I try to experience local foods when traveling. Calvin Trillin wrote that, when in a new town, he would not ask for the best restaurant but instead ask a long-time resident what that person would want to eat upon returning to home after being away for a year or two. In other words, what was the local comfort food. And thus, as a result, you might have an ice cream potato in Coeur d’Alene, a breaded pork tenderloin sandwich in Kokomo, or chicken riggies in Utica.
I don’t know how to do this in a country where I don’t speak the language. Instead, I have found myself in markets pointing at possible palatable foodstuffs and indicating with gestures how much I want. This is always an adventure and sometimes a successful one.
Only recently have I done what I should have done decades ago—book a food tour at the beginning of the trip. That is what the spouse, the NBP, and I had done in Merida, Yucatan’s capital city, in pre-Covid days. In addition, there had been three others on the tour—a pair of medical doctors from the Netherlands finishing their training and–in the small world department–another Dutch doctor who had just finished up her training. She had not met the other two until that day. Apparently, Holland, while not that large, is not so small that everyone knows each other—not even the doctors. However, we all learned that there is a special connection between Yucatan and Holland. 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.
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 menus. As a result of the tour, we continued to eat panuchos at many places (they are similar to but different from salbutes—both are fried platforms for other foods, but panuchos have a black bean paste injected into them while hot).
From my standpoint that food tour had been satisfying, so going to a different part of the Yucatan peninsula, I looked for a similar but different local experience. I booked a rather expensive combination market excursion and cooking class in the home of a Yucatecan host.
First, we had to find that home, which was a forty-minute drive from where we were staying. One of the three of us was confident, incredibly confident, that she knew how to get to the location. We got lost. We eventually pulled up to a hotel to ask for directions but thought that it wiser to hire a cab to lead us to our destination. We were fifteen minutes late but found our host and a family across the street waiting in what until recently had been an industrial area in Playa del Carmen. After we apologized profusely, we walked a block. The host pulled aside a solid gate fronting the sidewalk, and we entered a courtyard surrounded by three or four buildings, each the home of one or more families. Through an open door in one of the buildings, and we were in the host’s kitchen and dining room, where we chatted for a few moments.
Alma, the host, talked a bit about the history and growth of the fast-growing city. After she explained what we would be preparing, we went to a market a few blocks away. I was disappointed. I was looking for a central, city market like ones I have visited in Florence, Barcelona, Istanbul, Budapest, and Merida where there are dozens and dozens of vendors selling all sorts of things I do not recognize. I wanted to see pyramids of unknown fruits and stretches of exotic vegetables with food stalls hawking unfamiliar prepared food. This, however, was only a neighborhood market equivalent to the ones where I buy fruits and vegetables several times a week in Brooklyn. We did learn a little about some new-to-me foods, but not much. After Alma bought a few things, others jaunted but I trudged (it was getting hot) back to her kitchen.
We then began to assist Alma and her aunt (or perhaps it was her sister) in the preparation of what would be our lunch. Guacamole was first. Alma had two rigid rules for this dish. First, use a mortar and pestle, never a blender. She maintained that blending altered the taste of the guac ingredients. (She did use a blender to make a marinade for chicken.) Second, no lime. This was to the chagrin of the two girls, ten and eight, who with their parents were our cooking companions. The girls loved limes and sucked any they could get their hands on. Perhaps those two were disappointed, but the guacamole was delicious.
We made our own tortillas. Alma’s twist: she colored part of the masa with beet juice producing a red tortilla or mixed with the non-colored dough for a binary effect. I, however, could discern no taste difference in the beet infused tortillas with the nonbinary ones. (In any event, I prefer wheat tortillas to corn ones.) Two presses were used to form the tortillas, a metal devicemuch like ones I have seen elsewhere and a larger, wood one, which I guess harkened back to older days. The product from each seemed to be identical.
We soon sat down to lunch eating guacamole and tortillas stuffed with the meat flavored with the marinade Alma had made. It was pleasant but also disappointing. I had not had the culinary discoveries I had been hoping for. The market was not what I had envisioned. I own a mortar and pestle, and although I seldom do, I know how to use it. I had not made a tortilla before, but I already knew the basics. The food was tasty, but nothing made me say, Oh, wow. Alma emailed us the recipes we had cooked as well as other ones. Even though I am a regular recipe-reader, I have not even looked at what she sent.
(concluded May 4)