My backpacking adventure to the Americas has just begun and I’m shaking with excitement. I can only afford 2 weeks away so I’m packing in as many foodie adventures as possible! I’ll be visiting Mexico (Yucatan Peninsula and Mexico City), Cuba and NYC and reporting back with all the details!
On my flight from Dallas to Cancun I sat next to Alex, an American born Mexican who is a very keen home cook. We talk about food non stop for hours, which is the only stranger-on-a-plane chit chat I care for. His favourite food is Chile Relleno, a stuffed chile with meat and cheese, and he recommends key Mexican ingredients to take home – chile de arbol and sazon, a spice salt with chiles and lime. Alex also shares some recipes:
Chile con carne:
Take pork shoulder and season with sazon, braise very slowly for min 3 hours with some water and white vinegar. For the sauce, char green tomatillos, red onions and garlic over a naked flame. Peel and blend with some lime juice. Fry the sauce in some lard, then stir through pork just before serving. Serve with tomato rice and refried beans.
Soak then boil pinto beans. Drain (reserving cooking liquid) and mash to a thick paste, loosening of necessary. Fry in lard just before service.
Fry raw rice, garlic and onion in some oil until translucent. Add some passata or fresh tomatoes and stock and cook till tender.
I arrived quite late in Cancun and won’t get to our villa in Bahia de Soliman for a couple of hours, so I chat with my driver, Juan, and we decide to go for a snack on the way. We stop at a gorgeous and very busy taqueria just outside Playa del Carmen for the best tacos al pastor …
Seasoned pork is cooked on a rotisserie, kebab style, with the heat coming from red hot coals tucked into a vertical wall. A flat grill, also boasting red hot coals, is covered with beautifully charred bulb spring onions, reminiscent of the Spanish calcots. Interestingly, they are served with Worcestershire sauce and lime.
Tacos al pastor come out on a double layer white corn tortilla. The pork is ever so thinly shaved and super tender, and is topped with finely chopped white onion, coriander and a piece of fresh pineapple.
Sides are plentiful (cactus, fresh limes and thinly sliced red radish) as are the sauces. A thin quacamole is a beautiful shade of wasabi green, and generously laced with lime juice which balances the rich pork to perfection. The classic salsa Mexicana is ever present, with finely chopped white onion, coriander and tomato. An almost black chile sauce made from the famed chile de arbol is thick and smokey. It turns out to be hotter than expected, even for poor Juan who began to sweat profusely! The heat creeps up on you slowly, then slaps you in the face and leaves just as quickly as it came. There was no other solution but to wash it all down with a couple of coronas…
After 90 mins drive south of Cancun I arrive at Nah Uxibal, our 3 storey beach front mansion in Bahia de Soliman, a luxury my backpacking budget could only afford in Mexico. My friends have saved me some leftovers with an ingenious fusion dish inspired by their trip to the supermercado earlier that day. Ally shares her recipe:
Spaghetti alla Mexicana:
Remove sausage meat from the casing of a fresh chorizo and fry up with some onions and garlic. Next take a can of what you bought thinking it was tinned tomatoes, and add along with some water. It turns out tobe preserved red peppers, which have the most sensational and intense flavor! Stir through spaghetti and voila!
I arrived in pitch black darkness and it’s not until morning that I finally get to see the beauty of Bahia de Soliman with my own eyes. The white sand almost burns your eyes and the coconut palm lined bay is breathtaking. The ocean is a bright turquoise for miles. The best thing about this bay? The lack of people and development. There are only a handful of houses, and no sign of the skyscrapers, plus sized resorts, burger joints and just-legal spring breakers that seem to plague Cancun and Playa del Carmen. Bahia de Soliman is remote, quiet and wonderfully authentic.
As it turns out, the caretakers of Nah Uxibal, Victoria and her husband Javier offer a dinner service. Victoria comes to the house and cooks authentic Mexican home style food for only 10AUD a head. As you can imagine, we couldn’t resist. In my broken Spanish I manage to communicate that I would like to help her do the groceries, and we hop in the “pick up truck” with their son, Miguel. Javier has the very important task of driving safely, especially given that installation of seatbelts in Mexican cars seems to be voluntary…
The “supermercado” is huge and stocks everything under the sun, al a Tesco. I go crazy, as expected and buy a whole bunch of ingredients for lunch, as well as some goodies to take home – salsa verde, chiles de arbol. Fresh chamomile flowers try to lure me in with their scent… but I don’t want to end up on “border security”. A highlight was the bakery section, which boasted fresh corn tortillas, still warm from the grill. Equally as exciting, however overwhelming, was the wall of dried chiles…. More research and experimentation is needed back home!
We invite Victoria and Javier for lunch, who reluctantly taste some of the fusion food as they only eat Mexican. With some convincing they try our chorizo tortillas, with which they are pleasantly surprised, “muy bien”!
Tacos con chorizo y salsa de manzana:
Pan fry chorizo fresco, a fresh dark red sausage typical of the Yucatan peninsula which is pickled in soured orange juice. Once cooked through, it remains soft, almost like a morcilla but is set enough to slice on an angle. For the salsa, peel and finely dice some apple, red onion and flat leaf parsley. Mix with plenty of lime juice, some olive oil and season. Toast some corn tortillas and serve with chorizo and salsa.
Slice or grate “queso Oaxaca”, a white cheese with a similar consistency to mozzarella, and place between 2 corn tortillas. Toast on either side until the cheese has melted and serve immediately with some salsa on the side.
After our generously proportioned lunch the only way to prepare for another generously proportioned dinner is to have a siesta… Victoria comes over a few hours later to prepare our delicious dinner:
Take very fresh whole prawns, peel and chop. Finely chop white onion, coriander, and deseeded tomato. Mix with a LOT of fresh lime juice and season well. Serve with tostadas, or plain corn chips.
Mash perfectly ripe and creamy Mexican avocados until reasonably smooth. Finely chop white onion, coriander and deseeded tomato. Combine and season with lime juice, salt and pepper.
Finely chop habaneros, seeds, pith and all. Mix with a generous amount of fresh lime juice.
Long green peppers are charred over a naked flame then peeled to remove the skin. Pan fry minced pork with some onion, garlic, tomato and season with lots of white pepper “pimento blanca molida”. Allow meat to cool, and stir through shredded queso Oaxaca. Cut a slit into the side of the peppers, remove seeds and pith, then stuff. Pan fry or oven bake until the cheese is well melted and serve immediately with a side of tomato rice.
Native fruits and vegetable are staples of Mexican cuisine, and you may be surprised to know that they include avocados, vanilla, pumpkin, capsicum, tomatoes, potatoes, coffee, chillies, corn and of course, chocolate! These key ingredients, which we normally associate with European cooking, were actually introduced to Spain by Columbus and are now consumed everyday in Australia and around the world. Thank you Mexico!
Our next stop is the Mayan ruins, Coba. After an expensive cab ride we decide not to get the $70 guided tour and instead try to loiter around an American group with an English speaking guide… it doesn’t take long for us to get told off for eavesdropping! We set out on our own and hire some bicycles to help make the hot and humid 4km round trip a little easier, when we stumble upon a Polish tour group! They would never suspect that I too speak Polish… bring on the eavesdropping! Needless to say we learned so much about beating hearts being ripped out of people’s chests during human sacrifice, inter tribal wars, worshipping of gods, and the construction of the pyramids and surrounding 300-odd buildings. The largest of the pyramids can be climbed, and we excruciatingly make the 130 step journey to the top (thank you pump class). The view across the Mayan peninsula is magnificent, if only we could get a shot with out Polish people in the background! Getting down the pyramid is treacherous and we find it’s much easier barefoot. This somehow makes the experience more real as our bare skin touches the same stones that, a thousand years earlier, felt the warmth of fresh blood being spilled in sacrifice. It was kind of scary, but I must admit that I felt an Indiana Jones-esque rush that I’ll never forget.
The people of the Riviera Maya region are beyond beautiful. They are always smiling and have an incredible sense of hospitality. The warmth and kindness we experienced, especially with Javier and Victoria, made our visit oh-so personal and we will never forget it.