There’s so much more to Mexican food than just tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and fajitas! Yucatan food is extremely unique. Mexico is similar to the US or any other country as a matter of fact, where different regions, states, or areas may have their own distinct dishes and flavors. For example, in the US, food in the South is definitely different from California from New Orleans from Texas. So it’s the same for Mexico. What we’re most familiar with is Tex-Mex, the Americanized version of Mexican food. So let me tell you about Yucatan food.
When I visited Merida in the Yucatan Peninsula, I learned so much about the food from that region. Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, and Tulum are also close by. If you’re in the area, I recommend leaving the touristy areas and resorts to visit Merida in order to delight your taste buds. La Chaya Maya is one of the most famous and best restaurants in Merida.
Yucatan food is heavily influenced by ancient Maya and the Dutch, French, and Spanish due to the ports along the peninsula’s coast. In the past, the peninsula was isolated from the rest of Mexico so it developed its own unique cuisine. The main key ingredients to Yucatan cuisine are achiote (or annatto), sour orange, and habanero.
Achiote or annatto, often called the saffron of the Yucatan, is used to add an earthy and slightly bitter flavor to the food. When the seeds are crushed and mixed with a liquid, it forms a red paste. The paste is then used as a rub, flavor base, or sauce thickener and will add a bright red or orange color to the food.
Sour oranges are Sevilla oranges originating from Spain. The Sevilla orange is a sour and less sweet version of a regular orange. Due to its acidity, juice from the sour oranges is often used as a vinegar to preserve food and liven up dishes. The sour orange adds a bright flavor to every sauce and marinade.
Habanero sauce is served everywhere as a condiment to everything. It is wildly spicy and will add heat to any dish or sauce. I love spice! But by the end of the trip, I was starting to have stomach aches from adding this to everything I ate. Sorry not sorry though! No regrets since it’s one of those pains that you’ll happily endure and would do it all over again.
Here are 14 popular dishes of Yucatan food that are must-eats in no particular order.
1. Cochinita pibil
The region’s most famous dish is cochinita pibil that is more likely to be found outside the Yucatan. Meat usually pork (often a whole suckling pig) is marinated in sour orange, achiote, and other spices. The meat is then wrapped in banana leaves and slow roasted in an underground smoke pit for hours. The cooking method was developed during Mayan times to preserve meat and makes the meat so tender it’s falling apart in a way that’s similar to pulled pork.
Corn tortillas are stuffed with refried black beans and then fried. Then they’re topped with chicken and the usual fixings like avocado, lettuce, tomatoes, and pickled red onions. This is a solid appetizer or the perfect snack for when you’re feeling peckish.
Similar to panuchos but the tortillas are not stuffed with refried beans. They are deep fried before toppings are added though. Similarly, great as an appetizer or snack!
4. Empanadas de chaya con queso de bola
These empanadas were so good that I would finish scarfing them down before I remembered I didn’t take a picture. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. Seriously, they were that good. So sorry, no pictures of these but definitely a must-eat! I mean, what’s not to love about melted gooey cheese (usually queso de bola or Edam due to the Dutch influence) inside a deep fried tortilla. Chaya is a green vegetable similar to Swiss chard that grows on trees hence also known as tree spinach. It adds an earthy flavor to the empanada, complementing the fattiness of the salty cheese.
5. Relleno negro
Don’t let the jet black color scare you – this is delicious! It’s so good that it’s one of my favorite dishes of the trip and you can only find it in the Yucatan. Relleno negro is a black stew where the black color comes from burnt chiles and spices creating a smokey flavor. Turkey (pavo) is the traditional protein for this black stew, garnished with hard boiled eggs. In fact, there’s actually a lot of dishes involving turkey here. It’s one of the main proteins along with chicken, pork, and fish when you get closer to the coast.
6. Chilaquiles topped with relleno negro
Chilaquiles is a breakfast dish that you can find everywhere in Mexico. They are fried tortilla chips smothered in sauce and topped with fried eggs and a protein like chicken. It makes for the perfect dish to eat in the morning to fight a hangover. Here, it is covered with relleno negro instead of the usual verde (green) or rojo (red) salsa sauce.
7. Huevos motulenos
I would describe this as an over-the-top huevos rancheros. It’s a breakfast dish with fried eggs over refried black beans on a fried tortilla topped with peas, diced ham, cheese, and a tomato-based sauce. It’s often served with a side of fried plantains. Note the green leaf is a chaya leaf.
8. Huevos divorciados
Huevos divorciados is actually not a breakfast dish that exists only in the Yucatan. It usually consists of one fried egg topped with salsa verde (green sauce) and another fried egg covered in salsa rojo (red sauce) that are separated (divorced) by refried beans. Here is a Yucatan version of the dish. One egg is covered in relleno negro and the other egg is topped with pipian (pumpkin seed) sauce. The pipian sauce is also commonly found in a lot of Yucatan dishes (as you’ll see in the next few dishes).
This classic Mayan dish is similar to enchiladas but the rolled tortillas are filled with hard boiled eggs and topped with a tomato and pipian sauce.
10. Brazo de reina
The brazo de reina is a giant green tamale made from chaya that’s filled with chopped hard boiled eggs and then also covered in a tomato and pipian sauce.
11. Pan de cazon
Pan de cazon are layered tortillas in a lasagna-like fashion with fried dogfish shark meat in between and covered in a mild tomato chili-like sauce.
12. Sopa de lima
Sope de lima or lime soup, when translated directly, is a hot soup made from chicken stock and the local sweet limes. There are usually pieces of chicken in the soup with pieces of fried tortilla to garnish. The soup tastes quite light and is not as sour, tart, or acidic as you would expect.
Dzik is shredded venison mixed with lime juice, chiles, onions, radishes, and cilantro. Similar to turkey, deer meat is another common protein that existed on the peninsula during pre-colonial times.
14. Longaniza Valladolid
This local pork sausage has a smokey intense flavor and originates from the town of Valladolid. Valladolid is a town close to a few cenotes (natural swimming holes) and the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza and Ek Balam. So it’s definitely worth stopping here on the way to or from visiting these places.