Book Review Yucatán: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition
My first trip to Mexico began in the Yucatán. I landed in Mérida, which as David Sterling describes in his brilliant new tome, Yucatán, is “a cosmopolitan grande dame standing at the crossroads, graciously welcoming home her global family.” I eventually became part of that family, moving to Mexico and becoming a citizen. My initial encounter with the country, however, was on that trip back in 1973. My mother and I went for lunch shortly after arriving from New York. My first taste in this new world was of sopa de lima, a quintessential Yucatecan dish.
The soup is a rich chicken soup perfumed by toasted strips of tortilla and slices of lima, a heady aromatic citrus native to the region. Its exotic scent became an indelible part of my psyche at that moment. A sip today conjures magical worlds for me like Proust’s madeleines.
The Yucatán peninsula, historically isolated from much of the rest of Mexico, comprises the states of Yucatán, Campeche and Quintana Roo. It was populated by the descendants of the Maya, and later, by a mix of immigrants. Like all Mexican regional cooking, Yucatecan cuisine is a fusion of traditions, in this case primarily Mayan, Spanish, Lebanese and French. Nowhere else in the republic are these influences so obvious. And the celebration of its brilliant complexity is experiencing a revival. From market stands to restaurants with culinary institute-trained chefs, the eating-out scene here has grown by leaps and bounds. But the range of what is known and available has always been limited. The region’s cooking is well represented in the rest of the country, but usually by a narrow list of “greatest hit” dishes.
The great investigator, chronicler and chef Diana Kennedy laid the groundwork for unearthing, recording and promulgating Mexican regional food outside the country. She is to Mexico what Julia Child was to France, and she was similarly undervalued within its borders. Kennedy, who is now over 90, recently put together an acclaimed volume on Oaxaca. But she never did get around to celebrating the Yucatán. So with her blessing, Sterling has taken the reins. Kennedy’s blurb, which graces the back of the book, says it best: “I know of no other book in print today, or in the past for that matter, that explains so meticulously the ingredients and history of the foods of Yucatán.” I don’t either. Sterling has done a magnificent job in every way.
The subtitle of “Yucatán” is “Recipes From a Culinary Expedition.” But this is no mere cookbook. It is a work both scholarly but readable, informative and entertaining. It is beautifully designed and features the colorful photos and drawings from a team of photographers and illustrators, as well as archival material.
Chapters divide the book by geography — the market, the urban matrix, the fertile shores, the pueblos, as well as sections devoted to “pantry staples” and “kitchen technique.” There’s an astute mix of personal anecdotes, historical background and culinary analysis, in addition to the histories of individual dishes. The author is honest when he confesses, in a section entitled “La Cantina” that “I spent a few years in Yucatán before venturing inside a cantina. After all, aren’t these rugged, all-male enclaves dangerous dens of smoke, prostitutes and raucous drunks? … Eventually, though, my curiosity to see what was behind those seductive doors got the better of me and led me to try several cantinas.” He became a fan. Sterling is founder of Los Dos Cooking School in Mérida, the first and only culinary institute in Mexico devoted exclusively to Yucatecan cuisine. He resides and works there in a restored turn-of-the-century mansion.
To anyone venturing to the area, the book is an invaluable resource. A detailed history of the various migrations explains the complex recipes within. Rustic country dishes are elaborated upon. Pre-Hispanic cooking techniques — for example the “pib” method of marinating and pit roasting meats — are explained in detail. There are indeed recipes the home cook will never make — which is fine with me. This is not for the Rachael Ray “made easy” crowd.
Occasionally, substitutes for rare ingredients are suggested, but tradition is never compromised. For example, for the serious chef who wants to recreate the classic marinated suckling pig dish, cochinita pibil, a stove-top variation is suggested. Recipes for street foods include a variety of, tamales such as simple to prepare creamy colados. The recipe forMucbilpollo, a large, baked festival tamal, offers a fascinating account of a cultural phenomenon, but it’s unlikely to inspire the average homemaker to reproduce it. No matter. There are also straightforward, elegant Spanish and Mayan influenced dishes: jurel en escabeche, a tuna-like fish cooked with tangy pickled onions, or hearty charcoal-grilled pork with achiote sauce. These are relatively easy to prepare, as is the classic, aforementioned sopa de lima or the iconic papadzules (egg-stuffed tortillas bathed in pumpkin seed and tomato sauces).
Many of these recipes have been culled from local chefs, from country cooks who use wood for fuel, and even from women of social standing who harbor their grandmother’s secrets. Some see the light for the first time here. Sterling should and will be lauded, as Kennedy has been, for his service to Mexican cooking and to gastronomy in general.
“Yucatán: Recipes From a Culinary Expedition” is a must for anyone with an interest in Mexican food, and in Mexico itself; bravo to the author and to the many cooks who have made it possible for him to share this wealth with us. And double bravo because the book has won this year's James Beard award as "cookbook of the year"!
“Yucatán: Recipes From A Culinary Expedition” By David Sterling. University of Texas Press, 2014