Another Christmas and another fantastic Christmas Eve dinner! In my family, we do things a little bit differently for Christmas. If you’ve read my previous holiday entries, you know that each year we choose a different regional theme for our Christmas Eve feast. Past years have included Scandinavian, Indian, Cajun, and Greek. We’ve been doing this for a long time now and have nearly covered the globe. While it’s fun to choose a brand new locale, every few years we return to Mexico. Everyone in my family loves to eat tamales at Christmas, and we can only go so many years without having them. This year, I had a brilliant idea—instead of doing a generic Mexican meal, we could focus specifically on the foods of the Yucatan! I ate lots of delicious dishes when I visited that region earlier this year so I knew it would be a good choice. It would allow us to explore a new cuisine while still providing a venue for our beloved tamales.

Yucatecan cuisine blends local Mayan flavors with Caribbean, Mexican, European and Middle Eastern influences resulting in what some argue is the world’s first fusion cuisine. It is very distinct from what we typically think of as Mexican food. Perhaps the most famous dish from this region is cochinita pibil, a rich and flavorful pork stew. Robert sampled cochinita pibil in Tulum and loved it. In fact, that dish was the primary reason that I suggested doing a Yucatan feast in the first place. The key to cochinita pibil is recado rojo, a seasoning paste made from annatto seeds (which give it a striking red color) and various spices including cinnamon, allspice and cumin. Recado rojo is a critical component of Mayan cuisine—we used it in at least three of our dishes. To make cochinita pibil, you marinate cubes of pork overnight in the recado and some fresh citrus juice (we did a combination of grapefruit, orange and lime). Then you line a casserole dish with banana leaves and bake the pork until it falls apart. It can be served as a stew over rice or, like we did, as a filling for fresh corn tortillas. Either way, cochinita pibil wouldn’t be complete without the essential garnish of pickled red onions. They provide a bright flavor contrast to the rich stew and are pretty too!

The other major dish this Christmas was, not surprisingly, the tamales! Tamales in the Yucatan are different from tamales in other parts of Mexico. The masa dough in Yucatecan tamales is typically flavored with the all-important recado rojo. Diced tomatoes are usually present, either in the masa or in the filling. Also, the filling is commonly thickened by cooking some of the masa dough in broth (this masa-thickened sauce is called a kol). For our tamales, we simmered chicken with fresh tomato and recado rojo and then shredded it. Next, we thickened the leftover broth with the masa and added the shredded chicken back in. I could have eaten a big bowl of this on its own with a spoon, but it was even better inside tamales. Our masa dough wasn’t too shabby either. We were unable to obtain quality fresh masa so we tried Rick Bayless‘ substitute masa which is made by mixing pulverized corn grits with the powdered masa that you find in big bags in Mexican markets. This is supposed to do a better job of mimicking the masa dough that you typically see in Mexico. It had a more subtle corn taste than what I’m used to, but the texture was light and airy and perfect! Our Christmas Eve tamales came pretty darn close to the wonderful fresh tamales Robert and I ate in Xcalak last winter.

Rounding out the meal was a terrific coconut fish stew made with green plantains, sweet bell pepper and—you guessed it—more recado rojo. We also made black beans with epazote, white rice (pilaf-style, as is the custom in Mexico), and a simple spinach salad topped with oranges and jicama. To drink, we served up a family favorite: sangria. It wasn’t as elaborate as some of our past meals have been, but it was certainly delicious and memorable. In my family, if there are tamales on the table, it is guaranteed to be a slam dunk! Happy holidays!


  1. Hmmm…I’m pretty sure the tamales are supposed to be wrapped with banana leaves…everything else sounded about right.

    Comment by Wacki — June 13, 2012 @ 11:01 am

  2. My wife and I sat down to a light meal of aperitivos at Aroma’s. The ecelelxnt dips — salsa, black beans and guacamole — are served with house-made nacho chips, which is a nice touch. Heaped with veggies, shredded meats and contrasting sauces, the tostada plato was fresh and loaded with flavour. Finished with a shot of tequila and a very nice black beans brownie. We’ll return to try entrees a.s.a.p.

    Comment by Mohamed — March 3, 2015 @ 9:20 pm

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