Mayan Achiote-Marinated Chicken Cooked in Banana Leaves and Served with Pickled Red Onion

Guest Post by Nancy Gerlach in Chelem, Yucatán

Cooking meats in the pibil method dates back to Pre-Columbian times and variations of these dishes can be found in just every restaurant that features local cuisine throughout the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. This method of cooking is done in a pit lined with stones called a pibil which were the center of the Mayan community. This is a easier variation that can be done on the grill or in a smoker, and doesn’t require digging a pit in your back yard. Achiote paste is made with annatto seeds, which is used both a spice and an orange coloring agent. I prefer using the paste, rather that the seeds which are as easy to grind as steel ball bearings. Güero chiles are substituted for the usual xcatic chiles which are impossible to find outside of the area. Banana leaves can be found in Asian markets, but you can also use aluminum foil. Pibils are traditionally served with pickled red onions. Note: This recipe requires advance preparation.

Achiote Marinade:

  • 10 whole black peppercorns
  • 1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 2 habanero chiles, stem and seeds removed
  • 2 tablespoons achiote paste
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano, Mexican preferred
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 2 tablespoons lime juice, fresh preferred
  • 2 teaspoons white vinegar


  • 1 2 pound chicken, cut in serving size pieces or 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 3 fresh banana or güero chiles, stems and seeds removed, cut in strips
  • 1 small red onion, sliced and separated into rings
  • 4 sprigs fresh epazote or substitute 1 tablespoon dried (omit if not available)
  • 4 tablespoons margarine
  • Banana leaves
  • Cebollas Encuridas (Pickled Red Onions), see recipe below.

Place the peppercorns and cumin seeds in a spice or coffee grinder and process to a fine powder. Combine the powder with the garlic and habanero chile and place in a blender or food processor and puree.

Combine the spice mixture, achiote, oregano, bay leaves, and lime juice. Put the chicken in a non-reactive pan and prick with a fork. Pour the marinade over the chicken and marinate overnight or for 24 hours in the refrigerator.

To make 4 packets, cut 8 pieces of string about 6 inches long. Lay the strings down on a flat surface, place 4 banana leaves on top of the strings. Place a chicken on each the leaves along with the marinade and top with the chiles and onions. Place a little epazote on each breast along with a tablespoon of margarine. Fold the banana leaves over the meat and tie with the strings.

Place on the grill over indirect heat and cook for 1 hours, or in a smoker on the grill with pan of water between the coals and the wrapped chicken to keep the chicken juicy.

Serve the chicken with warm corn tortillas, pickled onions, and black beans.

Yield: 4 servings

Heat Scale: Mild to Medium

Cebollas Encuridas (Pickled Red Onions)

These colorful onions are a traditional accompaniment to pibil dishes. Found on virtually every table throughout the Yucatan, they will keep for a long time in the refrigerator.

  • 1 small red onion, thinly sliced
  • 5 black peppercorns
  • 3 allspice berries
  • 1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano, Mexican preferred
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/3 cup white vinegar
  • Salt

Place the onions in a bowl and pour boiling water over them. Let them sit for 1 minute and then drain. Discard the water.

Coarsely grind the peppercorns, allspice, and cumin seeds in a spice or coffee grinder. Add to the onions.

Add the remaining ingredients, and enough water to barely cover. Allow the mixture to marinate for a couple hours to blend the flavors.

Yield: 1 cup

AboutDave Dewitt

Dave is known in the media as "The Pope of Peppers" because of the 36 books he's written on chile peppers and spicy food around the world. He's also co-producer of the National Fiery Foods & Barbecue Show and editor and publisher of the Fiery Foods & Barbecue SuperSite at His latest book, with chile breeder Dr. Paul Bosland, is The Complete Chile Pepper Book.

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