Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Yucatan Peninsula

When I sat out to research this post, I intended to write it only about the food of the Yucatan, but it turned into much more. I have been writing this post for a long time, in my head, and will try to transcribe it as eloquently as possible. This may be a post that is a little hard to read for some people, and quite frankly, that is sort of the point. If you don't want what you have always believed to be questioned, you should probably stop reading right now. Also, please forgive some of my elitist and negative undertones that are not typically part of my writing style, this topic just brings it out of me.

Mexico, what can I say about Mexico that has not already been said? What is Mexico? It is perceived to be something different to everyone: a home, a place to get drunk on spring break, a cultural & culinary paradise, or even a cartel battleground that some would never visit. That being said: I love Mexico! I love almost everything about Mexico! This post is a lot of good, and some of the sad, of the wonderland known as the Yucatan Peninsula.

The Food (Do yourself a solid and try something adventurous): 

Mexico is home to some of the freshest fruits that I have ever tasted. Much of America's fruit supply comes from Mexico, however, it is picked early in order to be able to make the trip before spoiling. If you have the mangoes, pineapples, papayas, bananas, passion fruit, and coconuts fresh from the source, it will almost ruin fruit that has been picked before it was ripe for you.

Speaking of freshness: The Yucatan Peninsula (aka Riviera Maya) is also home to countless little fishing towns, like Puerto Morelos, where fishermen bring in the daily catch and sell it directly to the restaurants adjacent to the docks. In most of these towns, you can charter a trip for the pros to take you sport fishing for something to mount or bottom fishing for something of your own to cook up. The locals fish in boats called Pangas, but larger boats with bathrooms on board are available for those that require such things. But whatever you do, do not take a banana on your boat, or you won't catch a fish big enough to fit on a Ritz cracker (If you don't believe me, as a fisherman. And no, I do not know if trail mix with dehydrated bananas in it counts, but do you really want to chance it?).

To this point, I have just scratched the surface of Yucatan cuisine. Each state in Mexico has The mainstay in the Yucatan is the marinated pork. This style of pork is probably most popular (in the US, at least) in Cochinita Pibil tacos. Cochinita Pibil, literally translated, is "suckling piglet" "enearthed". As far back as the Mayans, residents of this region have buried pigs in pits with hot coals to slow cook them.

You can get tender spicy pork for breakfast. lunch, and dinner. Yes, breakfast, I would almost venture to say that is when it is most delicious (having had even more time for all of the flavours to harmonize). A large helping of spicy marinated pork or spicy marinated beef, a side of fresh pina (pineapple), and a black coffee were my breakfast choices almost every day that I was in the Yucatan. Sure, you can still get your huevos rancheros, chilaquiles, Mexican pastries, and other favorite Mexican breakfast items too, but my favorite has to be the pork.

Other things that are good for breakfast (or any other time of the day, really): Soups! "Really?" you ask. Yes, soup in the tropics sounds a little counter intuitive (as you are already very hot and need nothing to warm you up, at all), but the soups were some of my favorite dishes that I had while in Mexico. Quite frankly, it surprised me too! But if you are not keen on any of my above breakfast recommendations... Menudo (a traditional beef tripe soup), or a variation of Menudo that contains chunks of beef rather than cow stomach (for those faint of heart) are delicious options! Grab a bowl of soup, sprinkle some cilantro and onions on that bad boy, and go to town!

Another great soup, and possibly the single best dish that I had on my most recent trip to Mexico, was a black bean cappuccino (pictured above). It was served at dinner time. It was an almost frothy black bean soup where the black beans had been blended into a homogeneous mixture with the froth, leaving only one delicious consistency. My only regret is that I only got one cup of this soup.

The Drinks:

So we all know about Corona (but incase you forgot, almost every billboard between the airport and your hotel will remind you). Don't get me wrong, I love a Corona with a lime if I am relaxing on the beach as much as the next guy, but Mexico has much more to offer than Corona!

You also know about Tequila. Some of you may think that Tequila is best suited for shots on Spring Break, and you would be wrong. Some of that same group (and some others) may think that you do not like Tequila, you are also wrong. It is very normal to not like cheap & crappy Tequilas, as that is probably what most of you drink. Tequilas should all be made of 100% blue agave. Anything that does not say 100% blue agave on the bottle, or does not dry to a non-sticky consistency, is trash and should be thrown away immediately. </Tequila rant> (%<--Nerd alert) (Yes, I realize that adding the "%" just made it worse. I am also aware that most of you will not get that joke.)

So I said all of that to say this: Blanco (Silver or Platinum) or Reposado (Rested) Tequilas are great for cocktails (if you need a good Tequila cocktail recommendation, that does not start with an "M" and end in an "argarita", then just hang out for a minute and I will hook you up). Anejo (Aged) Tequilas are great for just sitting and sipping on after dinner. Rested and Aged Tequila is mellowed in oak barrels, like many whiskeys, to get a more smooth flavour. There are countless familial Tequila companies in Mexico, there are also way too many big box outfits that push sub-standard Tequila at prices above their value, but the big brand that is probably the best Tequila (that is widely available in the USA) is Don Julio. I would advise anyone who is sipping Tequila straight to buy the good stuff, but if you are mixing, go mid-grade.

As promised: My Tequila cocktail recommendation from my most recent trip is called a Paloma. A Paloma is Tequila (I prefer Reposado) and Fresca soda, on the rocks, with a lime squeezed in it. This is one of the most refreshing, and tasteful, beverages I have ever had! Try this on a hot day and admit to yourself that everything that you thought you knew about Tequila was a fraud. Also do me a favour and do not salt your rim!

Mezcal is similar to Tequila, but is made with a different variety of the agave plant. This is the liquor that is famous for having the worm at the bottom. The "worm" that you see at the bottom is typically a cured larva of an agave eating weevil that is known to decimate entire agave harvests (sort of a cruel joke on the weevil I guess).

One fermented drink that had origins that predate both Tequila and Mezcal is Xtabentun. Xtabentun is specific to the Yucatan and is a Spanish twist on an old Mayan ceremonial liqueur. Xtabentun is a fermented drink made of anise seeds, honey, and xtabentun flowers. As with most liqueurs, it is very sweet, and you get a strong taste of honey. This makes it a popular coffee additive. There is also a cocktail built around this liqueur, called a Mayan Coffee, in which the liqueur is set of fire and added to coffee with coconut ice cream (much better than Bailey's, I might add). 

Mexico is also a hot bed for Rums that are not available in the USA. Most notable on this list is Havana Club, as this Rum is produced in Cuba, it is not allowed past customs in the USA. I had wanted to try Havana Club for a while, as I had heard nothing but good things about it, but as I sat there sipping on this amazing 7 year aged rum I could not help but think about the lives that it had affected. Havana Club is made in the factory that was seized by the Cuban government from the Bacardi family. The Cuban government did not allow free enterprise, so they took the distillery, but then brought in a private investor (that just so happened to be a friend of the Communist Party, shocker, I know) to help run this thing. Legend has it that they are serving up the original Bacardi recipe rum.This is what forced Bacardi to move to Puerto Rico. That  being said, I understand the US stance that we do not want to send money to Cuba to support that government; but when you cut off the head of the snake, the rest of it dies too (the rest of the snake is the Cuban people in this scenario). It just makes you think, but more on this in a minute.

After having had Havana Club, and it living up to the billing, I also had a little known Nicaraguan Rum (called Flor de Cana). This rum was heads and shoulders better than Havana Club (which is saying a lot), and was even cheaper too! Check it out if you can get it!

Also, not to be forgotten is Coke, made from real sugar (not that high fructose corn syrup crap).

The Culture (Yes, I swear I am not just an obese alcoholic): 

The Mayan Riviera is full of awesome things to see, most of them revolving around Mayan culture (as the name of the region suggests). From Mayan ruins, to cenotes, to mangroves, to shopping for Mexican goods, there is something for everyone.

For Mayan Ruins, one of the most popular sites for exploration is Tulum. Tulum literally translated means "stinky earth" because the Spanish could not stand the smell of the mangroves that surround the ancient city of Tulum. Tulum is one of the smaller Mayan cities, but is very popular (probably due to its proximity to the Cancun Hotel Zone), and will still show you a lot of the wonders of the Mayan calendar and architecture. Tulum is located on the cliffs, atop a breathtaking beach, and acted as a port city for the Mayan Empire. A much larger site, Chichen Itza, is located a little further inland.

Cenotes are caves that are filled with fresh ground water. These were the source of Mayan drinking water, as such you will see a cenote situated somewhere around every Mayan city. Although every Mayan city had at least one cenote, not every cenote is around a Mayan city. There are literally hundreds or thousands of these things across the Yucatan Peninsula. These are popular places for snorkelers and cave divers and are really quite cool! I would post a picture here showing you how cool they are, but my disposable underwater camera did not have a flash, so none of my pictures turned out. You will just have to trust me telling you that the light reflecting off of all of the submerged stalactites and stalagmites looks really freaking cool!

Mexican goods: Mexico is currently the source for almost 1/3 of the world's silver. Silvermaking has long been a Mexican artform, but during the War for Mexican Independence, the Spanish destroyed all of the silver mines (to keep the revolutionaries from getting them). This led to a nearly century long decline in the silvermaking trade. Today, the trade (and silver production) is booming. This gives those visiting Mexico access to some of the world's best silver, at a price that hasn't been marked up by a dozen middle men.

Another popular Mexican good is hand-painted ceramics. They are made by hand, painted by hand, and have a personal touch to them. You will see plates, bowls, platters, mugs, and other decorative pieces or all shapes and sizes. They are great to store your crappy green avocados that you get in the US in, trying to get them in the right mood while you wait for them to ripen.

Mexican culture (and almost all Latin cultures, for that matter) is a much more relaxed culture than what most Americans are used to, which makes it a great place to vacation. Things may not always be licketty split, like you want them to be, but good things come to those who wait. You will have travel snafus, get over it ahead of time, and enjoy the awesomeness that surrounds you! Do not let this laid back attitude make you think that these people do not work their butts off! Most of these people work 14+ hour days just to make enough to barely get by. Which brings me to my next point.

The Politics (If you don't want a lecture, turn away now):

First of all, lets start this off by getting something out there. If you are reading this, you are probably an ignorant American, unless you are like me (then you are probably still an ignorant American masquerading as an informed American). If it felt good to get that admission off of your chest, then feel free to keep reading. If that stung a little bit, you can click the "X" in the upper right hand corner of your browser.

To continue what I was saying previously, by American standards, most Mexican workers are severely overworked and severely underpaid! (<--This is partially the reason why vacationing here is much cheaper than doing so in Florida) These people work their hands to the bone just to feed their children and try to get them into schools where they can grow up to have a brighter future. Every Mexican worker you will talk to is extremely happy to have their job (a lot of people even move to the resort areas for better jobs), but they will also all tell you that they want their children to be more than what they are. That is pretty universal, right? We can all identify with that! I know I can, and I don't even have kids! This will not change until the government puts more money into the public school system, but that would require raising taxes and taking food off the table right now, so you can see where I am going with this. Next time you complain about your kids' school at the soccer mom carpool group, stop it! Be thankful and tip your service workers well (at home and in Mexico)!

Some people are so desperate that they end up doing terrible things, like trafficking narcotics, to enable their children to have better lives. Yes, there is a group involved in the narcotics because they believe that it is glamourous, but that is not everyone. Yes, this is a more dangerous life path for them. Yes, this wave of smuggling drugs has lead to increased violence in border towns. Which has only increased with every drug kingpin capture because it leads to fighting over turf, but that is another conspiracy all together that can be saved for another day.

All of that being said, anyone who thinks that Mexico is a dangerous place, you are dumb! Yes, there are dangerous places in Mexico, but there are dangerous places everywhere! There are dangerous places in everyone's home city, you just stay away from them. Does that keep you from inviting friends or family to visit you in your home city? No. Mexico as a country is not inherently dangerous! You have to be smart. Do not go roaming the desert looking for strippers and cocaine! Do not flash your money around and act like a loud, obnoxious, dumb American (that makes people in every other country mad)! Think about how you would feel if your neighbor built a fence that looked like the one pictured above and told you not to come over to his yard but took every opportunity he got to come over and act like a fool in your yard, you would not like that either.

Fphew! That feels good to get that off of my chest! Now back to the lighter side of things. And P.S. Mexico is not "dirty" either. P.P.S. Try to speak the language, they know English, but give Spanish the old college try. If nothing else it will make you feel more engulfed in the culture.

Where Do I Stay While In Mexico?:

When my wife and I travel to Mexico, we (like most Americans) stay at an All-Inclusive Resort. We like the nicer hotels because it gives us the option to venture out and explore the local culture when we want. Or we can relax by the water, feeling the ocean breeze, sipping on a Paloma (which is pretty awesome too). We like a good mix while we are on vacation. Plus I like a nice warm shower to wash the days' adventures off of me (which I realize is sort of in conflict with what I was just preaching above, and that is part of my internal struggle when it comes to this topic). You could probably save some money if you stayed at a local hotel, off of the beach, but it will be a lot more work on your part too. Keep this one thing in mind: As I always say "It is okay to do touristy things, but not to act like a tourist". If you do not understand the difference, you are who I am talking to.

The best thing that we have found about All-Inclusives is that even if it is raining, you can belly up to the beach bar (beneath the thatched roof), enjoy some beverages, and wait for the rain to pass. If you are going to be getting rained on, this is as good of place as any. The worst day in Mexico is still better than your best day in the office!

We have always had good luck with AM Resorts properties. We have stayed at Dreams Puerto Aventuras and Now Jade and loved both of them. Both have been beautiful with very good food. Both of these resorts do have international cuisines, something for everyone's taste, but I challenge you to focus on the authentic Mexican items. See a couple photos below.

1 comment:

  1. Glad you mentioned the Cuban rum. Everyone usually only talks about tequila when talking about Mexico. Another Cuban treat people enjoy in Mexico are cigars. Most of the "Cuban" cigars you see in Mexico however are counterfeits. La Casa Del Habano is about the only place you can feel safe that you are going to get the real deal.