How to eat like a local in the Yucatan

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Cochinita pibil is one of the signature dishes of the Yucatan Peninsula.
Cochinita pibil is one of the signature dishes of the Yucatan Peninsula. Photo Credit: Eric Moya

Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula is a region known for its lush tropical jungles, spectacular coastline, Mayan ruins and tourist hotspots like Cancun and Tulum. But digging deeper into the Yucatan reveals a cultural melting pot, drawing on influences from the Mayan world, the Caribbean, Spain, Africa and the Middle East as well as other parts of Mexico. Nowhere in the country is this more evident than in the traditional cuisine in the Yucatan. Here are some of the top dishes to know and taste when visiting the area, courtesy of Yucatan Tourism.

Sopa de Lima: Whole turkeys simmer for hours to create a delicious broth that is seasoned with garlic, onion, tomatoes, dried oregano and a lot of lime juice. The result is a sour soup that is usually topped with fried tortilla strips.

Panuchos: This appetizer-style dish is made of corn tortillas topped with refried black beans and shredded chicken. The chicken is marinated in annatto paste (made from achiote seeds) dissolved in sour orange juice. Top off the meal with pickled red onions, avocados and lettuce.

Salbutes: Similar to paunches, salbutes tortillas are made of a combination of corn and flour, then fried and topped with shredded chicken, onions, tomatoes, and avocados.

Longaniza asada: A spicy, skinny sausage similar to the Spanish chorizo. It has a darker color because it is made with achiote and uses venison instead of pork. It is smoked on a charcoal grill and served with beans, tortillas, white cheese and sour orange.

Cochinita pibil: One of the signature dishes of the Yucatan, this shredded, barbecued pork can be found at almost every restaurant. The pork loin is marinated in annatto paste and sour orange juice overnight before being wrapped in banana leaves and cooked over charcoal for hours. It is served with refried black beans and pickled red onion relish.

Queso relleno: This dish best exemplifies the cultural collaborations of the Yucatan. A round block of Dutch Edam cheese is hollowed out and stuffed with ground pork cooked with onions, bell peppers, olives, raisins, capers and almonds. Hardboiled eggs are added to the meat mixture before it makes its way into the cheese dome. The entire dish is wrapped in banana leaves, baked for 30 minutes and served with tomato salsa and a cheese sauce.

Poc chuc: The grilled filet of pork loin is beaten until thin and marinated in sour orange, salt and pepper, then grilled over charcoal.

Dulce de papaya con queso: This intricate dessert can take three days to prepare. A whole, green papaya is candied by leaving it outside (only at night) soaking in lime water, then caramelized with sugar for a few hours. The result is a sweet and gummy pier of fruit that is served with shredded Edam cheese.

Flan: A common dish found across Central and South America. Flan is made with condensed and evaporated milk, sugar, eggs and vanilla.

Xnipec: Roasted habanero peppers are used to make different sauces that can range from fiery hot to mellow and mild. Xnipec is a fiery-hot, chunky salsa made with habanero chilis and Seville orange juice.

Try your hand cooking these local dishes at Los Dos (www.los-dos.com), which is one of the first cooking schools in Mexico devoted to the Yucatan style. Located in a colonial mansion in downtown Merida, the building is the private home of David Sterling, a chef who manages the school with his partner, Keith Heitke.

If you'd rather skip the class and just enjoy a traditional meal, consider these dining options in Merida: Restaurante La Tradicion (www.latradicionmerida.com/), La Chaya Maya (www.lachayamaya.com/) and Los Almendros (www.restaurantelosalmendros.com.mx/indexen.html).

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