Eating Riviera Maya

To once and for all satisfy my ever-crave for Mexican food autentica: Es posible?

La Casona in the historic Maya town of Valladolid – the hostess in traditional Maya garb

I was salivating to give it a try as I made my recent plans for the Riviera Maya, a slice of Yucatan coastline where seafood and rich Maya tradition stir up an intriguing cultural stew.

Who knew that my obsession with Mexican cuisine is backed by no less than the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)?

In 2010, UNESCO added Traditional Mexican Cuisine to its List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and in April 2012 it received the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences’ (AAHS) International Star Diamond Award.

Feeling entirely justified, then, in pursuing my gourmand pleasures, I revisited the area where I had my first taste of real-deal Mexican food nearly 30 years ago. That included my initiation into the wonderful world of ceviche in an open-air café on Isla Mujeres. I’ve been addicted since.

In Pursuit of Ceviche

I didn’t wait two stomach growls to find my first helping of ceviche at my resort’s restaurant. How could I go wrong at a beachfront café actually named Ceviche, overlooking the lazy aquamarine waves at Blue Diamond resort?

Ceviche — a dish of Peruvian invention, most agree — uses the region’s fresh fish and shellfish, usually raw, and tossed with lime juice. The citric acid gives the appearance and texture of cooking the fish, and bits of cilantro, bell and jalapeño pepper, onions, and sometime tomato or avocado finish off the refreshing salad.

The restaurant Ceviche offers a few different varieties, and thinking I’d be electing the most authentic, I ordered the Peruvian. That’s when I discovered that the Blue Diamond culinary team likes to twist its Mexican interpretations with contemporary contortions.

So, because corn and Chinese influence characterize Peruvian cuisine, my ceviche contained corn, a soy sauce marinade, and a topping of mashed sweet potato.

Interesting, but not the true-true I was going for. The shrimp and fish had been pre-cooked, which sometimes happens, but in this case it made them slightly rubbery.

My next opportunity surprised me at Xel-Ha, an Orlando-esque water-eco theme park near Playa del Carmen, where all food and drink and most activities are included in admission. Our tour driver with  Experiencias Xcaret, Pablo, of Maya descent, directed us to the Mexican buffet at La Cucino del Pueblo.

I am no fan of buffets, but Mexican luncheon buffets firmly changed my attitude. At this one I could indulge in all I could eat of two different types of more traditional ceviches – one a mix of seafood, the other just fish.

More about Mexican buffets later, but first the grand finale to my ceviche search, titled “How I Learned to Make Ceviche.” Subtitle: “And eat as much as I could swallow.”

The Rosewood Hotel at the swank, water-focused Mayacobá resort offers guests the opportunity to participate in cooking classes. There I, along with seven classmates, chopped and diced our way around pico de gallo, guacamole, jicama salad, and two types of ceviche.

The prep chefs had par-cooked the fish and shrimp, but the small calico scallops were raw before we threw in the jalapeño, avocado, and lime-based pico de gallo. To the second, we added banana and coconut milk for a tasty Caribbean-style variation.

Since guac happens to be one of the other ingredients in my trilogy of Mexican obsessions, I had almost reached what the Maya would call “the culinary heavens of the gods.”

Guacamole, Huevos Rancheros, and Beyond

Like most religions, the Maya believe the gods dwell in the heavens. I believe heaven is right here at earth level on the Riviera Maya. Ceviche craving: sated. Guacamole: can one ever get enough? Final mission: huevos rancheros.

Huevos rancheros with Blue Diamond style

Again, Blue Diamond gussied it up, but the rendition at its Aguamarine restaurant served justice to the breakfast folk dish, traditionally made in the Yucatan on a fried tortilla with a layer of refried black beans, fried eggs, and a red Ranchero sauce. Instead, Aguamarine served the black beans cake style on the side. I could live with that.

I also discovered that morning a new breakfast obsession, chilaquiles – tortilla chips layered  with sour cream and a choice of sauces and meat, eggs, or cheese.

The ultimate Playa del Carmen breakfast spot, La Cuevo del Chango, gives you six options for chilaquiles alone. I tried the chicken chilaquiles on the side of my, naturally, huevos rancheros – done just right.

Happy kitchen at La Cuevo del Chango

In true Mexican tradition, they mix up fresh juices here for not-too-sweet concoctions of orange, pineapple, kiwi, guava, tamarind, chaya (a spinach-like green), celery, and parsley of your own design.

Whether you stop in tiny towns or grand resorts, Mexican culinary tradition holds strong against American tourism. If you’re visiting the Chichén-Itzá ruins, stop for the grand luncheon buffet at the manorly La Casona in the historic Maya town of Valladolid.

Outside the Cobá ruins, dine lakeside off the buffet at Restaurant Nicte-Ha. The buffets serve hearty folk food, and lots of it, from lasagna-like stuffed cheese, lime soup (another minor obsession), and chicken escabeche to fish in tomato sauce, nopales (cactus) salad, turkey legs in black sauce, flan, and rice pudding.

The key to marvelous Mexican flavors lies in the different sauces, and most buffets and restaurants provide samplings of several using different chiles with varying degrees of heat. (Did I mention I’m also a chile-head?)

Contemporarized, Mexican cuisine still clings to its roots and inherent verve.  At one memorable meal at Frida, part of the high-end all-inclusive dining options at Grand Velas Resort, I swooned over yet another stylized ceviche, this one delicate and full-flavored with octopus, shrimp, scallops, and a silky tomato-based marinade.

My main course married Mexican with Italian – a long-stewed veal shank osso bucco in spicy, savory mole sauce.

Mexico is only the second world cuisine to have received the UNESCO designation, I’m told. France is the other.

My wanton gourmandizing tells me that’s no mistake. Steeped in rich tradition, the stew of Mexican culinary tradition holds all the ingredients of a people, a heritage, and a culture that has survived and adapted deliciously.

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