A Tale of Three Cultures

Images of Merida Urban Adventures, Merida
This photo of Merida Urban Adventures is courtesy of TripAdvisor
The Mercado in Merida, Mexico

Sandee and I moved to Florida -from New Jersey- in the early ’70s – and we took Melissa along with us.  It took us a year or two to get settled there before we even started thinking about traveling anywhere – but eventually, the wanderlust grabbed us.

Florida is a great jumping off place for travel, especially for the Caribbean or Latin America – and in those days, some of the travel deals were nothing short of phenomenal.  Those were also the days when a traveler still used travel agents – I can remember how tempted I was with the posters on the window of our local agent for Merida, Mexico, which touted, airfare, 3 nights hotel, and transfers from the airport – for $169!  We’d often say, ‘It costs more to stay home!’

That first trip out of Miami was exciting, but at the same time, not one of high expectations – I assumed that Merida was one of Mexico’s second rate cities – why else the cheap rates?  How wrong one can be!!  Merida -the capital of the Yucatan- turned out to be an exciting city with much to teach us – a city of two cultures – and although Merida was only a short hop away from the U.S., those cultures were unbelievably different from the American culture of our homeland.

Merida’s Lovely Zocalo
courtesy of creative-journeys.com

Founded in 1542 by the Spanish, the city space of Merida had already been inhabited by the Mayans for many centuries – and in fact, some historians think Merida and its Mayan city predecessors could well represent the oldest inhabited city in the Americas.  And although the Spanish did their very best to destroy all visible remnants of the Mayan culture and architecture, there are still enough pieces of both the Mayan and the early Spanish history left today to make Merida a city of much fascinating history.

Over the years we lived in Florida, we and the girls took many long weekends to Merida and immersed ourselves in those two, often very conflicted cultures – the girls, much more so than we, soon learned enough Spanish that they were our translators, whenever needed – which was often.  My prime interest, of course, was the food – and my prime target area of the city was the huge labyrinth of a mercado in the center of the city.  Sometimes contained in solid buildings, then moving out into semi-open areas covered only with tin roofing, and then finally out into the open air, the market seemed never-ending.

Fruits and Vegetables in the Mercado
courtesy of virtualtourist.com

The mercado represented to me whole new world of food knowledge – it was an overwhelming assault of the senses as well.  The mercado was divided into sections by the kinds of foods, or goods, sold there – There was a section for fruits and another for vegetables – I could have spent all my time in these two areas alone, learning about new and exciting kinds of fruits and veggies – and being amazed at how such ripe perfection could be had so cheaply.  But at the same time, it was sad to see all this, for there was none of it that we could lug through Customs back in Miami – it simply couldn’t be legally carried home.

Perhaps the greatest sensory assault was reserved for the meat and fish areas, whose smells were sometimes less than appealing – Merida is not a cool environment -it is most often quite the opposite- and there is nothing about the mercado that suggests coolness, except perhaps that most of it is shaded – Yet, most meats and fish were displayed entirely out in the open, as if it were more important that the customer be granted direct access to the merchandise than it was to protect it from spoilage – or from the flies.  Depending on the particular vendor -and their cleaning habits- the smells would vary as you wandered down the rows admiring the huge halves of beef or pork, some being carved into unrecognizable butchering chunks, and many on display covered with a blanket of flies – occasionally, a vendor stood over the meats with a fan, swishing away the pests so that customers could have a better view.  The most disturbing part of this experience was the thought that these were the meats and fish that would be the likely subject  of tonight’s restaurant dinner.

courtesy of gettyimages.com

But the most exciting section of all in the market was the spice section, whose smells were blended into one huge cacophony of sensory invasion.  Nothing was in closed containers, instead, the spices were piled into beautiful mountains of varying colors and textures – red mounds, yellow mounds, green mounds, even jet black mounds – simply fascinating.  But the blending of the many competing spice smells created the greatest sensory assault of all – giving one a constant and continuing remembrance of smell memories stored in the recesses of one’s brain.  Overwhelming and exciting, all at once.

One of those spice pastes -an unassuming brick red color, with a musty, earthy smell- would prove to be the most exciting new taste to emerge from our Yucatan adventures.  It was achoite, the spice made from the annatto seed, and used to create the local favorite, Cochinita pibil.

Technically, Cochinita pibil means a slow roasted suckling pig that has been marinated in a sour citrus/achoite mixture – but as happens in the culinary world, today this dish is most often made with a pork shoulder, as it was that first time we experienced it in Merida.  I’ve never really had Cochinita pibil made with suckling pig, but I can’t imagine that it would be any more delicious than was the dish we had that magic night in one of our favorite Mexican cities.

Slow-Cooked Achiote Pork (“Cochinita Pibil”)
(Source: Rick Bayless, “Mexican Everyday”)


  •   3 pounds bone-in pork shoulder roast
  •  1/2 of a 3.5-ounce package prepared achiote seasoning (I like Yucateco brand adobo de achiote, available in Mexican grocery stores and through Internet sites)
  •   3/4 cup fresh lime juice (divided use)
  •   Salt
  •   1/2 of a 1-pound package banana or plantain leaves, defrosted if frozen (optional), available in Mexican or Asian markets
  •   1 large white onion, sliced about 1/4-inch thick
  •   1 large red onion, thinly sliced
  •   About 1/2 cup Fresh Hot Chile Salsa or Mexican hot sauce


  • Place the half package of achiote seasoning in a small bowl, pour in a 1/2 cup of the lime juice and 2 teaspoons salt; use the back of a spoon to work the two together into a smooth, thickish marinade.
  • If using banana leaves, cut 2 two-foot sections and use them to line a slow-cooker—lay one down the length, the other across the width. Add the meat and pour the marinade over and around the roast. Scatter white onion over the meat.
  • Pour 1/2 cup water around the meat. Fold up the banana leaves to roughly cover everything; turn on the slow cooker. Slow cook for 6 hours until the meat is fall-off-the-bone tender (the dish can hold on a slow-cooker’s “keep warm” function for 4 more hours or so).
  • While the meat is cooking, combine red onion with the remaining 1/4 cup lime juice in a small bowl. Sprinkle with about 1/2 teaspoon salt, toss and set aside to marinate, stirring occasionally.
  • Use tongs to transfer the meat and onions to dinner plates. Spoon off any rendered fat that’s floating over the juices. If there is a lot of brothy sauce—two cups or more—tip or ladle it into a saucepan and boil it down to about one cup. Season with salt if needed, then spoon it over the meat.
  • Top with the lime-marinated red onions and serve with salsa or hot sauce—and plenty of hot tortillas for making tacos.
  • No Slow Cooker?
  • In a large (6- to 8-quart, at least 12-inch diameter) heavy pot (preferably a Dutch oven), assemble the dish as described, including dribbling the water around the meat. Set the lid in place and braise in a 300-degree oven for about 2 1/2 to 3 hours, until the pork is thoroughly tender. Complete the dish as described. If there isn’t much juice in the bottom of the pan, remove the meat and add about a cup of water. Bring to a boil, scraping up any sticky bits, season with salt, then pour over the meat.

My Notes: White vinegar may be used in place of the lime juice (or part), but lime juice is traditional. I did not use the banana leaves either, and set the slow cooker on High – I used the probe and set the temp to 190F (probably a bit too high) – it was very tender and ‘fall-off-the-bone’ consistency in 6 hours. However, this will be nice for pulled pork uses, and for cutting off in cold state for micro heating later on. A very nice result and not especially difficult to put together.

I love the slightly earthy, musty character of achiote – and I shall never experience it without a flood of memories of mysterious and romantic Merida.


About drfugawe

I'm a guy with enough time to do as I please, and that my resources allow. The problem(s) are: I have 100s of interests; I have a short attention span; I have instant expectations; I'm lazy; and I'm broke. But I'm OK with all that, 'cause otherwise I'd be so busy, I'd be dead in a year.
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9 Responses to A Tale of Three Cultures

  1. Sandee says:

    We had some wonderful times in Merida; what a beautiful city – so rich in culture and heritage – and the food was fantastic! I do miss those easy trips where you could go for a long weekend and immerse yourself in an enitrely different culture! (I did hate the meat/fish part of the mercados!)

  2. Glenda says:

    Hi Doc, It is interesting to read of your trips to Mexico. The equivalent in Perth is Bali and less so, Singapore and Penang. Over the years package deals have been very cheap and most Western Australians have been to Bali many times. Five days in Bali was often cheaper than flying to Sydney or Melbourne, so most chose Bali.
    Your pork look good but I would be very surprised if you could get achiote in Perth. We are far too far away from Mexico to have a Mexican population. Our spice stores are Chinese or Indian or more recently African or Middle Eastern.

  3. drfugawe says:

    Ooo, that sounds like an exciting option. We haven’t been back to Mex in some time now, because of the drug mess – so I’m actually out of touch. But I’d be surprised if you couldn’t find achoite or annatto seed (which I’ve used to make my own paste or oil), since it’s now grown worldwide (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annatto), and it used most commonly as a dye, both for foods and non-foods. It’s also used a lot to flavor and color rice dishes in the Carribean, where it’s known as ‘the poor man’s saffron’. It’s a very interesting taste – subtle but very evident too.

  4. Joanna says:

    By a strange coincidence I found my way a few monts back to a Mexican importer and his shop in Clifton Village, about ten minutes drive from me and bought achiote and chillis and mugwort (epazote). I hovered over a tortilla press and jars of imported chilli sauce. I followed the instructions for a pork dish which we made….but now …. I will have to make yours because it sounds even better. The recipe we had made the paste with oj not lime juice. But I think lime sounds righter somehow. More thanks from me 🙂

    • drfugawe says:

      Here in the U.S., we find it odd that anyone should have trouble finding Mexican ingredients, but of course that’s because of our significant Hispanic population – kind of like not being able to find Indian ingredients in the U.K. But that doesn’t translate to our Mexican restaurants being as good or as authentic as SOB – problem is that most are ‘trying’ to accommodate what they believe to be ‘gringo’ taste – or they are simply only offering the very easiest of dishes to prepare. And of course, few restaurants are going to do something like this, since it takes so long to do (although it’s pretty much, ‘set it and forget it’, so why not?).

      I used to have epazote growing in the garden, it is a weed you know. But I eventually realized that I was only using is maybe once every few years – so when it died, I didn’t replace it. I think it’s an acquired taste, and it helps to grow up on it.

      When you do this, let me know how it turns out.

      • Joanna says:

        A weed is only a plant in the wrong place – it turns up quite a lot in the herbalist’s repertoire too – Mexican styled food was very popular here at one point and we are very fond of chilli generally 🙂

  5. Pingback: Roasted Pork Leg, Pernil de Cerdo | lasesana

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