Enjoying a culture full of flavors, homemade food

Early one Sunday morning, a couple of weeks ago, we met up with our Canadian friends Ian and Lori, whose boat is on the dock next to ours, to find some cochinita pibil … Yucatán pig cooked all night in a pit.

Several small tiendas on the island offer this delicacy each Sunday, but Ian and Lori have found one place they believe has the very best cochinita pibil. You have to get there before 8 a.m. because it sells out quickly. We followed our friends up and down the village streets with many twists and turns until we found the correct storefront. Several local folks were already lined up in front of us. We were the only gringos.

The aroma wafting back to us made our mouths water. When we got to the front of the line, three women measured out the amount we asked for and filled our containers then added some of the achiote-flavored drippings.

When we got back to the boat, we had our first taste of cochinita pibil in warmed tortillas. The flavorful juice dribbled down our chins. It was fall-apart tender and totally delicious. We had gotten enough for several meals and finally finished the last of it a few days later, served over rice with peppers and onions.

We will definitely be going back, but we’ll have to go with Ian and Lori because I doubt we could find the place on our own.

Mexico is the land of tortillas. People in Mexico seem to have tortillas at every meal. The two main types are corn and flour. Fajitas use flour tortillas. Tacos are made with corn tortillas. Flour tortillas seem “Americanized” to me.

The locals use corn tortillas instead of bread. They can be topped with meat, fish, cheese, refried beans, avocados, cabbage or tomatoes in any combination. Sometimes they are served plain, kept warm in a pottery or Styrofoam container with a lid.

Corn tortillas are best made from scratch. You mix about ¼ cup of maize (corn meal) with water and knead it. Good cooks know when the dough is just right, adding a little more water or a little more corn meal until it’s the correct consistency.

Then you take a little of the dough, about the size of a pingpong ball, wet your hands and roll it into a ball. Squeezing and patting, you work with it until you have a smooth disc about 4 inches in diameter. Then you place it on a hot grill. In a couple of minutes when the first side is lightly browned, you flip it over and cook the other side.

Warm tortillas, fresh off the grill, are delicious. Learning to make them takes practice, but the reward is worth it. More and more, however, people in Mexico are using mass-produced tortillas. Each of the two local markets have tortillas machines. But the taste is not the same. Once you have made your own tortillas, you won’t be satisfied with the store-bought ones.

As fewer people take the time for homemade food, a market for it has developed. In Isla Mujeres, early each morning and throughout the day, you hear bicycle horns. Locals on bicycles roam the streets of the village honking their horns, offering homemade tortillas and tamales carried in coolers to keep them hot.

Another place to find good homemade food is El Centro, the Isla Mujeres town center. Most towns in Mexico have a town square, usually bordered by a church, a municipal building, and maybe a grocery and other stores. It’s a place for people to gather in the evenings or on holidays.

Our El Centro always has three or four vendors selling lunch items. The vendors bring card tables, hot plates and pots of steaming home-cooked meat, fish, soup or stew. Eating street food here is like dining in someone’s home. The food is usually delicious, and despite having no FDA in Mexico, we have never gotten sick from eating street food.

It’s all part of enjoying a different culture.