Photo by Christina Holmes
Photo by Christina Holmes
Cochinita pibil is made by slow-roasting pork in an underground pit and served on rolls or a tortilla.
The deliciously messy dish is to Mexico what pulled pork is to the American South.
Three years ago, my husband and I wandered the streets of the toniest neighborhood in Mexico City. His job had just transferred us to the city, and I was trying to see myself somewhere in the designer-shop windows and fancy restaurants. The Polanco district felt too clean and polished for me, a born-and-bred New Yorker, and my hunger was mounting by the minute.
After hours of walking, we joined a long line of suited men who were waiting at a hole-in-the-wall taquería with a few counter seats and a sign advertising it as a corner of mérida, now in polanco. Our curiosity was piqued—we’d never had food from the Yucatán Peninsula, where the city of Mérida is located. Soon we found ourselves staring down at two large plates of shredded pork wrapped in little tacos: cochinita pibil, the specialty of the house. The soft corn tortillas had been dunked in the meat’s burnt-sienna marinade; the pork, stained orange and topped with pickled red onion, was lightly sweet, a little smoky, and messy as hell. The meal was homey, casual, unadorned—just what I needed. When we wiped our orangey mouths and stumbled, stuffed, back onto the street, Polanco and even Mexico City looked different. Real food lives here too, I thought.
Over the next few years, as we settled into Mexico, we learned that cochinita pibil, made by slow-roasting pork in an underground pit, or pib, and served on rolls or a tortilla, is the quintessential dish of the Yucatán. We watched as it began to pop up in some of Mexico City’s finest restaurants, and we fell in love with an elevated twist that chef Ricardo Muñoz Zurita serves at his Azul restaurants. Last year, we decided it was finally time to make a pilgrimage to the source. So we set out for Mérida, the colonial capital of the Yucatán, where cobblestone streets are lined with crumbling pastel haciendas, and food stands sell tacos so juicy they require paper-lined plates.
We began our tour at La Tradición, a restaurant helmed by David Cetina. The third-generation chef learned to make cochinita pibil when he was eight years old from his grandmother, who had dug a pib in her backyard. At the small demonstration pib he created outside of his restaurant, he showed me how to prepare the earthen oven, gathering wood to heat the stones that line the bottom. As he did, he explained that the dish often starts miles outside of Mérida, in the indigenous villages that circle the capital, where there’s more room to cook the dish enterrado, or buried. Some city chefs and street vendors have a partner in one of these villages; some, like Cetina, have their own land. Every week, his cooks haul more than 2,500 pounds of marinated pork to his property in Xmatkuil, 30 minutes outside of Mérida, enough for more than 8,000 tacos.
There, his cooks prepare it the way their Mayan ancestors did. They start by rubbing suckling pork loin with a red paste made from the seeds of the annatto tree along with a delicate combination of spices (cumin, black pepper), before marinating the meat in the sour juice of the Seville orange. Next, they wrap the pork in banana leaves, place it in a sealed container (the modern method uses an aluminum box), tuck the pan into a pib lined with smoldering wood and hot stones, and cover the pit with local wood and more banana leaves. They leave the pork to cook overnight in its own juices inside the smoky oven, rendering it almost stew-like by the time the cooks dig the pan back up in the morning.p>
“The wood we cook it in, the leaves we top it with, the earth it’s buried in—those things give the flavor,” Cetina said. “The best machine in the world can’t give the flavor of food cooked underground.”
Before dawn, the meat is trucked into the city, where it’s eaten at street stands as a torta (sandwich) or served at restaurants like La Tradición, where it is placed on a banana leaf and served with pickled onion and hot corn tortillas.
For all its complex flavor and elaborate preparation, it’s the history of cochinita pibil that makes it truly Mexican. For centuries before the Spanish conquest, Mayan people made the dish with game meats such as venison and wild boar and enjoyed it early in the morning, before the region’s blistering heat set in. When Spaniards conquered the land in the 16th century, they brought pigs along with them. The word cochinita, meaning “little pork,” comes from cochi, meaning “the one who sleeps,” because indigenous people observed that pigs went to sleep after eating. “It’s a very Mayan technique updated with pork, a European ingredient,” said Cetina. “But we [Mexicans] have adopted it as our own.”
The iterations didn't end with colonization: A new generation of cooks has figured out how to modernize the dish, by roasting the pork in an oven instead of an underground pit and substituting a mix of more commonly available citrus for the Seville orange, which is costly and rare outside of the Yucatán, where it grows wild for most of the year. You can now buy cochinita pibil frozen at airports and canned in supermarkets throughout Mexico. And it’s beginning to travel beyond the country’s borders, taking its place alongside tacos al pastor, chilaquiles and mole in trendy restaurants in New York and California.
I admit I was skeptical of the newer versions. But then I tried the cochinita pibil served at Manjar Blanco, a simple restaurant off a small park in Mérida. Chef Miriam Peraza learned to make it as a little girl, but the cochinita she serves in her restaurant is stylish, with a cheffy swipe of black bean puree on the side of the plate and a ceramic boat of habanero sauce. At first I scoffed at the presentation. Why gussy up a meal meant to be eaten with the hands? But then I tried the shredded meat, cleverly tucked into a banana leaf inside a tiny steel box, like the ones Cetina buries. Despite the fancy trappings, the cochinita was smoky and well spiced—it was as homey and satisfying as the version I’d first tried in Mexico City, a modern take on a centuries-old tale.
La Tradición's chef David Cetina may as well be the ambassador for cochinita pibil in the Yucatán. Two generations of family members before him were cooks and restaurateurs in the area, and he upholds their legacy by preparing his cochinita pibil in the time-honored enterrado (buried) method. The authentic flavors stand the test of time.
Owner Miriam Peraza is considered by many to be the queen of traditional cooking in the Yucatán—she’s the woman who taught celebrity chef Rick Bayless to make cochinita on his 2018 trip to the region. At her sit-down restaurant in Mérida, headed up by her chef son, Jorge, she serves a more finessed version of cochinita, as well as queso relleno (cheese filled with spiced pork) and manjar blanco, the pudding-like dessert for which the restaurant is named. Calle 47 #496, Mérida
Panadería La Ermita
This little stand outside of a bakery on the historic Parque de la Ermita de Santa Isabel plaza serves cochinita tortas: juicy pork sandwiches on pillowy rolls baked on-site. They’re breakfast sandwiches, for all intents and purposes—and usually sold out by 11 a.m. Calle 64A #532A, near Calle 77, Mérida
Taquería Nuevo San Fernando
A street-side taco stand, Nuevo San Fernando specializes in cochinita pibil tortas served on baguette-style bread, pressed on a griddle, panini style, so that the outside is crisp and the inside deliciously soggy. The bright red tables and chairs flanking the stand allow diners to properly enjoy their slow-cooked fast food. Avenida Cupules between Calles 60 & 62, Mérida
It’s easy to fill a weekend in the city, beyond eating your fill of cochinita pibil. And if you choose to extend your stay, ancient ruins, historic haciendas, and beaches full of flamingos are a short drive away.
Stay: The Diplomat is a four-suite boutique hotel in a tastefully refurbished colonial home opened by two Canadian expats, Sara deRuiter and Neil Haapamaki. Over cocktails and spicy snacks, the friendly couple will share their favorite spots in the city. But between the free poolside mezcal-tasting and the sumptuous vegetarian breakfast that changes daily, you may find it hard to tear yourself away.
Eat: Experience traditional Yucatecan food by way of casual food stands and stalls brimming with fresh produce at the Mercado Santiago (the smaller, and arguably cleaner, of the town’s two main food markets). For classic dishes like pavo en escabeche, sopa de lima, and of course, cochinita pibil, head to Manjar Blanco or La Tradición. And for a high-end gastronomic experience, chef Roberto Solis’s Néctar is the one reservation not to miss.
Drink: Mexican cantina culture is alive and well at La Negrita, where on most nights, the doors swing open to reveal a rowdy crowd enjoying the extensive selection of mezcal and live jazz or salsa. If you’re after beer, the Hermana República brewery has a nice selection of local brews. Drink up in its backyard patio to experience the best vibe.
Do: Mérida’s equivalent of the Champs-Élysée is the Paseo de Montejo, an elegant avenue lined with trees and historic houses. Stroll the boulevard and stop at some of the high-end stores along the way, like the year-old design shop Casa T’hō that offers wares from Mexican designers such as Carla Fernandez. Mérida’s burgeoning art scene is perhaps best exemplified by the Fundación de Artistas, a crumbling building featuring works from contemporary artists and a café that surrounds the interior patio.
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