A Taste of Yucatán

A Festival in Merida
A Festival in Mérida

My friend and long-time coauthor, Nancy Gerlach, and her husband Jeff finally achieved their dream and retired to their favorite place in the world, the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico.  Specifically, they live in Chelem, which is north of Mérida, in a beach-side house that they have remodeled.  Together, Nancy and I wrote ten books, including the best-selling The Whole Chile Pepper Book, which is now out of print, but available used. Our most recent book together is The Spicy Food Lover’s Bible, which not only covers chile peppers, but other spicy ingredients like horseradish, mustard, and black pepper.  Nancy and Jeff also wrote Foods of the Maya: A Taste of the Yucatán, which is available at  The recipe below is one of their favorites from that book.  To read their article on foods of the Maya, go here.

Pollo Pibíl (Chicken Cooked in the Pibíl Method)

This uniquely Yucatecan dish is available in nearly every restaurant that features local cuisine. Originally cooked over coals in pits dug in the ground, pollo pibil is most often baked in ovens these days. We have had great success in duplicating the pit method by using an inexpensive backyard smoker. We don’t add any wood chips for smoke, but use a pan of water between the coals and the wrapped chicken to keep the chicken juicy. Serve this dish with black beans and habanero salsa for a truly authentic meal. Look for xcatic chiles, guero chiles and epazote at Latin markets or Internet retailers.  Note: This recipe requires advance preparation.

1/4 cup achiote paste
1/2 cup bitter orange juice (see recipe below) or freshly squeezed orange juice
4 chicken breasts, skin removed
1 medium onion, sliced
3 fresh xcatic chiles, stems and seeds removed, chopped or substitute fresh banana or guero chiles
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
Banana leaves or aluminum foil
4 sprigs fresh epazote or substitute 1 tablespoon dried epazote

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Mix the achiote paste with the orange juice in a bowl. Prick the chicken breasts with a fork and pour the marinade over the chicken. Marinate in the refrigerator for 4 to 6 hours or overnight.

Saute the onion and chiles in the oil until soft.

Line a roasting pan with the banana leaves, place the chicken on the leaves, pour over the remaining marinade, and top with the onions and chiles. Place a little epazote on each breast.

Fold the leaves over, cover the pan and bake in the oven for 30 minutes.
Yield: 4 servings
Heat Scale: Mild

Bitter Orange Juice

The bitter orange is a rough skinned Yucatecan fruit that tastes somewhat like grapefruit with a hint of orange. A suitable substitute can be made by using this recipe. I find that using fresh squeezed juices produces the best results.

1/2 cup grapefruit juice
1/4 cup orange juice
3 tablespoons lime juice

Mix all of the ingredients in a non-reactive bowl and let stand at room temperature for 2 hours. Use within 24 hours.
Yield: 3/4 cup


For more spicy recipes, click the image above!

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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