Think all Mexican food is all burritos and tacos? Be prepared to be surprised. In the Yucatan Peninsula, you’ll only find these Northern Mexican meals in the most touristy of spots. Native Yucatec food has origins as ancient as the Mayan culture that first migrated to this region nearly 4,000 years ago, and has only improved with time and foreign influences. Heading to the area soon? Here’s a guide to the best food in the Yucatan Peninsula.
The Best Food in the Yucatan Peninsula
The Core Ingredients
The Yucatan Peninsula’s geography and topography make it unique from the rest of Mexico. It is surrounded by water on three sides, which makes seafood a primary protein. The water table is buried beneath a thick layer of limestone, which meant that farming and irrigation needed to develop at a rapid pace to sustain the population. Certain peppers and greens grow abundantly in this region, making it unique from Central and Northern Mexico. Here are a few of the ingredients that make Yucatec cuisine so unique.
This is Yucatan’s version of spinach, and it’s health benefits supposedly outstrip it’s more popular cousin tenfold. It is native to the Yucatan peninsula and can be toxic when raw. Eek! Fortunately, it’s been around for a few thousand years, so a dozen or so cooking methods have been developed to make sure you can eat it without worry.
This is the holy grail of Yucatec chilies. You won’t sit down in a single restaurant without a dish of homemade habanero salsa being plopped in the middle of the table with the admonishment, “Be careful, this is very spicy.” These little orange chilies definitely pack a capsaicin punch, and each restaurant’s recipe is different. So taste with caution! If you love spice (and I mean really, how can you not?), you will love trying the various salsas on offer in the Yucatan Peninsula.
One side of the Yucatan Peninsula is flanked by the Caribbean Sea, which means loads of delicious spiny (or rock) lobsters dominate the menus. These lobsters are smaller than the giants we often see from Northeast USA, and they are sweet and tasty. You’ll pay top dollar for them in the resorty areas, but when prepared right it’s worth the price.
The Yucatan Peninsula separates the Caribbean Sea from the Gulf of Mexico, which means an abundance of… shrimp! These tasty morsels of seafood goodness show up in a dozens of Yucatec dishes, and you’ll be so glad they do.
These funky fruits are said to have arrived with the Spanish (though they originated in Southeast Asia). They look like large, round limes on the outside, but when you cut into it — ta da! It looks just like a regular ol’ orange. It’s a delicious blend of sweet and sour that’s hard to replicate using any other citrus.
This seed pulp is native to many tropical regions in Central and South America, as well as parts of Mexico. It’s smoky flavor a crucial component to dozens of traditional Yucatec dishes.
Meals Not to Miss
Yucatec food is fresh, natural, and (for the most part) healthy. It has loads of low-fat seafood protein and fresh veggies, so you can gorge to your heart’s delight without having to pay too much attention to your waistline. Here are the best of the best dishes you should try.
Hands-down the ultimate dish in the coastal Yucatan region. All that delectable seafood is marinated in citrus juice, chilies and spices until it’s cooked. It’s served with crunchy tortilla chips and it is absolutely divine. One of my favorites is the shrimp ceviche, but you can also get an all-fish version, or a mixed seafood version that also showcases things like octopus. I snagged a recipe for Yucatec ceviche from a chef in Cabo San Lucas (of all places), which you can find here. So simple, so delicious, you’ll be running back for more every day.
This dish is the inland equal to coastal ceviche. Pork is marinated in loads of that famous sour orange and achiote spice, then slow-cooked in a banana leaf in an underground oven. The flavor is off-the-charts amazing, with a smoky tanginess that kicks all four corners of your palate into high gear. Do not skip this one!
Sopa de Lima
This is Mexican comfort food at it’s finest. Literally translated to Lime Soup, it’s actually more reminiscent of chicken soup, with a little tangy kick at the end. I tried to just eat a little taste of this one, then promptly cleaned out the entire bowl. If you find yourself with a cold or flu in this part of Mexico, Sopa de Lima will be just what the doctor ordered.
Pickled onions are hands-down one of my favorite things to eat. And pork is one of my favorite proteins (because bacon). Poc Chuc is an ancient Mayan dish that has both of these things in abundance. The pork is marinated with sour orange, achiote, oregano, and other spices, then grilled over an open flame. This takes the smokiness level to the max. Paired with tangy pickled onions, it’s flavor heaven. If you see a hand-painted “Poc Chuc” sign on the side of the road next to a woman working a grill, PULL OVER!
This dish is an example of foreign influence blending with Mexican cuisine, and the result is a flavor feast. Queso relleno means “Stuffed Cheese” in Spanish, which sounds promising, no? It’s an edam cheese rind (there’s the Dutch) stuffed with seasoned minced pork. The pork stuffing usually has about a dozen ingredients, all of which blend to give it a sweet-spicy kick that’s a nice contrast to the creamy, salty cheese. Because this is all steamed after it’s assembled, the cheese gets ooey gooey melty and the result can be a little soupy. If you have issues with texture, you may not love this dish. But the flavors deem it worth a try at least once.
This is technically a drink, but it’s worthy of mention thanks to it’s historical roots in ancient Mayan tradition. It’s a fermented honey and anise liqueur derived from an ancient Mayan recipe. Now it’s mixed with a liberal dose of rum and served as a cocktail. It might not win awards as your favorite drink, but it can be fun to sip and pretend you’re an ancient Mayan king.