Visiting Yucatan, we went for a food tour in its capital city, Merida. In addition to the spouse, the NBP, and me, three others participated. Two were a couple from the Netherlands. Both were medical doctors finishing up their training. In the small world department, the third person was also from the Netherlands and a medical doctor who had just finished up her training. She had never met the other couple until we started the tour, destroying my preconception that everyone in Holland knows each other—not even the doctors. In fact, the country is so large that none of them knew the queen personally. (Did you know that the Netherlands had a queen? Are you one of those mystifying Americans who love English royalty gossip? But, quick, do you know the Dutch queen’s name? If you are fascinated by the unAmerican practice of royalty, how come you don’t?)

There is a special connection between Yucatan and Holland that was not known to the three Dutch people (or the three Americans). The Yucatecans love Edam cheese and use hollowed out balls of it for one of their signature dishes. According to Jose, the food tour guide, Yucatan recently sent representatives to the Netherlands to discuss Edam cheese. Apparently, we are all connected.

Yucatan and the Netherlands reminded me of Norway and Japan. A story on TV said that Norway subsidized its salmon fishing, and as a result, more salmon was caught than the Scandinavians could consume, and so, a lot of fish was in expensive storage in Norwegian freezers. Officials sought to expand salmon’s market and turned to Japan. While I thought the Japanese ate all sorts of things, I was surprised that at one time they did not eat salmon. They regarded it as yucky and salmon sushi as nauseating. Norway took on a lengthy, expensive campaign to change that Japanese view. So, if you eat and enjoy salmon sushi, you should thank the Norwegians.

And, of course, if you eat tortillas, you can thank the Mexicans. Jose said that Yucatecans ate tortillas at every meal and often in between. They are so important that they are price controlled with the cost of a kilo of tortillas set at about $1. Although tortillas are everywhere in Yucatan, the Yucatan cuisine varies considerably from other parts of Mexico. Yucatan is separated by mountains and deserts from much of the rest of the country. It was essentially isolated from Oaxaca, Mexico City, and Juarez for much of its history. Trade with Europe and North America was often easier, and the Yucatan diet was influenced by these contacts.

Merida Food Market. Photo by the NBP
Fish in the market. Photo by the NBP

Our food tour took us through the narrow, crowded passageways of the major food market of Merida where fruits and vegetables, honey and vanilla, spices and chiles are sold. (Another nearby market sold meat.) Food stalls were abundant, and Meridians crowded around them for lunch and snacks. Jose would stop and procure the specialties of an establishment generally not more than a few feet wide. We tried things we otherwise would not have and learned the difference between panuchos and salbutes, that turkey and venison are staples, what sopa de lima is, and that mole is not used. Instead, a black bean paste, sold in huge blocks in the market, is the base of many dishes. We went outside the market and had a terrific ceviche in a tiny restaurant followed by creatively flavored and delicious ice cream. This tour, coming at the beginning of the Yucatan sojourn, stood us in good stead for the rest of our stay as it encouraged us to eat items that we otherwise would not have understood on the menus. As we continued to eat panuchos at many places (they are similar to but different from salbutes—both are fried platforms to place other foods on, but panuchos have a black bean paste injected into them while hot), we found the food not only good and interesting, we found our drinks and meals inexpensive every place we dined.

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