Saturday, April 28, 2012

Top 5 Yummy Yucatan Dishes

The Yucatan region draws visitors with dreamy beaches and fascinating archaeological wonders but I think the cuisine deserves just as much attention. Ancient Mayan cooking techniques and ingredients like the chaya pictured above, meld with Spanish spices to create some of the tastiest dishes in Mexico. There's a dizzying array of Yucatecan specialties but these are five of my favorites:

This leafy green vegetable is a hallmark of Yucatan dishes and healing. Chaya  leaves boast more iron, calcium and potassium than spinach and regulates blood sugar.  You'll see it in soups, stews and in drinks like the zesty Jugo Verde.  Chaya pronounced (chi ya) can also be prepared as a simple side flavored with garlic, which is how I like it.


I never leave Mexico without consuming generous helpings of  this grilled fish recipe, pronounced (teek n cheek). Fish, typically grouper or red snapper, is marinated in anchiote paste and then grilled in banana leaves. It's too delectable for words. The fish is adorned with a red appearance from the anchiote, that's the tikin xic above, with chaya, plantanos and Spanish rice. This was my favorite meal from La Casona de Valladolid.


This classic breakfast dish, pronounced (chill a key lays), can be spotted all over Mexico and the U.S. I absolutely love it and usually eat it every morning that I'm in the Yucatan region. It can be served with either rojo (red) or verde (green) sauce and features fried tortilla strips simmered in the sauce and  topped with eggs, beans or meat. I usually choose red sauce with chicken, shown above.


You know that Yucatecan food  must be really, really great if ceviche only makes it to the top 4. I adore this marinated fish or seafood dish and gobble lots of it in the U.S. but it's nothing like the fresh preparation in Mexico. Raw fish is marinated in citrus juice and seasoned with chiles, cilantro and chopped onions. Sometimes it's served with fruit as well, as you can see with the delectable passion fruit swirling around in the ceviche  (se vee chay) above.

This is one of the most popular classics of Yucatecan cooking and if you've ever sampled this soup of chicken, spices and  bunches of sweet local limes, you'd know why. It's always served with fried tortilla strips for added crunch. Soups are actually invigorating in tropical climates, which is why this dish is a mainstay.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Wall Visage in Valladolid

Valladolid is a colorful town in the eastern corner of the Yucatan Peninsula, noted for its charming colonial buildings and traditional Mayan culture. Called the "Sultan of The East" because of it's striking architectural beauty, I was immediately captivated. We stepped into La Casona, a hacienda style restaurant with flavorful Yucatan dishes (I'll cover those in the next post) and an art collection just as rich.

Tucked into this little street awash with candy-colored structures, La Casona greeted me with a wealth of art every where I turned.

The owners enjoy  collecting masks from all over the world so every wall of the sprawling restaurant was covered with masks, some Mexican, some from other cultures.

I noticed a pattern with how the masks were grouped. The pieces above seemed to boast horns and devilish expressions.

And these featured facial hair in various forms. I thought some of these were slightly spooky and was glad I didn't face them during my meal.

On the other hand, I felt like I could live in this stunning fountain adorned with painted tiles and lovely landscaping. La Casona is a restaurant and an art gallery rolled into one. Have you seen any interesting art on your travels?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Swimming in a Yucatan Cenote

A highlight of visiting the Yucatan Peninsula is swimming in a cenote (se note tay).  These natural wonders are underwater sinkholes found in caverns and caves, which are the hallmark of the areas' geography. The peninsula is composed of  porous limestone with no visible rivers. The rivers are all underground, formed where fresh water collects. There are supposedly 6000 cenotes all over the Yucatan peninsula. The Maya considered them cleansing and sacred. They also believed that they symbolized the entrance to the underworld . As you can see from the photo above, climbing down into the dark cavern with caution signs decorating the opening ,does give the feeling of  entering the netherworld.

This cenote is called X-keken and it boasts a natural sky light that floods sunbeams into the darkness. The effect is stunning, like a glistening underground pond. When we visited, the cenote was filled with locals dipping into the cool water. Outside, the temperature was about 88 degrees Fahrenheit but  underground, it was about 65 degrees.

The limestone was extremely slippery  but once in the water, I could see gold and orange fish swimming around and bats hanging from the ceiling. I didn't stay in very long but it was an otherworldly experience.

The only time the light was bright enough to really see was on the way out, near the ropes to help you climb the stone steps. With the sunlight sweeping down, it felt like a brief dip into the Mayan world.  Catch a quick glimpse of the cenote in this travel video (my first!) that I shot:

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Passion Fruit Ceviche & The White Sox

My first meal during the Mayan solstice arrived with delectable Mexican flavors and an unexpected touch of Chicago.  I sat down at the Beachwalk Marketplace Cafe in the JW  Marriott Cancun Resort and reveled in the experience of enjoying two of my very favorite things.  As many of  my longtime readers know, passion fruit is the ultimate fruit to me. Nothing beats that special blend of tart and sweet. So when I spotted passion fruit ceviche on the menu, I was giddy with joy.

As I munched on fresh tortilla chips, my view was a vivid turquoise expanse of the beach, another of my favorite things. Being kissed by a salty sea breeze and gazing at rippling ocean waves is my idea of paradise.

And then the passion fruit ceviche appeared and I ascended into heaven. Delicate pieces of sea bass were cured in a passion fruit and lime potion for a zesty yet sweet taste that I can only describe as other worldly.  It really doesn't get much better than that. Then I glanced at the paper that held the chips.

Right next to the nonsensical headline asking "why are French fries French?" was the perfectly rational declaration, "White Sox Win The Pennant!"  What are the odds that I'd leave Chicago, only to be greeted with a reference to the best Chicago baseball team  as I relaxed on the Mexican riviera? Some may call it a coincidence but I think not. It was that Mayan magic once again.