Street Food: Eating Our Way Through Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula

Across Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, we set out to sample as many street delicacies as possible.
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Across Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, we set out to sample as many street delicacies as possible.

The importance of corn

Many of these foods can be traced back to Mayan times. In addition to building incredible cities, the Maya people grew corn. The grain was a staple of their diet, just as it is for their descendants today. Good old corn on the cob, called elote, is one of the most popular street foods all across Mexico.

Dressed up with cheese and chili pepper it is a tasty treat, but down in the southern sections of the country we came across a variation we had never seen before. Esquites have the same ingredients, only served in a cup. The corn is cut off of the cob and a wild array of condiments is offered as toppings, and then eaten with a spoon. Not as fun, but definitely not as messy.

Smoky tamales

While exploring the Spanish colonial town of Valladolid, one of the more intriguing offerings we encountered curbside were the charred, leaf-wrapped packets we kept seeing in the Mayan neighborhood. The Maya people invented tamales, and have continued making them for thousands of years.

Unlike the corn husk wrapping we are used to seeing (or the scary grease soaked paper of the canned versions), these tamales are cooked in banana leaves, which does wonders for the flavor.

The sweetness, mixed with the smoky flavor from fire roasting and the spicy filling, made for the best we've ever had. Much of that unique goodness is a result of the cooking over coals in underground ovens known as pibs.

Conchinita pabil

At a sidewalk café in Piste, the small town that serves as the gateway to the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, we were introduced to another regional dish that can be traced back to the ancients, and is also cooked underground, is conchinita pibil. Cochinita means baby pig, and pibil is the Mayan word for buried, which perfectly describes the dish.

While it has become less common to roast a whole suckling pig, the method remains the same; marinate pork in the juice of bitter oranges and achiote, wrap the meat in banana leaves, and slow cook it over coals underground. The end result is tender, flavorful pulled pork that instantly became our new favorite.

Jumpin' Jimney!

In Cancun, we got off to a jumping start at a weekend street fair. Before we made it to the mass of vendors in the Parque de las Palapas, we encountered a young man with two buckets. One was obviously filled with spiced peanuts; the other looked to be brimming with bugs.

“Crickets,” he informed us. Known as chapulines, these buggers are traditionally found in the nearby state of Oaxaca. In summer and early fall, the insects are harvested out of the corn and alfalfa fields, cleaned, boiled, and then baked or fried with plenty of spices. Never ones to back away from trying something strange or new, when offered a sample we both popped one in our mouths.

Not bad, the chili overshadowed any bug-like flavor. Not a new favorite or anything, but way better than a silkworm.

WATCH: We eat our way through the Yucatan - calorie count not included, for your guilt-free viewing pleasure!

And, of course, tacos

We certainly cannot overlook the importance, and abundance, of tacos to the street food scene in Mexico. There are variations common to the different parts of the country, but they have all permeated the entire land and beyond.

Ground corn, cooked into tortillas, is still the delivery system of choice for almost any filling imaginable. From the basic tacos al carbon, where the meat is grilled over live coals, to tacos dorados meaning golden tacos, because they are deep fried to a golden brown.

One of the most popular taco types in all of Mexico is not descendent from the ancient natives, but from Lebanon. In the first half of the twentieth century many Lebanese immigrants came to Mexico to escape the Ottoman Empire and brought with them their traditional foods.

However, some of the ingredients were not readily available in their new home and dishes had to adapt. Tacos al pastor is a perfect example. The lamb used for shawarma, the spit-grilled meat common throughout the Middle East, just wasn’t around in the Yucatán, so pork replaced it. New seasonings, including pineapple were incorporated, and when served on tortillas instead of pita... presto, tacos al pastor.

After a few days of taco tasting we were feeling pretty adventurous, so we decided to try the possibly disgust... rather, shall we say, somewhat exotic tacos de cabeza, or head tacos. The process involves steaming a whole cow’s head and removing certain parts to use inside of tacos. The most common portions are Sesos (brains), Trompa (lips), Cachete (cheek), Lengua (tongue), and Ojo (eyes).

We went for the cheek, tongue, and eyeballs, after all, there’s only so much cabeza a person can take... and we wanted to save some to try later... yeah, right. The cheek was fairly normal meat, perfectly good, and the tongue was not too unusual either. We had tried it through the years on sandwiches and other dishes. But the eyes... let’s just say it was not a pretty sight.

The eyes are chopped up after steaming, and then braised on a grill, which helped slightly. In fact, had we not known what we were eating we may have thought it was just a really fatty, grisly cut of meat. But we did know, which brought new meaning to the saying watch what you eat.

We were diligent though, and managed to consume a fair amount of the bovine peepers, until it hit us... what if they were watching us back?!?!

It was easier to get past eating a bug than thinking about that.

David and Veronica James,

YOUR TURN: Fire away! What looks good and what wouldn't you eat in a million years (we would never ask that you are as crazy as we are!)?