The city of Cancun sprawls over an area of 764 square miles (or to use the locally preferred unit of measurement: 1978.75 square Metrics) and boasts a population of 628 thousand. This puts it within a heaping tablespoon or so of the population of Las Vegas, while managing to cover more than 5 times the area of Sin City.
Yet, despite easily dwarfing all but 28 US cities in size, Cancun is just a baby. In human years it might be considered middle aged, but since it was founded in 1970 it is the third youngest city listed on Wikipedia’s page List of cities in the Americas by year of foundation! In fact, Cancun boasted a population of 3 before it was incorporated as a city. This fact brings us to an awkward truth: Cancun does not have its own cuisine!
Today I had the opportunity to meet a person whose goal it is to bring something new to Cancun, making great Mexican food that offers something uniquely Cancunese.
Sergio, the owner of the restaurant Saltamonte, led my wife and I through Cancun’s markets and then guided us through making a three course meal.
Markets are one of my favorite ways to explore a new city – from Pikes Place Market in Seattle, Buford Highway Farmers Market in Atlanta, San Pedro Mercado Central in Cusco, or Mercado 23 in Cancun, they consistently offer a chance to better understand the place and people of a region. Sergio led us through Mercado 23 – picking up some of the ingredients we would later use to make our meal. We picked up chapulines (toasted grasshoppers), black sapote, and zapodilla on the basis that they were edibles that I had never tried before, and what is life without new experiences?
Further along we stopped at the carniceria (meat market) to grab the lomo (pork tenderloin) that would serve as the protein for our main course. At the carniceria I was able to try a style of chicharonnes that I’ve never encountered before. The chicharonnes I’m familiar with are fried sheets of pork skin – and they have are light and airy with an immensely satisfying crunch – but in addition to this type they offered a variety that seemed very much like deep fried pork belly. It was like eating a glorious hybrid of bacon and pork rinds – decadent, rich, salty, crunchy, and splendid. Regrettably I don’t have any pictures to show of it because I was too distracted with food nirvana. That distraction would continue until the final course of the meal that we would prepare when I realized that if I did not document the experience I would be forced to rely on my memory to recreate any of the recipes…but I digress….
After picking up the meat we returned to Saltamonte where we would cook our meals.
During our drive back to the restaurant Sergio explained that it is his goal to purchase as much as he can locally – supporting the community. He said he is able to make about 70% of his purchases at the markets, and the remaining 30% is mostly paper goods like napkins or bulk purchases like oil. Similar to farm to table, Sergio’s market to table mentality keeps the small market vendors included in Cancun’s rapidly expanding economy. This is doubly important given the city’s youth – the markets enable food culture to develop and thrive in a way that reliance on a few large suppliers does not.
The first course we had were tostadas with refried beans and shredded carrots, topped with Chiapan cream cheese and crema. One thing I’ve come to realize while dining in Cancun is that tortillas in the United States are big. Like really big. The tortillas (corn, naturally) he used to make the tostadas were 3.5 inches or so in diameter…or a little less than 9 metricks… and to my eye looked adorably tiny. The refried beans were made from black beans, which seems to be the local preference, instead of the refried pinto beans I’m more accustomed to. The carrots were grated, and then cooked with onions, sugar, and seasoned with a splash of apple cider vinegar. The tostadas, being fried tortillas covered with things, were easily assembled by layering one ingredient atop one another. Finally, the whole thing was finished off with a crumble of Chiapan cream cheese (it is sort of like a moister, more flavorful cousin of Cotija cheese – and not at all like Philadelphia cream cheese!) and a drizzle of crema (essentially a Mexican version of creme fraiche). As a result of the small tortillas, the tostadas were much easier to hold in the hand than the versions I’ve had in the states. Initially I was dubious about the carrots – I am typically not a fan of Daucus carota – but after the first bite I was convinced that Sergio had figured out how to make them palatable.
The entree consisted of pork tenderloin covered in pepian rojo, a rich sauce that entirely steals the show, served with grilled vegetables. The tenderloin was cooked simply by boiling it with some oregano, garlic and a couple other spices. But it wouldn’t have mattered how you cooked it (or if it were a different cut of meat, or even a different kind of meat!) because the real centerpiece of the dish was the sauce. The ingredients in the sauce were relatively simple: onion, tomato, garlic, sesame seeds, pepitas (pumpkin seeds), and ancho chiles. Yet each of the ingredients was prepared in a way designed to maximize their flavor. The onion, tomato and garlic were roasted until they were heavily charred. The sesame seeds and pepitas were toasted. The chiles had their seeds removed and then were gently rehydrated in water that was just off a boil – removing the seeds allows more chiles to be used without the sauce being too hot, while using hot water preserves more of the flavor than if one were to use boiling water. The ingredients were then combined in a blender – topped with just enough of the water used to rehydrate the chiles – and blended until smooth. To further refine the sauce it was forced through a strainer using a miserable (apparently spatulas are known locally as miserables? Pushing the mixture through the strainer wasn’t precisely my idea of a good time…but I think miserable is taking it a little too far!). Next, the sauce was added to a pan with hot oil, cooking it to further develop its flavors. Once the sauce had thickened and darkened it was thinned back to the consistency that Sergio wanted using the pork’s cooking water. Finally – Sergio generously seasoned the sauce with salt, and pepper, tasted it and added another pinch of salt before declaring it to be done. Sergio encouraged me to plate the dish…which I did with enthusiasm if not skill. I selected a tiny handful of vegetables to eat with my meal and topped the whole affair with more of the Chiapan cream cheese. He looked at my attempt and made added a few well placed dollops of crema and home-made jalapeno sauce, a couple of artistically arrayed cilantro leaves, and insisted on some more vegetables (even including a carrot slice!) and then the meal was ready to eat. The sauce is the kind of thing that could be eaten by itself with a spoon. The sesame seeds and pepitas lent it a quality similar to Thai peanut sauces or cashew-based Korma curry, creamy in texture and very very rich. Even the carrot was delicious when covered in the sauce. I suppose I’ve got to thank Sergio for showing me that not all carrots are bad – most…but not all.
Finally we came to dessert, which Sergio called Macho Bananas: grilled plantains, topped with chocolate caramel, toasted peanuts, crema, and Chiapan cream cheese. Some of these ingredients may feel a bit repetitive – but that is not the product of an accidentally truncated shopping list! Sergio very intentionally showcased certain ingredients, revealing how the same food can serve different functions in a dish, effectively tasting differently despite being unchanged between each presentation.
The plantains were split in half, cut lengthwise (but not all the way through), had their interiors buttered and sugared, then grilled on the stove (Sergio explains that they are best over a wood fire or charcoal).
In Sergio’s home state of Chiapas this dish would include a basic caramel sauce, Chiapan cream cheese, and that’s about it. Sergio’s interpretation tweaks the dish, substituting a chocolate caramel made out of a combination of sweetened condensed milk and Abuelita, a Latin American version of Nesquik. For an added crunchiness (Sergio is a big fan of contrasting textures) he added toasted, chopped peanuts. Sergio finished off the dish with a drizzle of crema.
It is Sergio’s hope that for people who grew up in Chiapas that this dish will be evocative of childhood memories of street-vended sweets and that for everyone else this will be an accessible and tasty dessert! While I cannot speak to the former goal, I can say with certainty that he has succeeded in the latter.
Ultimately, if you find yourself in Cancun you need to recognize that finding “local” cuisine will be challenging. You’ll find Mexican food from all over Mexico, but struggle to find something uniquely Cancunese. This is simply the product of Cancun’s youth – and it is a condition that people like Sergio are working to remedy. While downtown Cancun lacks the polished amenities of the Hotel Zone, it is worth a visit to the markets and while you’re at it, to restaurants like Saltamonte.
Note: For anyone hoping to recreate this experience, we went on the Private or Shared Cooking Master Class of Mexican Cuisines and Markets Tour in Cancun with Trip to Mexico tour company. They were lovely to work with and I would most happily do business with them in the future.