Mexican food is one of the most famous foods in the world. It is even inscribed as an Intangible cultural heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. Food is a big deal in Mexico – it is part of their culture and identity. Each region of Mexico, in particular, has its specialties and its own culinary traditions. This Yucatan Food Guide will explore Yucatán cuisine and what to eat in Yucatán, Mexico.
The Yucatán peninsula is located in southeast Mexico. It is a region with a heavy influence on the Mayan civilization, as it was and is the homeland of the Mayans. This reflects in its cuisine. The Yucatecan food primarily influenced the Mayan cuisine.
Besides Mayan cuisine, Yucatecan food also is influenced by Spanish and Caribbean cuisines. This makes the food in Yucatán a delicious fusion of various flavors that are unique in Mexico. So have fun in Yucatán and eat as many Yucatán dishes as possible.
Without further delay, let’s analyze the different typical dishes and explore what to eat in Yucatán.
Typical ingredients in Yucatán food
Yucatán cuisine is based on the ingredients and cooking methods of the Maya. It also has a significant influence on Spanish cuisine and Caribbean tastes. That being said, maize is the essential ingredient in Yucatán, as in other regions of Mexico and Central America is maize.
Maize is the most important staple in Yucatán food. It is used in any possible way you can imagine. Besides maize, other staple ingredients are squash, beans, tomatoes, and chili peppers. Food brought by the settlers, like sour oranges, pig, and plantain, is also prevalent. Seafood is widely used in many dishes, as the Yucatan has miles of coastland.
Besides these everyday ingredients, in Yucatán, there are some ingredients unique to this region:
Not unique to Yucatán, maize is widely used in Mexico. But its cooking process was influenced by the Mayans and other Mesoamerican civilizations. They used a method of processing the maize called Nixtamalization. A process in which the maize grain is soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution. It is used to make the maize manageable to form a dough that can be used to do tortillas.
Chaya is a tree that originated in the Yucatán Peninsula. In Yucatán, they use its leaves for culinary purposes. The leaves need to be cooked before eating, as they are toxic in their raw form. They are used to make beverages, like agua de chaya, but can also be used as stuffing and as an ingredient in some Yucatán dishes.
Achiote is a native plant of Central America. Its seed pods, annatto, are used to make achiote paste that is used as a condiment with a solid orange-red color. In Yucatán, it is used to season meat, mainly used in Chochinita Pibli, tacos el pastor, chorizo, and other typical dishes. It is used to add flavor and color to food. But it can have additional uses, like body paint.
Achiote and a mixture of other spices like oregano, cumin, clove, cinnamon, black pepper, allspice, garlic, and salt create a spice blend called Recado rojo.
- Bitter oranges:
Bitter oranges are acidic and bitter oranges that exist in Spain. They are used in Yucatán cuisine to marinate meat, predominantly in the famous Conchinita Pibil. This is markedly an influence of Spain in Mexican food.
Habanero is a hot variety of chili, sometimes even doubling the world’s hottest chili. Although not originally from the Yucatán peninsula, the region is the world’s largest habanero pepper producer. And it is essential in Yucatecan food.
What to eat in Yucatan? 15 Best Yucatán dishes
1. Salbut – traditional yucatan antojito
Salbut or Salbute is one of the most popular dishes of Yutacán in Mexico. This dish is an antojito, which is a snack, a small bite, an appetizer, and popular street food.
It is made with maize tortilla fried in lard. This makes the tortilla inflated, puffy, and light. On top of the salbut, add lettuce, tomato, pickled onion, and avocado. And usually pulled chicken or turkey, Cochinita Pibil, or Relleno negro.
You find Salbut in the many food joints on the street alongside the food stalls that sell tacos.
2. Panucho – typical Antojito from Yucatan
Panucho is a traditional Yucanten dish that originated in Merida. It is also an antojito and a frequent street food in Yucatán.
It is made with maze tortillas. In the middle of the tortilla, you cut the upper layer to fill it with fried beans. The tortilla is fried in lard with stuffed beans.
Panucho is served with tomatoes, pickled onion, carrot, avocado, and turkey or chicken. They are very appreciated in Yutacan but also in the rest of Mexico.
3. Empanadas de Chaya – Colonial and Mayan fusion dish
Empanadas are another widely appreciated Mexican antojito. Empanadas originated in Spain. They are fried pastries with different fillings. They are widespread in Central and South America.
You can find empanadas with a wide variety of fillings in Mexico, meat, fish, tomato, cheese… you name it. In Yucatán, you can find chaya empanadas. As we mentioned previously, chaya is a plant frequently used in Yucatán. These empanadas are made with corn dough mixed with chaya leaves and filled with Edam cheese (called queso de bola).
They are eaten with tomato sauce and pickled cabbage or red onion. You can find them in street vendors in Yucatán.
4. Kibbis – a Mexican dish with middle eastern origin
Kibbis are fried meatballs in an oval form, made with wheat and minced meat. This snack came from Lebanese immigrants in Mexico and later adapted to Mexican taste. They are topped with pickled red onion, shredded white cabbage, and habanero peppers. They are crunchy on the outside but soft on the inside. So delicious.
They are eaten as a snack and are sold by street vendors selling them out of the classic glass box. Or you can find them on many beaches in Yucatán.
5. Tamales – the ubiquitous Mayan dish in Mexico
Tamales are one of Central America’s most famous food, including in Mexico. It is a Pre-Columbian dish made and eaten by the Mayans.
It is made with corn, grounded until it is a paste. Then it is steamed in banana leaves or corn husks. Tamales can be sweet or salty. And have different feelings like meat, cheese, vegetables, or pineapple raisins and berries. It also has various sizes. In the Yucatán, they are bigger and with a square shape in comparison with other Central American countries.
Usually Tamales are comfort food. Eaten as breakfast or dinner, usually accompanied by a hot atole. It is pretty filling and has is soft texture. They don’t have a strong flavor, and it is the filling that gives the taste to the tamal.
It is worth trying tamales with different feelings. Our favorite are the sweet ones served with atole.
6. Sopa de Lima – Typical Yutacan soup
Sopa de Lima is a traditional dish of Yutacan. It is a light soup made with chicken, onions, pepper bell, lime, and cilantro covered with crunchy tortillas. The broth is made with herbs like oregano, cumin, and clove.
Although there can be different variations of this dish, the base of lime, chicken, and pepper bell have to be present. It is a fragrant and aromatic dish.
We ate it in the Restaurant Las Vigas in Merida, which was delicious.
7. Huevos Motulenos – typical breakfast eggs from Yucatan
Huevos Motulenos is a breakfast dish. It originated in a town called Motul, which is 44 km from Merida. But you can find this dish all over the Yucatán peninsula (and the rest of Mexico).
It is made with corn tortillas, refried beans (called frijoles), salsa Roja (a tomato spicy sauce), fried eggs, and fried plantains. It can have other optional ingredients like peas and ham. It is so satisfying you will want to eat it besides breakfast.
8. Poc Chuc – Mayan dish
Poc Chuc is a traditional Yucatán dish that is thought to have a Mayan influence. Its name Poc means grilled, and Chuc means charcoal, so “grilled in charcoal.”
This dish is made with pork meat that is marinated in a sauce of sour orange and lime for 40 minutes. Then it is grilled on charcoal. It is usually served with rice, pickled onion, refried beans, and avocado. But it is also used as a filling in tacos, salbut, panucho, quesadillas, and others.
So it can be a main dish or an antojito.
9. Relleno Negro – Traditional Yucatan main dish
Relleno Negro is an old Yutacan dish. It is a complex dish with turkey meat and eggs, covered with a black sauce. The sauce is made with roasted chili peppers called chilmole, black peppers, cloves, cumin, oregano, and garlic. The black color of the dish comes from roasting the peppers.
Be aware that it is a spicy dish. Relleno Negro is also known as “But Negro”. It is eaten as a main course.
We ate this dish in Merida in a restaurant called Chaya Maya, a wonderful restaurant we highly recommend.
10. Papadzul – another Yucatan dish with Mayan origin
Papadzul is another Yutacan dish with Mayan origins.
It is made with corn tortillas that are stuffed with eggs. It is covered in a green sauce made with pumpkin seeds and chilies habanero. And, in the end, it is topped with tomato sauce or Mexican cream. It is a dish with a strong flavor.
We tried this dish in the cantina La Negrita in Merida, an enjoyable place with delicious food.
11. Cochinita Pibil – the most popular main dish in Yucatan
Cochinita Pibil is a typical Yutacan Mexican dish made with a suckling pig called cochinita. The meat is slowly roasted in the oven or a pit with a fire at the bottom. In the past, this dish was roasted in an oven under the ground called Pib (thus the pibil in the name). But nowadays it is made with a conventional oven.
You must marinate the meat in bitter oranges and annatto to do this dish. The seeds are used as a condiment to give the roast a red color. And then, the pork is slowly roasted in banana leaves. You can use other meat to do Pibil, like pork shoulder or pork loin.
Cochinita Pibil can be served in a taco, salbut or panucho, eaten as a antojilo. Or eat it as a main plate, served with pickled onions, refried black beans, and habanero chilis, eaten as a main course.
This dish is mandatory to eat when visiting Yutacan. It is delicious. We eat it in Merida in a Chaya Maya restaurant and sincerely recommend it.
12. Marquesitas – famous Sweet from Yucatan
Marquesitas is the most famous dessert in Yucatán. Street food vendors sell them everywhere – Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Merida, Bacalar…
The story tells that an ice cream vendor created this dessert in winter when the sales of ice cream decreased – so he created a dessert suitable for that season. He named it Marquesitas in honor of the daughters of a Marquis that loved his dessert.
This dessert is similar to a French crepe, but the dough is stiff, crunchy, and rolled like a burrito. The crepe is filled with different ingredients: chocolate, cajeta, condensed milk, jam, Nutella, and a fundamental ingredient, Edam cheese, which they call queso de bola. It is delicious, the combination of the sweet and the salty.
It is so pleasant to stroll through the park or the historic center and eat a Marquesita. There are several street vendors at night in all popular areas of the major towns.
13. Champola – a popular sweet drink
Champola is a delicious fruit milkshake eaten all over Yucatán. It is a simple dessert with frozen fruit and milk or condensed milk. And it is so good. The most popular flavors are guanabana or mamey fruit. They are a tropical, lovely fruit.
In Mérida, near the central park, there is a Dulcería and sorbetería Colón with mouthwatering ice creams and champola. We highly recommend it.
14. Atoles – Delicious Mexican Drink of Mayan origin
Atoles is a hot beverage customarily eaten at breakfast with tamales. It is the ultimate comfort food of Mexico, dating back to the Maya.
This drink contains corn flour, panela sugar (unrefined whole cane sugar), cinnamon, vanilla, and water. It is sweet, silky, and delicious. There are different versions of atoles with various flavors like chocolate, known as champurrado, biscuit atole, and vanilla atole.
Curiously, our best atole was in Puerto Vallarta, well outside Yucatan.
Although traditional in Yucatán and other Mayan regions, this drink is all over Mexico. It is a frequent street food staple. It is mainly traditional on the Day of the Dead, Las Posadas, and Christmas.
15. Pozol – Traditional Mayan drink
Pozol is a beverage made with fermented corn dough and cocoa. It is a traditional Mayan drink that has existed since the Pre Columbian era.
To prepare this drink, you must join fermented bolls of dough with sweetened or unsweetened water, and you usually add cocoa. There are different kinds of pozoles, but cacao is the most popular. It can be sweet or not. And have extra ingredients like chili pepper or honey.
Street vendors sell this beverage, and it is usually served cold. It is refreshing but it takes time to get used to its taste.