My Oh Maya

My Oh Maya

The All-inclusive my father chose for our family vacation prides itself on its rotating gourmet menus of Italian, Indian, Cajun and other ethnic cuisines. One night a week the menu is Mexican – but just barely. The food is stunning; it looks like you’re eating at Jean Georges. But almost all of it is dumbed down for European and American palates.

We’re a family of fast learners, though. We figured out that if we asked for it, the kitchen could usually bring us a bowl of habanero salsa from the batch they had hidden away for staff meals.

Reading through the pages of Diane Kennedy’s classic tome, The Cuisines of Mexico, I sat by the pool and made a list of all the Yucatan and Mayan dishes I would like to try on the trip. My mother assured me that we could order off-menu and I had seen my sister order plain, steamed broccoli for her kids, so I brought my list to dinner one night and showed it to our favorite waiter.

He shook his head. “No,” he told us in perfect English, “we don’t have any of this. I worked at one hotel where once a week they would have one big traditional Mayan dinner, but otherwise, none of the hotels serve this kind of food.”

He scanned my list again. “But this,” he said, “you can find this in the square.” He was talking about a special kind of drink made from coacoa and masa called pozol.

Eating off the reservation
In hopes of sampling some authentic regional fare, my mother and father and I slunk off to have dinner downtown on our next-to-last night. As we walked through the downtown streets, my parents noted how a whole street of restaurants had closed since they were last in Cancun several years ago.

“Must be the recession,” my father remarked. The big town square was bustling though, mostly with locals buying ice cream and street food, but we avoided temptation and made a bee-line for a place called Labná and the neighboring La Habichuela. Both establishments have been around a while, and there is a lot written about them online. One of the waiters at Labná stepped outside when he saw us eyeing the menu.

“What are you looking for?” he asked.

I held up my list.

“Yes,” he said, “We have that. We have that. And we have that.”

“You have this dip?” I asked, surprised, pointing to where I had written, X’ikil Pak.

“Yes!” he said. “And if you tell me now, I will have the chef make you this,” he said pointing to Pescado en Tikin Xik.

We merrily followed him inside the nearly empty restaurant. Granted, we were early, but there were only two other patrons in that massive church-like space. This meant that we received the nearly exclusive attention of our waiter the entire evening. But it was also an indication that turnover here wasn’t as constant as it was outside at the street food stalls (a fact later evidenced by the shrimp in our last dish).

Eating for sport
I love eating with my parents. Politics are off the menu, but anything edible is fair game. I can suggest we eat pig’s feet or cockroaches, and I am fairly certain that my parents, though they may raise an eyebrow, would be open to trying it all.

I ordered the relleno negro, a thick, black, pasty soup with turkey and a hard-boiled egg in it. I had already bought the paste at the market to bring back with me and experiment at home, so my plan was to try it now and get the general idea. It’s “meat mixed with a seasoning paste of burned, dried chilies and spices,” writes Kennedy. In her introduction, she explains how it’s chile seco which is used to make recado negro, by charring it and grinding it with other spices. Somewhere I read that the ground paste must be passed through a sieve in order to remove the more carcinogenic bits, but when presented with the dish you realize that a few carcinogens are unavoidable.

Though none of us are big tilapia fans, it was hard not to enjoy the dish the chef specially prepared for us. Pescado en Tikin Xik is fish cooked in achiote, and like Cochinitas Pibil, it contains Seville oranges and garlic and came wrapped in a banana leaf.

Perhaps my favorite food of the night, however, was the assortment of dips that our waiter set on the table upon our arrival. They included X’ikil Pak, a kind of Mexican hummus made from grinding squash seeds (pepitas). For me, this was the most unusual taste of the evening, rustic and earthy – with lots of garlic. They also decked the table with sweet, slow-roasted red onions, pickled onions and a decidedly unspicy habanero salsa. After trying the medley of all four of these on a tortilla chip, I was tempted to open a stand selling them on the beach beside our hotel.

A sweet good-bye
When we returned to our hotel that night, we popped in the restaurant for our favorite dessert: a scoop of house-made cinnamon ice cream and a shot of Kahlua.

Our waiter came over to ask if I had found the masa drink in Parque de las Palapas.

“No, I didn’t! We saw a big festival with dancing and there were vendors with corn and ice cream, but no pozol.”

“I’ll go and buy the ingredients,” he said, “When you come here tomorrow, I’ll make it for you.” And he did.

We sampled two kinds of authentic pozol, one with cocoa and one with coconut. And as we sat outside that last evening on the veranda, the winds whipping around us, I tried to imagine this beach before the Mexican government made it into a playground for sun-seekers. I felt the residue of masa on my tongue and imagined tall ships anchored out in the bay, a time when this liquid cocoa served as welcome drink, giving the explorers a taste of a new world.