The inclination to grab a bite to eat on the street is not something new.
Most likely the first time two roads crossed, some enterprising chef set up a cart at the new intersection to provide passersby a mobile snack.
The idea of fast food is not a recent development; it’s the culmination of centuries of selling food on the fly. We saw it in Pompeii, where corner cafes had counters right on the curb.
Across Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, we set out to sample as many street delicacies as possible and got off to a jumping start at a weekend street fair in Cancun.
Peanuts and Crickets?!
Before we made it to the mass of vendors in the Parque de las Palapas, we encountered a young man with two buckets. One was obviously filled with spiced peanuts; the other looked to be brimming with bugs.
“Crickets,” he informed us. Known as chapulines, these buggers are traditionally found in the nearby state of Oaxaca.
In summer and early fall, the insects are harvested out of the corn and alfalfa fields, cleaned, boiled, and then baked or fried with plenty of spices. Never ones to back away from trying something strange or new, when offered a sample we both popped one in our mouths.
Not bad, the chili overshadowed any bug-like flavor. Not a new favorite or anything, but way better than a silkworm.
In the Yucatán, many of the favorite foods can be traced back to Mayan times. In addition to building incredible cities, the Maya people grew corn.
The grain was a staple of their diet, just as it is for their descendants today. Good old corn on the cob, called elote, is one of the most popular street foods all across Mexico.
Dressed up with cheese and chili pepper it is a tasty treat, but down in the southern sections of the country we came across a variation we had never seen before.
Esquites is same ingredients, only served in a cup. The corn is cut off of the cob and a wild array of condiments is offered as toppings, and then eaten with a spoon. Not as fun, but definitely not as messy.
While exploring the inland town of Valladolid, one of the more intriguing offerings we encountered curbside were the charred, leaf-wrapped packets we kept seeing in the Mayan neighborhood.
They looked a lot like the dim sum sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves served in China, but were obviously cooked over fire. Our guess was — even though they were much larger than we had ever seen before — that they were most likely tamales.
Unlike the corn husk wrapping we are used to seeing (or the scary grease soaked paper of the canned versions), these tamales are cooked in banana leaves, which does wonders for the flavor.
The sweetness, mixed with the smoky flavor from fire roasting and the spicy filling, made for the best we’ve ever had. Much of that unique goodness is a result of the cooking over coals in underground ovens known as pibs.
That is so much a part of the process that pib has become the slang term for tamales across the Yucatán.
Another regional dish that can be traced back to the ancient Mayans, and is also cooked underground, is conchinita pibil.
Cochinita means baby pig, and pibil is the Mayan word for buried, which perfectly describes the dish.
While it has become less common to roast a whole suckling pig, the method remains the same; marinate pork in the juice of bitter oranges and achiote, wrap the meat in banana leaves, and slow cook it over coals underground.
The end result is tender, flavorful pulled pork that instantly became our new favorite.
Not a day went by that we didn’t have some conchinita, several times at breakfast!
It is almost always served with pickled onions, and often on bread, but we also had it on tortillas and even saw it advertised as a pizza topping.
Sopa de Lima
At a sidewalk café in Pisté, the small town that serves as the gateway to the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, we were introduced to one of the most popular dishes of the region, sopa de lima.
Being soup, it is not generally served on the street, but lime soup is available pretty much everywhere else in the Yucatán. As the name implies, lime is a key ingredient, but this is more of a traditional chicken soup, with tortilla strips taking the place of noodles. Freakin’ YUM.
Tacos, Tacos, and More Tacos
Speaking of tortillas, we certainly cannot overlook the importance, and abundance, of tacos to the street food scene in Mexico.
There are variations common to the different parts of the country, but they have all permeated the entire land and beyond.
The name taco is thought to come from silver miners in the 1800s, who thought that the explosive charges of gunpowder wrapped in paper they used to blow holes in rock looked similar to their lunch. The food had been common for centuries before that, but no one seems to know what it was called.
Nameless or not, tacos were around well before the Spanish arrived.
In fact, in his 1568 book, A True History of the Conquest of New Spain, Bernal Díaz del Castillo wrote a first-hand account of a 1520 dinner party where conquistador Hernán Cortés ate tacos with the Aztecs.
He went on to repay their hospitality by double crossing them.
Ground corn, cooked into tortillas, is still the delivery system of choice for almost any filling imaginable.
We may not know what the Aztecs or Mayans called them, but they go by many names now.
From the basic tacos al carbon, where the meat is grilled over live coals, to tacos dorados meaning golden tacos, because they are deep fried to a golden brown.
One of the most popular taco types in all of Mexico is not descendent from the ancient natives at all, but from Lebanon.
In the first half of the twentieth century many Lebanese immigrants came to Mexico to escape the Ottoman Empire and brought with them their traditional foods.
However, some of the ingredients were not readily available in their new home and dishes had to adapt. Tacos al pastor is a perfect example.
The lamb used for shawarma, the spit-grilled meat common throughout the Middle East, just wasn’t around in the Yucatán, so pork replaced it.
New seasonings, including pineapple were incorporated, and when served on tortillas instead of pita… presto, tacos al pastor.
After a few days of taco tasting we were feeling pretty adventurous, so we decided to try the possibly disgust… rather, shall we say, somewhat exotic tacos de cabeza, or head tacos.
The process involves steaming a whole cow’s head and removing certain parts to use inside of tacos.
The most common portions are Sesos (brains), Trompa (lips), Cachete (cheek), Lengua (tongue), and Ojo (eyes).
We went for the cheek, tongue, and eyeballs, after all, there’s only so much cabeza a person can take… and we wanted to save some to try later… yeah, right.
The cheek was fairly normal meat, perfectly good, and the tongue was not too unusual either. We had tried it through the years on sandwiches and other dishes. But the eyes… let’s just say it was not a pretty sight.
The eyes are chopped up after steaming, and then braised on a grill, which helped slightly.
In fact, had we not known what we were eating we may have thought it was just a really fatty, grisly cut of meat.
But we did know, which brought new meaning to the saying watch what you eat.
We were diligent though, and managed to consume a fair amount of the bovine peepers, until it hit us… what if they were watching us back?!?!
It was easier to get past eating a bug than thinking about that.