Traditional Yucatan food is different from what many know as Mexican food, though this is changing. Thanks to cities like Mérida, known as the Cultural Capital of the Yucatan Peninsula and the safest city in Mexico, this regional cuisine is gaining in popularity.
Chefs from Merida have been featured in Taco Chronicles and Chef’s Table: BBQ, two of the best food shows on Netflix. As the city grows in popularity, more and more people are visiting for not only all the amazing things to do in Merida — but to eat traditional Yucatan food as well.
While you can even try this cuisine throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, it’s not all created equal. Expect the food from cultural-focused cities like Merida and Campeche, a UNESCO World Heritage Site/City, to taste better than in touristic places like Cancun, Tulum and Riviera Maya.
Below, you’re going to learn about the ingredients that make up traditional Yucatecan cuisine. You’ll also discover five Yucatan food dishes you must try when visiting Merida, or any of the nearby colonial cities you can reach on a Merida day trip. Ready to get started? Let’s get to it!
Yucatan Food Spices & Flavors
Naranja argia (sour orange) grows all year in the Yucatan. It is the size of a medium orange, but tastes more citrusy like a lime. Sour oranges are used in many Yucatecan foods, including poc chuc (grilled pork) and cochinita pibil. Outside of the Yucatan, it is usually called Seville orange.
Pronounced ahh-she-oh-tay, axiote spice powder is made by crushing the seeds of the Bixa orellana shrub. This evergreen plant is native to Yucatan, and used in many traditional dishes — like cochinita pibil (slow-roasted suckling pig), among the most beloved Yucatan foods of all!
Axiote goes by other names, including annatto, achuete and roucou, but in Mexico it’s called axiote, an Aztec word. Its flavor is close to a red peppercorn, with some bitterness and a mild peppermint scent. Besides flavoring, it gives dishes like cochinita pibil their red color.
Recados are essentially mashed-up spice mixtures. An essential part of Yucatan food, you can buy them in local markets when you don’t feel like making your own. To make a recado, you grind down a specific mixture of spices, then add water or liquid to create a thick paste.
Recados are used as the base for most foods in Yucatan, and come in three colors. The colors include recado rojo (red), recado blanco (white), and recado negro (black); all used for different Yucatan food preparations and dishes.
All salsas in Mexico are hot, to some degree — because the point of salsa is adding the heat flavor to foods. Among the hottest peppers used in Mexico are habaneros, popular in Yucatan food. When dining, you’ll get a side of habanero salsa, to add as much (or as little) as you want.
5 Yucatan Food Dishes You Must Try in Mexico
The king of Yucatan food, cochinita pibil (coe-chee-neat-uh pee-bill), is essentially barbecue from Mexico. Check out Chef’s Table: BBQ on Netflix (Season 1, Episode 4) to see it prepared the traditional way by Chef Rosalia Chay in her remote Yucatan village of Yaxuna, Mexico.
Cochinita pibil is a marinated suckling pig that’s wrapped in banana leaves and slow-cooked underground in an oven called a pib — hence “pibil” in the dish’s name. You can try it inside tacos, panuchos and salbutes (we’ll get to those!), tortas (sandwiches), and more.
When served, you’ll be given some spicy habanero pepper salsa that you can add to your taste level, and pickled red onions. These are the two central condiments in Yucatan cuisine, so they are served alongside many dishes.
Poc chuc is a thin pork filet that’s seasoned with naranja agria and grilled. Though it’s a seemingly simple dish, it let’s two of the main Yucatan ingredients shine — pork and naranja agria (sour orange).
Poc chuc will come served with the typical condiments, habanero salsa and pickled red onion, but also some others. These other condiments include frijol con puerco, a rich-tasting Yucatan pork and beans dish, and chiltomate, a delicious charcoal-roasted tomato salsa. WayanE in Merida has some amazing poc chuc and tacos al pastor.
Sopa de Lima
Sopa de lima (lime soup) is a favorite Yucatan food. It is a simple vegetable and chicken soup, but the naranja agria (the “lima” in sopa de lima) gives it a unique citrusy zing. While there are variations in how it’s served, many places top the soup with fried tortilla strips for some crunch.
Panuchos & Salbutes
In the Yucatan, you’ll find tacos in almost all restaurants and street food carts, but you can also change it up with the more traditional Yucatecan panuchos and salbutes. A salbute is a puffy fried tortilla, and a panucho is a tortilla that’s stuffed with refried black beans and then fried.
Panuchos and salbutes both come with the tortilla, your protein of choice, which can be anything from turkey to cochinita pibil, lettuce, tomato, and a side of pickled red onions and habanero salsa. They are great appetizers or snacks, or can be a full meal if you order enough.
Papadzules: Traditional Mayan Food
By now you may be wondering if there are any Yucatan vegetarian foods. In all honesty, there aren’t all that many, but for vegetarians visiting Yucatan, you’ll definitely have to try the papadzules (pronounced pa-pawed-zool-es).
Papadzules are one of the ancient Mayan foods still eaten in Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula today. This dish is made with enchiladas (cigar-style rolled tacos) that are filled with boiled egg and topped with two sauces, pepita, or pumpkin seed sauce, and a mild tomato salsa.
While all the other dishes listed are on the heavier side with pork as the main ingredient, papadzules taste light but very flavorful. For some Yucatan visitors, papadzules can be an acquired taste, but they are a locals’ favorite that you can find throughout the Yucatan.
Final Thoughts: Traditional Yucatan Food in Mexico
While you’ll find familiar Mexican cooking ingredients used throughout all Yucatan cuisine — ie. masa (corn), various chili peppers, tortillas, beans, tomatoes, limes, etc. — Yucatan food and what many know as Mexican food are actually quite different.
The staple flavors in Yucatan food, like naranja agria and axiote, only grow in this part of Mexico, so even well-known foods like tacos will taste different in the Yucatan. For foodies, you can’t go wrong eating anywhere in Mexico, though Yucatan food has its own distinct flavors!
Which of these Yucatan foods are you most excited to try?
About Shelley from Travel to Merida
Shelley is a former Miami travel magazine editor who ditched the office for the world! After visiting half the states in Mexico, she settled down in the Yucatan city of Merida in 2019 — where she runs the site, Travel To Merida to help others plan their Merida, Mexico trip. Follow her on social at Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.
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