that exotic here in Mérida. All of my highly sophisticated, educated, urban Yucatecan friends have at least heard of the dishes, and some have even tried a couple. Certainly their parents or grandparents sampled some of them, such that virtually everyone I know inhabits a zone separated just a couple of degrees from the wilderness.

As published in Diario de Yucatán, 14 May, 2009
By Miguel Ángel Moo Góngora and Hipólito Pacheco Perera

It tastes different than it looks
Dishes with snakes, iguanas or wasp larvae worthy of the most refined palates

The exquisite aroma they give off when being grilled over charcoal, or cooking in the pot with vegetables and spices, inspire the appetite. The unsuspecting person who doesn’t know what it is might even be tempted to have a second helping. And when he does find out, he might offer an apology to his stomach: “Well, it doesn’t taste half bad considering how it looked when it was alive!”

The massive communication machine has branded in our heads the notion that meat for the table should only be that which comes from animals found most typically in corrals – even though our ancestors taught us “if it moves and breathes, you can eat it!”

Whether it flies, runs through the fields or crawls around the jungle floor, to this day among some populations the only meat to be had is that which is hunted. And besides – in the outback – domesticated cows and pigs aren’t exactly that common.

In the cities, few are the folk who can say they have eaten rattlesnake meat, yet even though it may sound ridiculous, there really are still people who capture rattlesnakes in order to feed the family.

Artemio Moo Cauich – a Yucatecan farmer who has been lucky enough to have had a bite of some reptilian dish or other – says that various species of snake are edible, and although they aren’t offered in restaurants with strange sounding names, he reports that indeed there are people who know how to prepare them in ways worthy enough of being in the most haute cuisine cookbooks.

Moo (pronounced “moe”) further explains that indeed the rattlesnake (known as tsáab kaan in Mayan) is one among several edible snake varieties, and that its meat has a pale pink color similar to fish.

The iguana (juuj in Mayan) is another edible species and can be cooked in pipián (a sauce of toasted and ground squash seeds) or roasted. The rattlesnake can be cooked in escabeche (a stock containing vinegar and spices) or as barbecue, says Moo.

“The armadillo (weech in Mayan) and the porcupine (k’i’ix beel) are also edible. The former is commonly prepared pibil style (wrapped in banana leaves and roasted in an underground oven) or in escabeche; the latter can be cooked as pibil, too.

“Some people even eat raccoon (k’ulu’) and badger (chi’ik), both of which can be prepared in a variety of methods.”

Moo continues, “None of these species is normally that appetizing to most people, but of those that I have tried I could say they make for some good eating.

“Only one time did I eat armadillo and since I didn’t care much for it, I never tried it again, but I know people who don’t think twice and who sink their teeth right in when it’s put in front of them.”

Moo attested that there are even people who swear that the flesh of o’possoms (ooch) and of the porcupine can cure malaria, “although that hasn’t been proven.”
“There are more common species, like deer (kéej), the rodent known as tepezcuintle or paca (jaleb) and the wild boar (kitam), that also have much sought-after meat; because of this, they are protected by the government and the furtive hunting of them is prohibited to avoid extinction,” he pointed out.

The most popular recipe for all three of these animals is tsi’ik – a kind of salad of shredded meat and chopped vegetables like radish and cilantro, dressed in naranja agria (sour orange) juice.

Also included in the menu known by all rural farmers, in addition to those already mentioned, is the pouched, burrowing rodent known as tuza in Spanish (baj in Mayan), the mourning dove (sakpakal) (photo by Arthur and Elaine Wilson), the wild turkey (kuuts), quail (beech) and the hare (t’u’ul). In the case of insects, the only one known to be eaten in Yucatán is the ek (a variety of wasp), or to be more specific, its larvae.

As for the tuza, after receiving a quick and presumably painless death with a brisk little blow of a stick on the nape of the neck, it is placed on a roaring blaze in order to singe the fur, almost like down, that covers its body.

Those who have born witness to how these little root-eaters go from the tunnel to the plate trust that – at least according to those who performed the quick cookery – the fierce heat of the fire is sufficient to kill all the germs that the bucktoothed creature carried around with it during its life in constant contact with the earth.

After singeing the rodent, the stomach is slit open to remove the viscera; the insides are sprinkled with salt and some lime or sour orange juice; it is wrapped in banana leaves and buried beneath the ashes of the hearth, which can continue in its daily use for making tortillas or cooking other foods. In less than an hour it is ready to eat.

Due to the distinct environment in which the wild turkey, wild boar, deer and paca are found, they have something in common: they are most typically cooked on the spot in a pib – the underground oven of stone and soil.

As for venison, after its pib cooking, some parts of the deer may be cooked a second time, in another way.

For example, the leg can be transformed into a pipián, or chilaquil. The latter must not be confused with that which is consumed in Mexico, made with fried tortilla strips, chicken and red or green sauce. Yucatecan chilaquil on the other hand is prepared with cubed beef, cooked in a red stock including achiote, tomato and onion. The same recipe can be applied to venison pre-cooked in a pib.

The deer’s stomach can also be cooked in the pib, stuffed with organ meats such as heart, kidney and liver that have been previously soaked in a vinegar marinade.

The head is usually the first part of the deer that is consumed, freshly disinterred from the earthen oven: the cooked neck, ears, tongue and sparse meat from the skull is cut into small cubes and mixed with a salpicón of radish, cilantro and sour orange juice. And topping the tacos made from this salpicón it is also customary to add a bit of the roasted brains.

The larvae of the ek – a species of wasp found in the wilds of Yucatán – are also eaten with salpicón: workers pilfer the whole hive, then take it apart layer by layer, carefully shaking out the larvae onto a gently heated comal (griddle).

Once the whitish larvae are golden brown, they are removed and seasoned with a bit of salt and pepper. Chopped radish and cilantro are added along with sour orange juice, and they are now ready to eat as a taco. They have a taste similar to fresh toasted maize.

The mere visage of the armadillo is such that it doesn’t exactly encourage just anyone to want to put it on a plate. Nevertheless, many decades ago it was common to hear in the pueblos that “Mr. So-and-So”, known for selling roast pig, mixed some of his pork with armadillo, which people bought for cheap.

Gastronomic options
The list of edible animal species is extensive, although perhaps not appealing to many diners.

• Duck
While many families raise ducks on their patios along with their hens, there are few who actually eat them. Not even the eggs – which have a hard shell and greenish lining – are eaten as much as chicken eggs.

• “Cheating”
In the past, during certain celebrations in which food was handed out, some hostesses “cheated”, since in order to stretch the meat for their guests they sacrificed some ducks to mix with the turkey or chicken in chile sauce.

• Turtle
As recently as 20 years ago, before turtles were protected by environmentalist organizations, wealthy families from the interior of the state were accustomed to eating sea turtle during Holy Week. Where the creature came from was always kept a secret. The most common form for preparing it was in ajiaco (a Caribbean stew of meat, root vegetables and chiles) with plenty of cumin to distract from the fishy smell.

• Fish one day a week
For some communities of the south – far from the coast – fish also was an “exotic” meal barely 30 years ago, since it was only available one day a week. The afternoon prior to “fish day”, vendors promoted it in the streets.

• For breakfast
With the improvement of the highway system, nowadays communities of any size have access to fish almost daily, since it is no longer difficult to acquire fried fish – even for breakfast.
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