Visiting Mérida and some rural villages, an up-and-coming celebrity chef demonstrates some of Yucatán’s culinary traditions to illustrate a basic cooking principle.
Based on Nosrat’s best-selling, James Beard Award-winning book of the same name, the series is a guide to the basic elements of good cooking. Each episode of this four-part series joins Nosrat as she travels to home kitchens in Italy, the southern islands of Japan, the heat of the Yucatán and back to Berkeley’s Chez Panisse—where she started her culinary career.
This installment features some lovely footage of outdoor markets in Mérida, as well as a step-by-step guide to making one of the area’s signature dishes.
Yucatán’s plentiful sour oranges add brightness and provide contrast, but can also be used to change the texture of the food as well.
“Marinating in acid has a different effect on food than cooking in it does,” Nosrat explains. “A highly acidic marinade will tenderize meat. But if left too long, the meat will toughen up, like an overcooked steak.”
Browning certain foods, like chili peppers, also produces acid, creating new flavors.
To show all of the different ways that acid can change ingredients for the better, Nosrat and local home cook Doña Conchi make pavo en escabeche, a turkey stew with meatballs formed from ground pork. (The recipe will be posted on her website Oct. 19.)
First, they pour a marinade of sour orange juice and spices over turkey and let that sit for a few minutes. Then the chefs form the meatballs, and roast the chiles over an open flame. While those ingredients are cooking in a big pot, Nosrat and Doña Conchi make pickled onions.
“Soaking the onions in acid takes the fire out of them, without diminishing the brightness they add to the dish,” Nosrat explains. After the meat has cooked for an hour, Nosrat and Doña Conchi eat the escabeche with the peppers and pickles as garnishes, along with tortillas.
“It’s perfectly balanced,” Nosrat remarks. “It’s so good.”
Later in the episode, the cookbook author samples various piquant salsas at a local taqueria in Mérida, and meets with tortilla expert Doña Asaria to learn all about nixtamalization. This ancient process involves soaking corn in lime and water to make masa that can be ground and used for tortillas.
“The corn tortilla is a perfect foil for acid, because it has such a soft and steady flavor,” Nosrat remarks. “It balances the intensity of acidic ingredients.”
After a quick explainer about the pH scale, Nosrat heads to the town of Tixcacaltuyub, where local farmers harvest some of the world’s most prized honey. As our host explains, although honey is usually considered a sweet ingredient, it’s actually a sour food that hovers near the middle of the pH scale.
Then it’s back to Mérida, where Nosrat and her chef friend Regina scour a local market for chocolate and tomatoes — two sour foods — that will be incorporated into dinner that evening. The episode ends with a demonstration of how to make tikin xic — fish cooked in banana leaves — and a citrus pavlova.
While making the dessert, Regina and Nosrat ponder the ever-changing flavor profiles of local citrus.
“Even in a citrus grove, the fruit trees on one side of the grove and the other end of the grove will taste completely different,” Nosrat remarks. “The only way to know that it tastes right is to taste it.”
Nosrat begins her journey at the citrus market in the town of Oxkutzkab where she remarks that “the Yucatán is the citrus belt of Mexico.” After cooking the pavo en escabeche with Doña Conchi, she meets photographer Rodrigo Ochoa at a Taqueria La Lupita.
In the town of Tixcacaltuyub, Nosrat learns about Melipona honey from her guide, Andrea Figueroa, and hosts Doña Pascuala and Don Carlos of the Fundación Haciendas del Mundo Maya. And at the end of the episode, she is back in Mérida and cooks with Regina Escalante, the chef of Restaurante Merci.
“My mother raised me on the sour foods she grew up eating in Iran. The flavors of lime, pomegranate, and yogurt shaped my palate. So from a young age, I learned to appreciate the beauty of acidity. And that’s why I’ve always been so fascinated with Mexican food, especially the cuisine from the Yucatán. Ceviche, sopa de lima, cochinita pibil all share many of the tart flavors I grew up eating. This makes Mexico the perfect place to explore the element that adds dimension to every dish,” Nosrat proclaims.