The Yucatán - guide to the unique cuisine of Mexico’s south-east
The desert-island beaches of Mexico’s south-east are its second-biggest draw – the first is its colourful, zingy food and dishes such as citrus-marinated sliced pork, grilled over charcoal, and chicken soup spiked with lime juice and shredded tortillas
Read our expert guide to the unique cuisine in The Yucatán Peninsula, a desert-island beach off Mexico's south-east coast where dishes reflect traditional Mayan food and are inspired by traditional Spanish, Caribbean, Middle Eastern as well as Mexican.
The Yucatán Peninsula’s powdery white beaches are what draw most visitors to this sun-soaked corner of south- eastern Mexico. The peninsula is home to crowd-pleasing resorts like Cancún and Playa del Carmen, and to Tulum, further south, which attracts a hipster crowd with its beachside cabanas, Mayan ruins and electric-blue water.
For a more under-the-radar hideaway, Isla Holbox is a car-free island off the north coast of the Yucatán with a boho vibe a world away from the mainland resorts. Or, venture inland to sleep in boutique hotels, and explore wonders like the Sian Ka’an biosphere reserve and its cenotes – underground pools perfect for a cooling dip.
The Yucatán’s distinct cuisine is also a huge attraction. Ancient Mayans first grew the corn, beans and squash that remain the holy trinity of ingredients here, although local dishes also reflect a rich intermingling of Mexican, Spanish, Caribbean and Middle Eastern cooking.
Raw ingredients for the traditional Yucatecan table include fresh fish, fruit, vegetables and hyper-local meat and poultry from the thousands of small farm holdings (called milpas) that dot the interior. The Yucatán is also the world’s largest producer of habanero chillies, which are used prolifically in local recipes and as a condiment.
Marinades called recados are used to give flavour and texture, and invariably made from one or more citrus fruits, including limes, grapefruits, oranges and bitter oranges. Pork, chicken and turkey feature in many of these dishes, as do red snapper and the dorado fish.
These recipes, flavours and cooking techniques so inspired René Redzepi that he set up a Noma residency in Tulum. But good food forms the backbone of daily life here. To enjoy your own journey of culinary discovery, visit a street stall, market or beachside restaurant and dive in.
5 of the best things to eat & drink...
SOPA DE LIMA
Found all over the Yucatán and an absolute must-try, this intensely flavoured soup was invented by the Mayans and is commonly made using chicken or turkey spiked with a local, lime-like fruit called lima, native xcatic chilli, spices and shredded tortilla.
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The Yucatán is synonymous with this dish – pibil means to ‘roast in a hole’ and is usually made with pork, but chicken is also used. The meat is marinated in citrus juice, garlic, chillies and spices, then wrapped in plantain leaves with onions, and roasted or steamed. It’s often served with marinated onions and in tacos.
This homemade brew is the ideal thirst- quencher and made in vast quantities in the Yucatán. Also known as rice water, it’s made from rice boiled with water and soaked for 12 hours, then drained and blended with almonds, cinnamon, sugar and more water, before being served over ice.
Also known as tortillas yucatecas, these fresh corn tortillas are wrapped around a filling of chopped hard-boiled eggs then covered in a sauce made from pumpkin seeds and epazote, a herb similar to coriander.
Another typical local dish, with its roots in the Mayan kitchen, sliced pork is marinated in tangy, sour orange and then grilled over charcoal and served with a side of grilled sweet onions.