Talk to anyone who truly knows Mexican food, and you’re bound to hear about one of the most famous dishes of the Yucatán Peninsula—cochinita pibil. This savory shredded pork dish could be mistaken for carnitas at first glance, but its history, preparation style, and unique taste are all its own.
Located in the southern part of the country on the Gulf of Mexico, the Yucatán region is defined by the confluence of traditional Mayan and European cultures. Resulting from its easy access to the Atlantic Ocean trade routes and the long-standing traditions of the Mayan people, the Yucatán Peninsula developed a culture of its own within Mexico—including its cuisine. As one example of the meeting of these old and new world influences, cochinita pibil is proudly featured on menus throughout the regional states of Yucatán, Quintana Roo, and Campeche.
How do you make cochinita pibil?
The process for making cochinita pibil is time-consuming, albeit relatively simple. Traditionally, an entire suckling pig is butchered and marinated, wrapped in banana leaves, and slow-cooked. A key part of the dish’s preparation is its signature achiote marinade. Achiote is a small shrub native to Mexico and Central America, which produces a fruit with tiny red seeds. These fruit seeds can be used to make red dyes for paint and makeup products, as well as seasoning for the achiote spice. To give the marinade its distinctive flavor, the achiote seeds are ground and mixed with sour orange juice and habanero, depending on the desired heat level.
El Yucateco Achiote Paste, $3.99 on Amazon
Annatto seeds lend flavor and vibrant orange color to this seasoning paste.
After marinating for several hours, the meat is then wrapped in banana leaves and slow-cooked over hot stones buried underground. In this traditional Mayan cooking method the stones are set ablaze, heated to an extremely high temperature, and then the meat is cooked by the heat of the stones after the flame has been extinguished. Of course, in present day the meat is rarely cooked underground in the traditional manner, though many contemporary chefs have attempted to replicate the process in a more modern way. For the average at-home cook, a dutch oven or slow cooker does the job just fine to produce juicy, tender meat.
Aside from variations on the traditional cooking methods, other modern tweaks are often made to the recipe, either for taste or simplicity. For example, today’s chefs generally opt for pork shoulder and loin meat in place of the customary full suckling pig.
The finished pork is garnished with pickled onions and habanero and—like carnitas—is often served with corn tortillas for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. You might find cochinita pibil as an appetizer menu item, served over tostadas and intended to be shared. An entrée version may be served on a sizzling skillet, still wrapped in banana leaves and paired with rice and beans.
To grow your Mexican food repertoire, try cochinita pibil at a Yucatecan-style restaurant or in your own kitchen! For those ready to prepare this regional specialty in their own home, follow our simple Cochinita Pibil recipe that uses a Dutch oven.
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