Start a conversation with anyone in Mexico about the country’s various regional culinary specialties, and it won’t be long before cochinita pibil comes up. This incredible concoction of marinated, slow-cooked pork is the undisputed signature dish of the Yucatán Peninsula. It’s proudly advertised at Yucatec restaurants all over Mexico, and it’s ubiquitous in the three peninsular states of Yucatán, Quintana Roo, and Campeche.
Making cochinita pibil is a somewhat involved process. Traditionally, a suckling pig is butchered (though it’s more commonly made today with pork shoulder) and the meat marinated in a mixture of ground achiote, sour orange juice, and occasionally some habanero pepper. While the meat is marinating, a small hole in the ground is dug, filled with rocks. A brief but extremely hot fire is lit on top of the rocks and allowed to burn until exhausted.
The marinated meat is then tightly wrapped in banana leaves. The packages are placed on top of the now heated rocks, covered with dirt, and allowed to slowly cook, often for over eight hours or even overnight. The next day, the cooked cochinita pibil is pulled apart and, if the proper forms are observed, served with corn tortillas, marinated red onions and a wedge of sour orange.
This ‘thin’ description (to invoke anthropologist Clifford Geertz) is all that most tourists—and even most Yucatecans—understand about cochinita pibil. Fair enough. Anyone who can pause over a plate of the stuff long enough to contemplate its history is either a vegetarian or a massive nerd. If, however, one can muster the self-control to give cochinita pibil some consideration and ponder its ‘thick’ description, a thousand years of history, language, and geography will stare back from the plate.
Many terrible things came out of the Columbian Exchange (the movement of people and their portmanteau biotas between the continents after 1492), the worst of which was surely the catastrophic epidemics that swept through the New World after European arrival and left the overwhelming majority of indigenous Americans dead in their wake. Beyond diseases, introduced livestock like cows and sheep devastated ecologies and livelihoods, and those that persisted were changed almost beyond recognition. Those indigenous peoples who survived with their ways of life intact were often forced to adapt, make do, and exert their own agency under colonial regimes that, by their very nature and purpose, were culturally destructive and economically oppressive. The new biological, cultural, and economic conditions in which the European, African, and indigenous peoples of the Americas after 1492 led to enormous linguistic and culinary change, a good deal of which can be glimpsed in cochinita pibil.
|The beginnings of a píib|
Cochinita is a somewhat archaic Spanish way of saying ‘small pig’ or ‘suckling pig,’ while Pibil is derived from the Yucatec Maya word píib (PEE-eeb), which means ‘earth oven.’ Adding –il in Yucatec denotes action, so the name is a bit like saying ‘earth-oven-cooked suckling pig’ using a mixture of Maya and Spanish.
That an older Spanish word for suckling pig is used is no coincidence—there were no pigs in Yucatán before at least 1511. The animal was probably not introduced in significant numbers until much later in the mid-sixteenth century, at which point it was adopted enthusiastically as a source of oil, meat, and economic value by the indigenous Maya. Today, the Yucatec word for pig is k’éek’en (I’m not even going to bother with pronunciation for that one), but other Spanish loan words for introduced animals still persist: wakax (WA-kash) means cow, and the word is derived from the Spanish equivalent, vaca. Kaax (pronounced a bit like ‘cash’ but with a longer, rounded ‘a’) means chicken and is abbreviated from the word Castellano, a reference to Castile, which the Maya took to be the bird’s country of origin.
|Burning the wood to heat the rocks|
Suckling pig is not the only Old World ingredient in the dish. Citrus was also imported to the New World by the Spanish, and the viciously sour Yucatec orange that is used to marinate the meat is probably an offshoot of the Seville orange. It’s far sourer than a lime and the acidic juice is potent enough to partially cook the meat before it even reaches the píib.
While the pork and orange in the dish hail from Europe, the spicing is decidedly New World in origin. The main colorant in Cochinita is derived from the achiote shrub and is sometimes called annatto or condimento de achiote. It comes from the seedpods of the plant and imparts a mild, earthy flavour. It is so red and imparts its colour so readily that it was a common body paint and is today sometimes used to colour cheddar cheese, among other things (it’s E160 on most ingredient lists, if you’re curious). Its most frequent use in Yucatec cuisine is as a rub for meats like cochinita pibil or roasted chicken.
|Placing food wrapped in banana leaves in the píib and covering it with more banana leaves to keep in the steam|
The ferociously hot habanero is sometimes included in the marinade or served alongside cochinita pibil. ‘Habanero’ is an interesting name in itself; it means ‘from Havana,’ but the pepper variety is originally from the tropical lowlands of South America. Despite its origins, it is today closely associated with the Yucatán Peninsula and often assumed (including formerly by me) to have originated there. The Maya themselves refer to the pepper as habanero iik’ (habanero chili). The most likely explanation for its curious nomenclature appears to lie in Yucatán’s commercial history: Yucatán’s main trade ties in the colonial period were with the port city of Havana. It would seem that at least some ships came from the east coast of South America carrying the pepper or its seeds and offloaded them in Havana. From there they were distributed throughout the Americas (including to Yucatán) as chance or merchants’ inclinations dictated, leading to their deceptive title.
|Covering the píib for a slow cook|
Using a hole in the ground as an oven is common the world over and the genesis of this technology’s Yucatec iteration is obscure. Polynesian cuisine is especially well known for cooking entire pigs in a similar fashion, but the Yucatec píib tends to be shallower and wider than its Pacific counterpart. I suspect that the píib’s shallowness is for practical reasons; there are very few places in Yucatán where you can dig down more than a few inches before hitting bedrock. (The last time I dug a píib, the other diggers and I spent more time moving limestone boulders out of the way than we did actually moving soil.) Usually a deeper píib is only dug for special occasions when whole villages are to be fed.
The other piece to the process is the banana leaf wrapper. You might be surprised to know that the banana is not indigenous to the New World. The banana was (probably) first domesticated in southeast Asia or Papua New Guinea before being brought to Spain in the middle ages by Muslim traders, almost certainly via Northern Africa. It eventually found its way to the Canary Islands, and then onwards to the Americas. Using the fruit’s leaf as a wrapper for cooking was probably a natural extension of the use of cornhusks for the same purpose, a practice still observed in the northern areas of Mexico where bananas are difficult to grow. I’ve also seen almond leaves (another Spanish import) used similarly in Yucatán.
Today, cochinita pibil is seen as the most thoroughly Yucatecan dish you can eat and is pretty standard fare in the region, but with some digging the picture becomes complicated. The dish is neither Maya nor Spanish, but combines linguistic and culinary elements of both in a somewhat messy fashion. To me, it’s a suitable metaphor for the sometimes deliberate, at others random, improvisation and adaptation that occurred in the New World after 1492. Despite the horror and suffering that resulted from Europe’s expansion, there is both creativity and resilience to be found in unlikely places in the Americas. My favourite just happens to be gently cooking in a hole in the ground.