A row of plump, juicy shrimp preened across an ice-cold slab of watermelon.
Slivers of purple onion and carrots peeked out from beneath the shrimp. Arugula, drizzled in homemade olive oil, surrounded the watermelon in an embrace.
Its harmonious balance of sweet, savory, chilled and warm made it the perfect summer salad for a sultry day in the Mexican Caribbean—a tousled place of pristine beauty where a juxtaposition of cultures frequently meets on a plate.
In this case, I feasted on the watermelon salad at Taverna, an Italian restaurant in Akumal, a small beach community about an hour and a half drive south of Cancún. Taverna is owned by an American with a chain of restaurants in the southeastern United States. The chef/manager is Italian. His wife is Mexican and the man who prepared my salad is Mayan.
This is the story of Mexican Caribbean cuisine—a story of immigrants who immigrated from the Yucatan, Mexico City, the United States, Europe and Asia. Together, they brought the food traditions they carried with them from their homelands and kneaded the ingredients found in the verdant jungle, sunbaked earth and turquoise waters into inventive seafood salads, sopa de lima, cochinita pibil, conch fillet and papadzules.
As with everything in the Mexican Caribbean, it all starts with the ancient Maya.Some Maya live in a vast network of cities and towns on or in the nearby jungles of the Caribbean coastline, places like Tulum, Cobá, Muyil, Xel-Ha and Xcaret. Other Maya immigrated from the western part of the Yucatan Peninsula.
Staple ingredients of the Maya diet are corn, chiles, avocado, pork and citrus. Common vegetables include tomatoes, potatoes and a form of spinach called chaya. The Caribbean influence comes from the use of seafood such as shrimp, lobster, lagoon snails, conch and mahi-mahi. Locally sourced tropical fruit such as tamarind, mango, papaya and bananas were integrated in Maya recipes and are now used on salads and sauces.
Spanish colonizers introduced chicken, pork, bitter oranges from Seville and the seeds of an achiote tree used to make a red spice prevalent in Mexican Caribbean dishes. Combine these ingredients with traditional Maya cooking techniques and you have cochinita pibil, one of the region’s signature dishes.
As with other places in Mexico, corn is king or rather a god to the Maya, explained my neighbor Marianne as we headed to Tulum to try a new restaurant.
“Mexicans consider corn a gift from the gods,” she said. “Corn is part of the Mayan creation story. It wasn’t until the gods breathed cornmeal into man that he became human.”
A dead-ringer for Jennifer Lopez, Marianne comes from a well-to-do Mexican-Lebanese family from northern Mexico. She moved to the Mexican Caribbean several years ago because she was drawn to its laid-back, boho-beach culture and Mayan traditions. Marianne is proud of her Mexican heritage and any criticism of it is often met with, “You don’t understand. We’re Mexican.”
Modern Mexican Caribbean doesn’t exist on a map. It is an invention of businessmen from Mexico City, who in the 1970s decided the white-sand beaches and turquoise blue waters of the Cancún would become a resort playground where they could vacation with their families, build hotels and restaurants and make a lot of money.
If we had to place the Mexican Caribbean on a map, “X” would mark the spot in the easternmost state of Quintana Roo. Bookended by the Caribbean Sea to the east and by tropical forests to the west, Quintana Roo is part of the Yucatan Peninsula. It stretches from Cancún to the north, to the Orange Walk and Corozal districts of Belize to the south.
During the 1980s and 90s, resort development inched southward as more hotels populated Cancún and the demand for easy and immediate access to pristine shoreline and postcard views increased.
Former fishing villages such as Puerto Morelos and Akumal, which were mostly populated with local people, suddenly found themselves inundated with visitors looking for off-the-beaten track adventures. Chefs and restaurant owners added a “taste of the Caribbean” to the menu to attract tourists by offering tacos filled with locally harvested shrimp and fish.
Waves of hippies, divers, adventurers and others from the United States, Europe and Asia have since poured in. They’re drawn by the sense of frontier freedom in the Mexican Caribbean, coupled with the untamed beauty of its marine life, coral reef mangroves, tropical forests and savanna.
The new immigrants settled in the larger cities of Playa del Carmen and Tulum, and brought their food traditions with them. It is now common to find French pastries, German bread, Japanese sushi and Italian pizza and pasta.
The arrival of New Yorkers en masse signals the end of any wild paradise.
In the 2010s, a slew of celebrities, supermodels, magazine editors, fashion designers and Instagram influencers christened the Mexican Caribbean, particularly Tulum, as the new boho-chic haven, a less expensive, more accessible alternative to Bali.
Five-star resorts, boutique hotels and upscale restaurants featuring concepts such as “jungle roots” cooking and preparing food from an airstream trailer as a means of reducing the carbon footprint have sprung up to cater to the sophisticated and capricious tastes of the newcomers.
Celebrity chefs from Mexico City, the United States and Europe have been imported to imprint their stamp on traditional Mexican recipes. Instead of cochinita pibil served with a side of corn tortillas and red pickled onions, we now have cochinita pibil tacos accompanied by a sweet potato puree.
Marketers capitalized on the Mexican Caribbean’s status as an eco-chic, fashion and foodie haven by establishing the Tulum Food, Spirits and Wine Festival in 2017. For six days, the town is overrun by the beautiful and tragically hip drinking overpriced cocktails and snacking on ceviche.
The newfound wealth of the Mexican Caribbean has created a sort of “Gatsby in the Jungle.” In Tulum for example, the economic gap between the affluent tourists who dine, sleep and party on Beach Road and the local Mayan and Mexican workers who serve them is as great as the distance between the pueblo streets where children and pets sometimes go hungry, and the stars after which the streets are named.
Fortunately, the story doesn’t end here.
There is a resurgence of pride and interest in traditional Mexican dishes and techniques. Mexican chefs who previously trained in the US and Europe and remained there are now returning to their home country, including the Mexican Caribbean, to open their own restaurants, catering companies and cooking schools.
The future of Mexican Caribbean gastronomy will be where it has always been—with its people.