As Cancun has grown into a luxurious, cosmopolitan resort destination, the city now serves as host to an incredible array of restaurants featuring cuisines from throughout the world. Yet, for families visiting Cancun, authentic Mexican cuisine is often the first choice. While you will find plenty of Mexican staples in Cancun – including tacos, burritos, nachos, and quesadillas – native dishes of the Yucatan Peninsula provide the most interesting and authentic dining opportunities. Influenced by everything from Spanish colonial recipes, ancient Mayan preparations and the flavors of the Caribbean region, Yucatecan cuisine is consistently cited as some of Mexico’s most unique and flavorful food.
Utilizing a number of regional ingredients – including pumpkin seeds, sour oranges, native peppers and the traditional seasoning known as achiote – as well as traditional cooking methods, the Yucatecan dishes certainly stand out amongst the Cancun’s more common Mexican offerings. Though Yucatecan food is typically mild in comparison to most Mexican cuisine, nearly all of the native dishes found in Cancun can be spiced up with authentic salsas and fiery peppers. Furthermore, many of the Yucatecan dishes found in Cancun represent age-old recipes that have found their way to the city from the peninsula’s smallest towns, assuring travelers of a truly fascinating and historical dining experience. Here is a small selection of the Yucatecan foods that can be found in Cancun and throughout the Mayan Riviera.
Tixin-Xic – One of the most popular traditional Yucatecan dishes, this fish entree can be found on menus throughout Cancun. Tixin-Xic, pronounced “tee keen sheek,” means “dry fish” in Mayan, a reference to the dish’s preparation. Most Tixin-Xic recipes use grouper, drum or other white fish varieties, most caught locally in the Caribbean Sea. Regardless of the fish used, the filet will always be marinated with achiote and sour orange juice prior to cooking. Achiote, a red paste derived from annatto seeds, lends Tixin-Xic both its vibrant color and perfectly seasoned flavor. After seasoning, the fish is then wrapped in banana leaves and typically cooked over a wood fire.
Cochinita Pibil – Incorporating many of the local ingredients and techniques found in Tixin-Xic, cochinita pibil is a flavorful pork dish that can be found at all types of restaurants in Cancun. Prior to cooking, the pork is seasoned with achiote and sour orange juice, then wrapped in banana leaves. The meat is traditionally baked in an open pit, though other cooking techniques are accepted. The pork is served with vegetables, especially onions, and corn tortillas. A variation on this dish known as pollo pibil includes chicken instead of pork.
Huevos Motuleños – This breakfast dish is similar to another well-known Mexican dish, huevos rancheros. Like huevos rancheros, huevos motuleños includes eggs with cheese and red chile sauce served atop corn tortillas, but the Yucatecan dish adds a few regional flourishes such as locally-produced ham and fresh peas.
Panuchos, Salbutes and Empanadas – These small dishes are served both in restaurants and at food carts throughout Cancun. Panuchos are made with thick corn tortillas or fried corn masa filled with beans, then topped with shredded chicken, pork or turkey and garnished with cabbage and red onions. Salbutes are similar to panuchos as they begin with corn tortillas that are then topped with meat – turkey is often used for traditional salbutes – and a selection of garnishes. Yucatecan empanadas are quite different than the sweet, fruit-filled variations found throughout the world. In Cancun, empanadas are usually stuffed with a combination of potatoes and pork, chicken or fish. Znipec salsa, a local preparation that includes habanero peppers and sour orange juice, can often be found served alongside these snacks.
Pollo Ticuleño – This baked casserole-style dish includes layers of chicken, tortillas, cheese, mild tomato sauce and either potatoes or corn masa.
Papadzules – Though papadzules resemble other Mexican breakfast dishes at first glance, the preparation includes a few Yucatecan trademarks that create a uniquely robust flavor. The most common version of papadzules found in Cancun begins with chopped hard-boiled eggs laid atop corn tortillas that have been marinated in a pumpkin seed salsa. The eggs are then covered with a mild tomato sauces, diced peppers, and other flavorful garnishes.
Xtabentún – This sticky-sweet liqueur serves as Cancun’s most authentic mealtime cocktail. Composed of a rum-like base, anise seed, and honey, Xtabentún is often served as an appetizer in Mexican and Yucatecan restaurants. Beverages made from rice, dragon fruit, and chaya – a native Yucatecan plant – can also be found throughout Cancun.
The dishes mentioned here can be found throughout Cancun in everything from resort restaurants and upscale cafes to downtown markets and the carts of street vendors. As travelers don’t need to look far for an authentic taste of the Yucatan, the native foods of Cancun provide the easiest and, of course, most delicious way to explore the region’s rich flavors and traditions.