It is Sunday in Merida, the graceful capital of the state of Yucatan. In every park there is music, a marimba here, a trio there, or dancers tapping out the alluring rhythms of the jarana, the stately folk dance of Yucatan. And in every restaurant there is puchero, because that is what one eats on Sunday in Yucatan.
Puchero is a meal in a pot, the Yucatecan version of a New England boiled beef dinner or France’s poule au pot (chicken stewed with vegetables). Instead of one meat, you get three--pork, chicken and beef, along with potato, cabbage, carrot, chayote, plantain and avocado. Drained of their broth, the meats, vegetables and fruits are arranged together on a plate. The broth is served on the side, with noodles added. It’s a gentle, lovely meal, unless you add the fiery salsas provided.
On this Sunday, I am the only tourist in Santa Lucia, a small restaurant on Calle 60, near the Parque de Santa Lucia. The puchero is wonderful, and I order an ice-cold chelada as relief from the humid heat outside. Invented by a bartender in Cancun, the chelada is beer trying to be a margarita. The frosty combination of lime juice, ice and Yucatan’s Montejo beer comes in a glass mug rimmed with salt.
Merida’s musical Sundays are well organized. Programs list the schedule of performances, and the center of downtown is closed to traffic, making it easy to walk from one venue to another.
There is music in the restaurant too--sentimental Yucatecan songs sung with lots of soul by customers who take turns at the mike. Without the slightest embarrassment, an older couple gets up to dance in undulating tropical style. Space is so cramped that the waiter can barely ease by them with his tray.
In my hotel, the Caribe, music is a way of life. Old-timers gather at a table in the back of the open-air restaurant each noon. They sing to one another for an hour or two, passing a guitar back and forth and recalling the days when venerable ballads such as “Peregrina” (Wanderer) and “Un Rayito de Sol” (A Sunbeam) were new.
It is August and very hot, and I am back in Yucatan for the first time in 18 years. Much has changed. If anything, travel is easier and more comfortable. Credit cards are widely accepted. and the shopping mall has arrived, complete with multi-screen movie houses, trendy shops and fast food. I was shocked to find a Burger King on a corner near my hotel, interrupting the antiquated look of the neighborhood.
Not to worry, though. Merida, founded in the 16th century on the site of a deserted Maya ceremonial center, has not lost its charm. The old-world colonial ambience remains mostly intact. Horse-drawn carriages (calesas) still ply the streets, carrying residents as well as tourists. And families still gather under the portales (arcades) along the main square for icy treats at the Sorbeteria Colon. This ice cream shop dates from the early 1900s. The flavors change as fruits come into season. The brilliant orange mamey fruit and tiny yellow nance fruit were around when I arrived, joined later by the creamy, custard-like saramuyo.
Vendors still roam the portales, selling everything from carved Chinese fans, decorated pens and hammocks to magic tricks. (I wound up with a trick box of matches--now you see them, now you don’t.) One night, a small boy was hawking a tray of luscious cakes straight from the oven. But I waited for the vendors of sweets. Their trays are stacked with irresistible dulces such as dark, smoky coconut candy from the nearby state of Campeche, fresh coconut pralines, marzipan made from squash seeds and snowy meringues that are crisp on the outside but soft and fluffy inside.
Restaurants that I remember from the past, like Los Almendros and Alberto’s Continental, serve the same dishes as before. Los Almendros’ menu reads like a dictionary of traditional Yucatecan cuisine. Alberto’s offers Lebanese dishes, which are not an oddity here because Merida has an old and prosperous Lebanese colony. Panaderias (bakeries) display pan arabe (pita bread) along with pan dulce. In the Parque de Santa Lucia, I bought onion-stuffed kibbee--the Lebanese ground-lamb and bulgur wheat cakes--from a food stall, and I saw cracked wheat for Middle Eastern cookery in a supermarket.
Fresh from three days spent sampling Mexico City’s innovative, contemporary cuisine, I was plunged into a region where the classics are revered, without alteration. Everyone still eats poc chuc (in Mayan, that means pork grilled over charcoal), panuchos (tortillas stuffed with black beans and topped with shredded chicken or turkey) and papadzules (tortillas wrapped around hard-cooked eggs and bathed in squash-seed sauce).
The breakfast special is huevos motulenos: fried eggs sandwiched between tortillas coated with black bean paste and topped with tomato sauce, peas and ham. Unless, that is, it is Sunday, when one starts out with tacos of cochinita pibil. Cochinita or pollo pibil is pork or chicken seasoned with achiote (annatto) seeds, wrapped in banana leaves and steamed in a pit.
Aside from beer, the preferred beverage is horchata, a sweet, white drink made from ground rice and flavored with cinnamon and vanilla. Xtabentun, a liqueur flavored with honey and anise, is a regional specialty worth bringing home.
What was new, at least to me, were the restaurants that cater to Italian tourists. It was jarring to see people eating huge pizzas and drinking wine under the portales despite the 100-degree heat. But who am I to criticize? You could find me regularly in Burger King, the only place where I could get a quick, familiar cup of coffee. In Yucatan, the weather is so consistently hot that Coke is the beverage of choice for breakfast.
Some mornings I would walk to the Plaza de Santiago to eat at the Loncheria El Buen Gusto, a food stall beside the market there. The lure was tamales colados: banana leaf-wrapped tamales that are as tender and soft as fine custard. They come topped with turkey shreds and tomato sauce.
One morning, I was up before dawn for a culinary pilgrimage to the small town of Muna, about an hour’s drive from Merida. A restaurant there, Chun Yaax-Che, makes pollo pibil in the old way, and I wanted to see how this was done. I went with a driver, but the roads were so empty and well marked that I could have driven myself.
At Chun Yaax-Che, the cooks were arranging chicken in big pans lined with banana leaves. They coated the chicken pieces with lots of bright red achiote sauce and topped them with sliced tomato, red onion and chile dulce, a mild chile that looks like a miniature bell pepper. After covering the mixture with more banana leaves, they laid on top a leafy branch from a roble (native oak). This, they said, would add a special aroma.
Mayan custom was to bury the chicken protected only by banana leaves. Romantic as this may sound, the truth is that dirt and ashes got in the food. So at the restaurant, the pans are topped with tight metal lids. Then they are set amid hot logs and rocks in an outdoor pit and covered again with a corrugated metal sheet. The logs come from katsin trees, which grow in the monte, the thick, low jungle that carpets this flat terrain.
After four hours, the chicken emerges incredibly succulent and falling off the bone. I laughed when I saw the pit afterward, decorated by some jokester with a cross at the head and a bouquet at the base.
One day I went to Mani, about half an hour beyond Muna. Historians know Mani as the site where, in the 16th century, more than 10,000 Mayan Indians were slaughtered in a Spanish inquisition and their written laws and religious implements destroyed. A plaque commemorating the tragedy hangs in Il Principe Tutul-Xiu, a restaurant that is built like a Mayan house. Walls of slim branches let in every precious breeze, and ceiling fans make the dining area comfortably cool no matter how hot the day.
Il Principe produces the best poc chuc that I tasted in Yucatan. The cooks season the tender meat of young pigs with salt, then grill it over katsin logs. The grilling takes place in a small room so choked with smoke that I fled to the room next door. There I watched Lourdes, a Mayan woman garbed in a traditional white hipil with flower trim, prepare the tortillas for lunch.
Mayans do not slap tortillas between the palms. They place the dough on a plastic sheet and turn the sheet, flattening the tortilla with the fingers of one hand and aligning the edges with the side of the other hand. After they are baked on the comal, an earthenware pan, tortillas retain the fingerprints.
Now the poc chuc was ready to eat. And what a gorgeous plate. Cut into bite-size pieces, the meat was arranged on a bed of lettuce and shredded cabbage, then strewn with tomato slices, flecks of roasted onion, cilantro and avocado. The aroma of the wood permeated the meat, and a squeeze of sour orange juice made it slightly tangy. Little browned portions tasted almost like bacon. Along with tortillas, the meal included frijoles colados, which are black beans cooked to a puree; a mild tomato-cilantro salsa and a green salsa spiked with fiery habanero chile.
After lunch, I browsed in a little shop just outside. Here you can buy pale, rosy molcajetes (stone mortars and pestles) made in Kancab, a town in the vicinity. Heavy as they were, I had to have one, but managed to resist quaint stone jaguars with holes for toothpicks.
During 10 days in Merida, I made many such excursions--to the seaside towns Progreso and Celestun for seafood; to Motul for its namesake dish, huevos motulenos, and to Ticul, birthplace of pollo ticuleno (breaded chicken with tomato sauce, ham, peas and cheese set on tortillas coated with black beans).
On the last day, I went to Izamal, site of the historic Franciscan convent of San Antonio de Padua. An hour’s drive from Merida, Izamal is the destination of a train tour that departs from the city each Sunday. The town has one excellent restaurant, Kinich Kakmo, which means “red parrot,” and also is the name of a Mayan ruin. I never saw the parrot, but I ate wonderful food there including siquil’pak, a ground tomato and squash-seed dip that would be a hit at any cocktail party. Kinich Kakmo’s pureed black beans are like liquid velvet, a landmark rendition of this dish. Here I tried pierna asada a la Yucateca--grilled sliced pork leg seasoned with sour orange juice and achiote paste. The charming old-fashioned dessert was dulce de papaya, papaya preserved in syrup accompanied by queso de bola, a dry, salty Dutch cheese.
This was my final meal on the road. But before heading to the airport, I stopped for one last taste of Yucatan. My choice: a frosty champola de mamey at the Sorbeteria Colon. The sorbet was scooped into a tall glass that was then filled with milk. As I stirred them together, the color became rosy, like sunset at the end of this perfect journey.
Hansen contributes to The Times’ Food and Calendar sections and has written extensively on Mexican cooking.
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The Maya Menu
Getting there: From L.A. to Merida, all flights connect through Mexico City. Fares start at $530 round trip on Mexicana Airlines and Aeromexico.
Where to stay: Hotel Caribe, in a corner of Hidalgo Park, Calle 59, No. 500, Merida; telephone (888) 822-6431. It has 53 rooms, small pool, good location in a historical building. Rate: double, about $30. The hotel restaurant, El Rincon, is atmospheric and moderately priced.
Where to eat: Restaurante Santa Lucia, Calle 60, No. 481, Merida; local telephone 28-59-87 or 25-07-79.
Los Almendros, Calle 50A, No. 493, by the Plaza Mejorada, Merida; tel. 28-54-59 or 23-81-35. Authentic Yucatecan cuisine. More expensive.
Dulceria y Sorbeteria Colon, two locations: north side of the Zocalo, and Paseo de Montejo, No. 474-A, Merida; tel. 27-64-43.
Alberto’s Continental, Calle 64, No. 482, Merida; tel. 28-53-67. Lebanese and Yucatecan food. More expensive.
Restaurante Chun Yaax-Che, Calle 13, No. 201, Muna; tel. 71-00-36. Very traditional Yucatecan cooking; $10 a dish.
Il Principe Tutul-Xiu, Calle 26, No. 208, Mani, no telephone.