This is the story of a perfect afternoon in Yucatan, including relaxing in the ruins of a hacienda, eating a traditional Yucatecan lunch, swimming in a lush collapsed sinkhole, and perhaps most importantly, satiating my six-year long curiosity about something called puerco pibil.
“For lunch, everything is local,” Julia, our host, explained as she walked us about the grounds of the old hacienda near the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza.
She worked the dough, and smiled.
Julia pointed to a small fire pit in the ground nearby, from which a red sauce bubbled out over banana leaves. “That’s the puerco pibil,” she foreshadowed the day’s main culinary event.
My eyes widened and I did one of those secret happy dances inside. To appreciate why, you’d have to understand that my relationship with and pursuit of puerco pibil runs deep.
Over six years ago when we lived in Prague, we watched Once Upon a Time in Mexico, a film starring Johnny Depp. In it, Depp’s character Agent Sands, obsesses over puerco pibil, seeking it out and ordering the slow-roasted pork dish anywhere he can get it. Along the way, he tastes a puerco pibil so good that that he decides he must shoot the cook in order to “restore order to this country.”
This got my attention. I wanted to know the dish for myself.
Robert Rodriguez, the film’s director, details how to make it on the DVD. Armed with his instructions, I held out hope for making my own puerco pibil. However, the departure for our around the world journey got in the way, a fiasco ensued, and I almost missed my train to Dresden due to a failed attempt to offload the unused pork butt.
My curiosity about a dish that was immortalized by Johnny Depp in a low-budget film would finally be satiated.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Old Hacienda, New Tastes
In its heyday almost a century before, this hacienda was an active cattle ranch. Today, the grounds are lush, thick with vegetation, much like a jungle. A dirt track road from the main highway takes us ten minutes through brush and the occasional sisal plant, only to remind us how Mother Nature can so quickly undo the hard work of man and reclaim what is hers.
When we first arrived at the hacienda, we did so sun-kissed from a morning visit to Chichen Itza. The heat of the Yucatan is strong, almost brutal around midday. The shade of the hacienda was precisely what we needed.
To chase our thirst, our hosts served a sour orange lemonade restorative — a little tangy, but not quite sour like the fruit’s lime-like appearance might suggest. Our elixir goes well with a shared plateful of vegetables and fruit surrounding a shallow dip mound of chili pepper, salt, dehydrated lime and sugar.
Orange slices and chili pepper? Who would have thought?
This is how it’s done in Mexico.
Dzikipic: Complex Simplicity
From the veranda formed by an old stone house whose roof had collapsed, our Yucatecan culinary journey continued to something called “Dzikipic.”
Say it with me, ten times fast.
Oh, oh, oh. Simple and complex in turns, Dzikipic is a traditional Yucatan dip made from ground squash seeds blended with tomato and a collection of herbs and spices. A taste experience and comfort I wanted to wrap myself up in. To top it off, the presentation is knockout simple, served in a halved pepper, top still on.
This is culinary transcendence.
I make this promise to myself and to you: this recipe is coming soon. I’ve become a fan of anything made with roasted squash seeds, but this vies for top of the charts and inspires me to leap into the kitchen.
Puerco Pibil: The Real Deal…Finally
So you might be wondering: “What is puerco pibil again?”
Puerco pibil (or conchinita pibil) is a traditional Yucatecan dish of slow-cooked pork — preferably pit roasted and wrapped in banana leaves. The pork draws its flavor from being marinated then roasted in a sauce made from sour oranges and achiote that works to tenderize the meat to the point that it falls from the bone. (The Once Upon a Time in Mexico DVD recipe from Robert Rodriguez, by the way, also calls for a shot of tequila for taste and further tenderizing.)
So after six years of waiting, how was it?
Beautiful. Pork, moist and tender, flavorful; the sort of thing that melts in your mouth and leaves you admiring the combined taste sensation of citrus, spices and heat.
The whole thing was simple yet lavish in a way. Black beans, guacamole, a sour orange and red onion splash, pico de gallo and finely cut habanero peppers all served to round out the table.
Dessert: A Dip in the Cenote
Full up on puerco pibil, our group waddled from the grounds of the hacienda down a steep stone staircase into a lush, tropical scene reminiscent of a movie set – a cenote, a 30-meter deep sinkhole, tendrils descending to the surface of the water, another 60 meters deep. The air within the cenote was cool, yet exceptionally humid.
The water was dusted with a layer of limestone erosion from the cenote walls. It didn’t look that enticing, but Julia assured us: “Once you jump in, the dust will vanish. It’s clean. Just try it.”
Blane, the bravest of our group, just about jumped right in. The surface of the water suddenly cleared, revealing the depth and the life of the water below.
The rest of our group poured in. The cool water served as a fine finish, like a secret, our own private lagoon for the day.
I felt as though I’d completed one small circle of a larger journey. I’d come all this way and waited all this time to try puerco pibil, but unlike Johnny Depp, I felt no need to shoot the cook.
Disclosure: Our trip to Riviera Maya was provided by Visit Mexico. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own. Special thanks to Julia Miller and Alfonso Morales of Catherwood Travels for organizing such a wonderful afternoon at the Xochempich Cenote.