“…poor México, poor United States, so far from God, so near to each other.” Carlos Fuentes The Crystal Frontier
“Hola, amigo gringo!” The friendly fishmonger of Pescaderia La Tempesta looked at me kindly as I was admiring his catch of the day at the Mercado Lucas de Gálvez in downtown Mérida, the capitol city of the Mayan Yucatan.
“I’ll hire gringo immigrants when La Naranja finally drives you loco! Come here, put on an apron and visit my shop.” Little did my new friend know that I’d grown up in a white apron, working for my parents in our family restaurant. I was not a fish out of water.
La Naranja. The Orange One.
That would be the Mexican nickname for the new occupant of the White House. If you take a wild guess, you’d be right if you thought he’s not popular in México. In fact, on the Sunday my wife Jan and I were going to the Mercado Lucas de Gálvez, we joined a country wide protest of La Naranja.
And so I’ll take you to the markets of Mérida and Valladolid in this post, but laced with observations from México during the first weeks of a new chaotic American administration.
Got mezcal? We’ll need it if you aren’t inspired by what’s going on!
In México the term for the proposed border wall is a grave. As in burying the relationship of two countries that are friends and neighbors and connected to each other through thick and thin, family and food, business and commerce, work and pleasure.
Fortunately everyone we talked to believes the United States and México will weather this storm together. México is not thrilled with its president either (he’s at 18% approval rating) and they suspect that 2018 will yield different political results in both countries that might begin a necessary correction.
So I’ll take this opportunity to show you some of the wonders of Yucatecan cuisine, which is one of the México’s, and the world’s, great flavors. Thank God we are as a planet moving past Paris gastronomy and Italian pasta as the defining great tastes of our galaxy. True patriotism is based in what you ate as a child. Opening up those tastes in fact can change your cultural perception of other places and peoples.
México has a dizzying array of regional cuisines. Oaxaca, Michoacán, Veracruz, Nayarit, Guadalupe del Valle in Baja California, Tequila (a city and an AOC protected region), Puebla, on and on the country produces another version of a delicious salsa, a smothering sauce, an enticing cocktail, and produce that changed the world’s cuisine. Tomatoes to Europe, chilies to Southeast Asia, chocolate to the universe.
But to describe the food of the Yucatán, the food of the Maya, is to go back in an almost unbroken chain of ancient roots. An intense, lingering heat defines the habañero chili flavor that infuses all the blood red achiote colors of the deliciousness found here.
Achiote goes a long way to establishing the tastes of the Yucatán. Pounding the seeds of annato into a paste, it loves the mixture of citrus, limes, oranges, sour Seville oranges in particular. Once you master this easy to do technique of making a recado (which I also am happy to say is neutral in terms of gaining weight and putting on pounds) the tastes of the Maya become an almost weekly part of your meals.
Finding a delicious colorful paste is easy in Mérida!
The blood red package is achiote. The black recado is for blending with turkey, and the pale green is a pumpkin seed recado. No wonder all the walls and buildings of Mérida are painted in such vibrant colors!
México is a result of a cultural fusion of Aztec, Mayan, Olmec and Toltec and other indigenous nations with the Spain of the conquistadors. To comprehend México is to confront a history under construction since the landing of Hernán Cortés at Veracruz in 1519. The more I learn, the more I understand what I don’t know. Deep waters take experience, and as with my love of Việt Nam, México keeps calling me back.
Not to mention the drinks, liquors, coffees, aguas frescas, and exotic liqueurs of the Maya and, of course and with reverence, México is the land of chocolate. Let that sink in.
I’ve always enjoyed superb coffee in México, with the best coming from Oaxaca, Chiapas and Veracruz. At the Coffee Bike Station in Valladolid, the tastes were exquisite, memorable and right across the street from the Mexican folk art temple of the Casa de Los Venados.
And while in the Yucatán, you’ll have a chance to enjoy a Chaya drink, a sweetened green leafy similar to spinach that has its own unique taste. Not to be missed!
And, to blend politics and cuisine, we had many conversations about the current state of affairs with many friends and new aquantiances. The aggregate sense was that eventually sanity will return. Mezcal has a way of soothing your soul!
México is a country that could use many lifetimes to discover. If the country were superimposed over Europe, it would extend from Greece to England, a lot of territory. And Mexicans are proud of their country and once you demonstrate respect to their achievements (for example an overwhelming cuisine made from the earth) you’ll have friends on every street.
When we joined a protest parade, I wasn’t surprised to see one sign that said ‘we’re proud to be Mexicans.’ Which, except to some egotistical Americans, is an obvious identity for anyone born in Guadalajara or Mérida or Oaxaca or Taxco or Guanajuato.
As I began walking around Mérida, I kept seeing a liqueur with a Mayan name, Xtabentún. Being born with a curiousity gene for food and drink, which my mom reinforced all the time, I felt like I’d landed in a magic fairytale. What could something as exotic to me as Xtabentún taste like?
Turns out it was a Mayan drink of anis and honey, which over the ages received rum from the Spanish to result in what is now a one of a one of a one liqueur. You will only find it in the Yucatán, which also boasts the most delicious honey I’ve ever tasted. The honeybees here don’t have stingers, making for a gentle and easy cultivation over the centuries.
But thank God I talked to Enrique at the Coffee Bike Station in Valladolid. In trying to determine which brand to select to bring home, he answered all questions. There was no other brand to compare to the Sosa family’s Xtabentún, which was just a few blocks from his coffee shop. Enrique gave me a sample shot. Fortified with Chiapas cappuccino, Jan and I headed directly to the Sosa distillery and found our drink of the Mayan gods with ease.
So I’ll know it’s time to return to Valladolid and the Yucatán when the last drop of Sosa Xtabentún is gone!
The tastes of México are endless, as big as the heart of its people and the scope of its immense geography. In the Yucatán, the Maya are still an unbroken tradition to our human beginnings in an ancient world. They are still here, reminding us all of our past as they build a better future.
I’ll drink to that with a delicious glass of cold glass Xtabentún!
I’ll return soon with more thoughts and photos from the Yucatán.
Best, best, best,