Eat Like a Maya: Riviera Maya, Mexico
Like most places in the world that cater to international tourists, you can get just about any kind of food on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula from pizza to burritos to sushi. But you’ll miss out if you don’t make an effort to try some of the indigenous ingredients and dishes that make Yucatecan food something special.
Located on the eastern Caribbean side of Mexico and sticking out into the azure waters like a big hook, the Yucatan Peninsula has been the crossroads of many cultures, including Maya, Mexican, Spanish, Caribbean, Cuban, Swiss, German, and many others. Each has put its own stamp on the culinary scene. In addition, products like maize (corn), chilies, tomatoes, herbs like achiote and chaya, and local fish and shellfish have helped shape a culinary style that’s as distinctive as it is delicious.
David Reyes, chef at Yaxche (pronounced Yaak-shay), a restaurant in Playa del Carmen specializing in traditional Maya dishes, says, “People think of Mexican food as one thing. But they should think of the cuisines of Mexico, because each area, each state has its own cuisine, its own style of cooking.”
Legumes like black beans and vegetables like corn, carrots, and onions play an important role in traditional Maya dishes.
At Yaxche, many of the dishes are grain or bean based and are often rich with root vegetables. They also use indigenous plants like chaya, a green plant used by the Mayas for thousands of years. At Yaxche, they mix chaya with cucumber to make a deliciously refreshing drink.
“Here food is history,” says Aimee Rojas, a manager at the restaurant. “The Maya culture is one of the oldest in the world and one of the most important in Mexico. You can still see the Maya culture today and we celebrate that.”
Chef Reyes spent two years in a Maya village learning cooking techniques like making an incredibly creamy and filling soup from corn and chilies or a moist coconut cake from rice and coconut. A traditional Maya cooking technique is pibil or cooking underground with foods wrapped in banana leaves. The pork comes as thin pieces of juicy, slightly smoky meat served with tiny tortillas.
Fish like grouper and sea bass and shellfish like octopus and shrimp play a big role in Yucatean food too.
At Carnibal Royal Beach Resort, Playa del Carmen’s newest beach club, they serve incredibly fresh ceviche raw shrimp, fish, octopus “cooked” in lime juice. They also offer grilled octopus antichicho, pieces of octopus grilled in a beehive wood-fired oven served with aji-panaca sauce.
At Carnibal, medium-sized cucaramacara shrimp are cooked crispy with shells on and served with spicy mango and blue cheese sauce.
Chili and lime-laced chips made the rich, thick guacamole even more delicious at Carnibal.
One of the best places (and one that many tourists don’t know about) to sample local seafood is Playas Agua Chili, a tiny open-to-the-street cafe located at the corner of 25th Avenue North and 34th Street.
Many people start their meal with Agua Chile’s oyster shooter — a fresh, briny oyster in a spicy sauce with a salt- and lime-rimmed glass.
Their fresh tuna tostada comes as a crispy corn tortilla covered with thinly sliced pieces of raw tuna with a bit of avocado. The addition of a housemade tangy sweet tamarind salsa brings the whole dish together. Their Popeye tacos are filled with a creamy shrimp and spinach combination.
The ceviche at Agua Chili arrives in quart beer bottles cut in half and served with a spicy, tomatoey sauce and topped with epazote (a pungent native herb) and fresh sunflower sprouts.
Their very fresh, slightly sweet tostada scallops are come with a generous serving of fresh scallops in salsa verde (green chili sauce) on a crispy tortilla topped with espazote, thinly sliced purple cabbage, and avocado slices. The addition of vegetables like cabbage, pickled onion, and cilantro add a crunch and freshness to the dishes.
Thirty minutes down the road in Tulum, El Bistro‘s chef, Michael Helgado, is combining traditional ingredients and cooking styles with influences from countries like France.
Chef Heldago adds mango and rare tuna to his salad to bring it up a notch. “I want to achieve different textures and flavors by combining traditional Mexican and Yucatan ingredients with other influences,” says the young chef who attended culinary school in Mexico City and worked for the past nine years at restaurants in places like Cabo San Lucas before coming to El Bistro.
Crab cakes, cooked crisp on the outside, tender on the inside, are freshened with the addition of local greens.
His dishes are often seasoned with seeds like mustard and black sesame and heated up with habañero and other chilies. His shrimp tacos came as three tiny corn tortilla filled with creamy, slightly spicy medium-sized shrimp, avocado and pico de gallo (fresh chopped tomatoes, onion, and chilies).
His creamy, fiery habañero sauce, which many of my dining companions couldn’t stop eating, combines local chilies with fresh cilantro, garlic, onion, and oil and vinegar.
Then there’s breakfast…
For a terrific traditional breakfast, La Vagabunda is a great local spot in Playa del Carmen.
You’ll find traditional Mexican favorites like chilaquiles, layers of tortillas, cheese, onions, and salsa, and mollete (breads topped with beans and cheese) are delicious and filling.
The portions are generous here and everything is house made. Don’t miss out on their interesting selection of juices too such as La Morena, a combination of pineapple, strawberry, and guanabana.
If you’re in the mood to try some Mexican chocolate, there’s no better choice than Ah Cacao Chocolate Cafe! in downtown Playa. This coffee-dessert shop serves rich, dense brownies made with Mexican chocolate.
Ah Cocao!’s open-air setting makes it a great place for an afternoon coffee and people watching, and brownie eating.
And tropical fruit!
And, of course, don’t forget all the tropical fruits available in the Yucatan mango, pineapple, watermelons, cantaloupe, banana, plantains, papaya.
At the Las Palapays Hotel where we stayed during our culinary explorations of the Yucatan Peninsula, the full breakfast buffet always included an impressive selection of area fruits. There’s nothing quite as luscious as tropical fruit that’s picked when it’s ripe and full of natural sugar.
— by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor
Interested in other stories about Mexico’s Riviera Maya? Check these out:
“Diving the Riviera Maya’s Cenotes”
“Xel Ha: Riviera Maya’s “Natural” Theme Park”
Or see our recipes for:
Refreshing Chaya Juice