The cuisine of the Yucatán Peninsula combines a unique and scrumptious blend of Spanish, Mayan and Caribbean influences. Here’s where to find the real deal

Traditional Yucatán food

While the city of Cancun itself is only 40 years old, it sits on the northeastern edge of the Yucatán Peninsula – an area steeped in Mayan heritage. The culture of the ancient Mayans has influenced Yucatán’s language, dress and traditions – and, naturally, its food.
Yucatecan cuisine is unlike the gastronomy to be found anywhere else in Mexico, and combines a Spanish influence with elements of Caribbean and Mayan cuisines. The main ingredients include pork, turkey, chicken and seafood as well as handmade corn tortillas, the Caribbean spice achiote, lime and, strangely, Edam cheese (queso de bola in Spanish).

Traditional Yucatán dishes to try

During my nine years of living in Cancun, and four being married into a Yucatecan family, I’ve had the chance to try the area’s most traditional recipes. Frijol con puerco is Yucatán’s version of pork and beans, and traditionally it’s eaten on Mondays. For a taco-like snack, try salbutes, or panuchos – my personal favourite. Papadzules resemble classic Mexican enchiladas, but they’re filled with hard-boiled eggs. For mouthwatering soups, ask for sopa de lima (lime soup) and relleno blanco or relleno negro (white or black turkey stew). Cheese lovers like me will enjoy queso relleno, a hollowed-out ball of queso de bola stuffed with pork, onions, tomatoes and a variety of spices. One of Yucatán’s most delicious signature dishes is poc chuc: roasted pork seasoned with citrus and achiote.

The best local restaurants, Cancun

To eat genuine Yucatecan cuisine in Cancun, you’ll have to really get out and explore. The majority of the city’s most authentic restaurants are nestled in downtown Cancun where the locals live – a quick bus ride away from the glitz and glamour of the Hotel Zone.

For an insight into Yucatecan cuisine and the local lifestyle, spend an evening at Parque Las Palapas. This central town square has two side-by-side Yucatecan restaurants: La Habichuela and Labná. La Habichuela is considered a Cancun institution and serves a mix of Mexican, Mayan and seafood dishes. The ambience is charming and there’s a lovely garden, too. Next door, Labná has Mayan-inspired design along with many of Yucatán’s most famous dishes. After a memorable dinner at one of these restaurants, make sure to take a stroll around Parque Las Palapas to buy local artisanry, enjoy watching live street performers and try mouthwatering marquesitas from the street carts. Choose your own ingredients for these rolled-up crepes – I recommend queso de bola and Nutella.

Best street food, Cancun

Travel further into downtown Cancun to find the smaller eateries where the locals get their Yucatecan food fix. Los Almendros is situated on Avenida Tulum, downtown Cancun’s main street, and serves almost every Yucatecan recipe you could ask for in a slightly more upscale setting than usual. For something a little more casual, try Emara Antojitos Yucatecos, a small restaurant offering Yucatecan street food at very affordable prices, right by Cancun’s popular Market 28. I hear their lime soup is especially good.

If you’re feeling adventurous and want to discover one of Cancun’s best-kept secrets, head for El Pocito. This tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant is a favourite among Cancun locals for its laid-back atmosphere, cheap prices, authentic Yucatán dishes and amazing flavours. Make sure to accompany your meal with El Pocito’s aguas frescas: traditional Mexican drinks made with natural ingredients.

Where to try tikin-xic, Yucatecan baked fish

If you’ve visited Cancun before, you may have heard of Yucatán’s tikin xic fish dish. For this dish, a large grouper fish is split open and laid flat, marinated and baked in achiote paste, and topped with a variety of ingredients that can include onion, tomato and even roe. Some of the best tikin xic in Cancun can be found at Rio Nizuc, an outdoor seafood restaurant known only to locals and a few savvy tourists, hidden away at the southern end of the Hotel Zone, near where Nichupte Lagoon opens up to the ocean. Axiote restaurant in downtown Cancun also serves a tikin xic dish, in addition to a variety of contemporary Mexican cuisine, and is located at the upscale Plaza Peninsula.

Best Mayan food, Playa del Carmen

However, one of my absolute favourite Yucatecan restaurants is located outside the city, in the beach town of Playa del Carmen, just one hour south of Cancun. If you’re enjoying a Playa del Carmen day trip, I highly recommend dinner at Yaxche on Fifth Avenue. This restaurant offers Mayan cuisine prepared with a modern twist. My Yucatecan in-laws love it there; they say that although the presentation is non-traditional, the flavours are spot on. I love the panuchos, and the euxiquia (potato and chili) soup made with xcatic peppers.

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