Cooking in the Land of the Gods

A culinary tour to Mexico’s Yucatan explores flavors and history

 I’m standing above the treeline, two-thirds of the way up the main temple at Ek’ Balam, staring into the gaping mouth of a jaguar. Sharp fangs, perfectly preserved under a layer of white stucco, menacingly protect Mayan history. With me are two of the nine gastro-tourists on my weeklong culinary vacation to Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. Hieroglyphs of maize are etched alongside carvings of winged warriors in the rock near the jaguar’s mouth, which protects a tomb once occupied by U’kil-Kan Lek-T’ok, the great ruler of the ninth-century Maya Talol empire.

It’s no surprise that the image of corn was carved next to Ek’ Balam, the black jaguar. The Maya revere maize, which scientists believe originated in this area, as the giver of life. I lead the tour to the Yucatan and nearby Isla Mujeres, which lies just off the coast of Cancun, precisely because of the rich culinary and cultural history. The white-sand beaches, vibrant markets and localhospitality certainly don’t hurt either.

During our daily cookingclasses with local chefs Leo and Lori, we begin to understand the importance of corn—primarily through our taste buds. From huaraches topped with poblanos and crema, to gorditas stuffed with beans and cheese, to the crispy coating on the chilerellenos, corn is the base of every meal we create and devour. The cuisine of this area epitomizes the rich and varied culinary traditions of Mexico. Yucatecan fare combinestraditional Mayan ingredients with Dutch and Spanish influences; the staple dishes of Isla Mujeres are fresh seafood fused with flavors of the Caribbean.

We gather around the dining room table in our Isla Mujeres cooking school kitchen and catch the sea breeze as itrustles past the palm treeslining the courtyard and through the veranda doors. Chef Lori scoops corn masa into a large bowl, then pours simmering chicken stock on top. She adds oil and kneadsit into a soft, fluffy dough. We stuff the dough with shredded chicken, cheeses and beans, carefully wrapping the tamales in banana leaves and corn husks before steaming themin a large pot of water.

When they are finally cooked, I gingerly unwrap a package, bite into the creamy corn filling and taste onethousand years of history.

Otehlia Cassidy is a Madison food writer who leads World of Flavors culinary tours to Mexico. Her next tours, which include meals, excursions, cooking classes and yoga, are to Isla Mujeres, February 11–18, 2012, and Valladolid, February 18–22. For details, visit

Must-visit attractions in and around the Yucatan

Ek’ Balam
These amazingly preserved ruins, eighteen miles north of the city of Valladolid, were partially unearthed only twenty years ago. Marvel at the intricate stuccoed carvings, infinite view or ancient sacbes (raised road system).

Cenote Zaci
Take a dip in a naturally formed sinkhole just a few blocks from the Valladolid town square before dining on traditional Yucatecan foods in the poolside restaurant.

La Taberna
Delicious fusion food in the heart of the Yucatan! Don’t miss the grilled watermelon and panela cheese appetizer. Great service and a shady garden eating area make this Valladolid restaurant a favorite spot.

Each year Isla Mujeres schoolchildren release thousands of endangered sea turtles back to the sea after they hatch in the safety of tanks. You can visit the sea turtles any time of year, but come in the fall to help guide them safely to their ocean homes.

Basto’s Grill
This Isla Mujeres restaurant off the beaten path serves delicious local fare. Try the quesadilla de rajas y crema (creamy poblanos) or the arracherra steak fajitas.

Isla Contoy
A forty-five-minute motorboat ride from Isla Mujeres takes you to (another) paradise. This bird sanctuary offers hiking trails and a museum. Pet the friendly stingray or snorkel near the beach. Captain Tony (Calle Matamoros #7A) leads tours daily.

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