A Local's Guide to Yucatan Food You Must Try!
Traditional Yucatan food and Yucatecan cuisine aren’t what many know as “Mexican food,” though that is changing. In fact, cities like Merida, Mexico, are starting to put this regional cuisine on the map.
Merida is the capital city of Yucatan state, one of three states that make up the Yucatan Peninsula. Located in southeastern Mexico, these states are Quintana Roo (home to Cancun, Tulum, Playa del Carmen, etc.), Campeche state (where you’ll find the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Campeche City), and of course, Yucatan state. This part of the country is where you’ll enjoy Yucatecan food, as it’s where all the necessary ingredients are grown. Of all places you’ll want to try this cuisine, Merida, Yucatan, Mexico, is on the top of the list — as it’s known as the Cultural Capital of Yucatan.
Recently featured in two shows on food Netflix, Chef’s Table: BBQ and Taco Chronicles, more and more people are visiting for not only all the amazing things to do in Merida — but for the food! While you can try it throughout the Yucatan, foods will be much more authentic in cultural cities like Merida, versus touristic places like Cancun and Riviera Maya.
Below you’re going to learn about some of the ingredients that make up Yucatan cuisine, and the Top 10 Must-Try Yucatan dishes when visiting this part of Mexico. Ready to get started? Let’s get to it!
Flavors and Spices of Yucatan Food
Wondering, What is axiote? Pronounced ah-she-oh-tay, this spice is made from the seeds of the Bixa orellana, an evergreen shrub. This plant is native to the Yucatan Peninsula, and used in many dishes — namely cochinita pibil, considered the best Yucatan food of them all!
It does go by other names, like annatto, roucou and achuete, but in Mexico it’s called axiote from the Nahuatl (Aztec language) word. The flavor is close to that of a red peppercorn, with a hint of bitterness and a slight scent of peppermint. Besides flavoring, it gives dishes a red color.
Naranja argia, or sour orange, grows year round in the Yucatan Peninsula. It is about the size of a large orange, though with more of a lime taste. Sour orange is found in many Yucatecan foods, like cochinita pibil and poc chuc. Outside of Yucatan, naranja agria is known as Seville orange.
Recados are spice mixtures that you can find in local mercados (markets) throughout the Yucatan, if you don’t feel like making your own. All the spices in the recado are ground down, then water or a liquid is added, and the mixture is formed into a paste.
They are the bases for most dishes in this region and come in three colors. These are recado rojo (red recado, using axiote), recado blanco (white recado, used for puchero), and recado negro (black recado, used in the popular relleño negro dish).
Salsas in Mexico are pretty much all hot, to some degree, as the point of salsa is to add the heat element to foods. Among the hottest, is the habanero, used throughout Yucatecan cuisine. You’ll often receive it on the side with your food, so you can add as much (or little) as you’d like.
10 Best Yucatecan Food You Must Try in Mexico
The most famous of all Yucatan foods, cochinita pibil is basically Yucatecan barbecue. On the Netflix show, Chef’s Table: BBQ, you can see this staple food prepared and cooked the traditional way by Chef Rosalia Chay Chuc in her remote Yucatan pueblo. (See Season 1, Episode 4, “Cochinita Pibil.”) This suckling pig is marinated, then slow-roasted in banana leaves underground in an oven called a pib (hence the “pibil” in its name). It is then consumed in tacos, tortas (sandwiches), panuchos and salbutes (we’ll get to those!) throughout the Yucatan. On its own, cochinita isn’t spicy, as the main flavors come from the recado rojo/axiote and naranja agria. When served, you’re given a side of habanero pepper salsa to add to your taste level, as well as pickled red onions. These are the two main Yucatan condiments, served with many dishes.
Sopa de Lima
Sopa de lima, or lime soup, is a favorite throughout the Yucatan Peninsula. It is essentially a rather simple chicken and veggie soup, but the citrus zing from the naranja agria gives it a unique flavor. As with many traditional dishes in Yucatan, there are variations on how it’s served, but most places top the soup with fried tortilla strips for an added crunch.
Poc chuc is a thin filet of pork that’s been seasoned with only naranja agria and grilled; though some places do add additional seasonings like salt and oregano. It is a simple dish though it lets two of the most quintessential Yucatan ingredients shine — pork and sour orange.
Poc chuc is served with the typical condiments like pickled red onion, habanero salsa and tortillas, but it also comes with others. These include frijol con puerco, Yucatan pork and beans, and chiltomate, a charcoal-roasted tomato and chili salsa.
As you may be slowly realizing, the Yucatan’s main protein is pork. Castican is pork belly that’s first slow cooked in its own lard, before it’s then baked to crispy perfection. Castican is similar to a chicharron, but even more crispy because it’s double cooked. For fans of bacon and rich foods, castican is a must try — though be aware it’s often only made on weekends, and in some places, just on Sunday. At traditional chicharronerías (chicharron cafes), you can order castican in a torta (sandwich), in tacos, salbutes or panuchos (we’ll get to those next!), and by the kilo to make your own tacos.
Panuchos & Salbutes
Just like in Mexico City, in Yucatan, tacos are certainly found in almost all places, but you can also change up your tortilla style with panuchos and salbutes. A panucho is a tortilla that’s been stuffed with refried balck beans and fried, and a salbute is a puffy fried tortilla. Both panuchos and salbutes will come with the tortilla, your protein which is often turkey meat unless you specify otherwise, lettuce, tomato, pickled red onions and habanero salsa on the side. They are great for an appetizer, snack or a meal, depending on how many you order.
If you were wondering if there were any Yucatan vegetarian dishes — honestly, there aren’t many — but for vegetarians visiting Yucatan, Mexico, you’ll want to try the papadzules.
Papadzules (pronounced pa-pawed-zool-es) are among the ancient Mayan food dishes still eaten in Yucatan today. This dish is basically enchiladas filled with boiled egg and topped with both a pepita (pumpkin seed) sauce and a light tomato sauce. While most other dishes listed are fried and on the heavier side with pork as the main ingredient, papadzules are light yet flavorful. For some visitors, they are an acquired taste, but they are a locals’ favorite which you can find all over the Yucatan.
For fans of Mexican food, you’ve likely heard of tamales, an ancient Meso-American food staple made with masa (corn) dough.
Vaporcitos & Tamales Colados
In Yucatan, there are a few types of tamales, with vaporcitos and tamales colados being the most common ones. These two are basically your standard tamales made with masa, stuffed with a protein, steamed in a banana leaf and served topped with salsa.
Brazo de Reina
Brazo de reina (Queen’s arm) is made with masa dough that’s mixed with chaya, a local superfood veggie also called “tree spinach,” which turns the masa a light green color. It’s then stuffed with chopped boiled eggs and sikil paak, a tomato and pepita (pumpkin) seed salsa.
During Hanal Pixan, the Mayan Day of the Dead holiday, you can sample pib (AKA mucbipollo), a crispy, baked tamale. This locals’ favorite is something you can only find in the Yucatan, and it’s only available from about mid-October to early-November to coincide with Día de Muertos.
Made with the recado negro (black recado), relleno negro is a stew-like dish made with turkey meat in a jet black sauce. While this color might be weird at first, this is a really delicious dish which gets its color from roasted chili peppers, so not as “adventurous” as it may look. Some culinary historians consider this Yucantan food to be the mother of the Oaxacan dish, mole negro.
The black recado is prepared by first charing chile de árbol (tree chili), or chile ancho for a milder version. The ashes are then ground to make the black recado negro spice mixture. From there, you add the mixture to turkey stock, and add in your turkey meat to make the stew. It will come served with a boiled egg on top.
Mexico had a large influx of Lebanese and Middle Eastern immigrants in the late-19th Century. Over time, they married their cooking techniques and flavors with Mexican foods to make delicious fusion foods, like tacos al pastor and kibis.
Similar to kibbeh in the Middle East, kibis in Yucatan are eaten as an appetizer or street snack for about 25¢ each. They are diamond-shaped and served either hollow to stuff with a cabbage salad mixture, or stuffed with ground meat or queso de bola (“ball cheese” similar to Edam). Unless otherwise noted, kibis are fried.
Though it was only just mentioned in the last paragraph, queso de bola is quite beloved throughout the Yucatan — and even found in many desserts, like marquesitas. You can get these sweet treats made to order from street carts after the sun goes down. A marquesitas is essentially a crepe, that’s cooked a little longer so it’s more crispy and you can hold it in your hand. You can order one however you’d like, with things like fruit jelly, cajeta (carmel) and peanut butter, but the traditional way is with Nutella and queso de bola.
Final thoughts: Yucatecan Cuisine
While you’ll still find familiar ingredients in Yucatan cuisine as with much of what many refer to as “Mexican food” — ie. tortillas, beans, tomatoes, masa (corn), chili peppers, etc. — it is quite different. The ingredients found in Yucatan, like axiote and naranja agria, are only found in this part of Mexico, so even when eating common foods like tacos in the Yucatan, they will taste different. For foodies, all of Mexico is a treat, but the Yucatan still offers flavors you can only get locally.
Which of these Yucatan foods are you most excited to try?
Let us know in the comments!
About the Author
Shelley is a former Miami travel magazine editor who ditched the office for the world! She started Travel Mexico Solo to inspire other women to travel solo in Mexico, and after visiting 14 states, settled down in the Yucatan city of Mérida in 2019 — where she runs the site, Travel To Merida. You can follow Shelley online on Facebook, Instagram @traveltomerida, and on Pinterest