For those of us located in the northern regions of the U.S., a winter vacation down south is a welcome blessing. For most, the sun, sand, and water are the highlights. But, I have to admit, despite enjoying all of the following, the food is most certainly the spotlight on my personal stage. My family’s latest excursion was to Isla Mujeres, Mexico. Truly, this little island off the coast of Cancun, Mexico, is a gastronomic extravaganza. Numerous restaurants line the tourist-laden walking streets, serving everything from Cuban and Mediterranean food, to “authentic” Mexican.
On my quest to experience some truly authentic Mexican food, I ventured off the tourist-laden walking street and into the downtown neighborhood of the island. I honestly never believed my husband would ever utter the word, “amazing,” to describe eating a Mexican dish, but sometimes pigs can fly, eh? Hands down, the food we ate at “El Charco,” was by far the best Mexican cuisine I have ever consumed in my life. Simple plates of handmade corn tortillas, piled with slices of chili relleno peppers, cheese, and strips of beef or chicken were served, along with various homemade sauces.
After stuffing our bellies, we ventured through the neighborhood and came across a make-shift corner restaurant, roofed with a draped plastic tarp and outfitted with a single plastic table and two chairs. I saw a sign that read, “tamales,” and despite having just eaten an enormous meal, purchased one tamale, lovingly wrapped in a banana leaf. Ok, so there’s no way I could have eaten it right then and there, so I saved it for breakfast the following day. My god! Was that tamale good. I had only ever had tamales wrapped in corn husks before. The banana leaf allowed more steam to remain inside the tamale while cooking, so the corn masa (dough) was much more moist. Nothing to say but delicious!
The best way to gastronomically experience a city while on vacation, is to venture into the local market places. I found the best breakfasts of poc chuc (a flattened piece of pork, served atop rice, with homemade corn tortillas), empanadas, and freshly squeezed juices all for about 1/4 of the price of the high-priced tourist restaurants. Butcher’s stands, with various cuts of meat, hung from the ceiling, and numerous stands sold colorful fruits and vegetables. I had seen mini bananas, or bananitos, sold in some New York City markets before, but had never tried them. I bought a bunch at the market and was pleasantly surprised to discover a much sweeter, intense version of a regular banana. And they were the perfect size for both my children! We ended up mashing some together with milk for breakfast one morning. Yum!
Then I came across what appeared to be a small, football-shaped fruit with fuzzy brown skin. I had seen men selling some by the side of the road and was intrigued by the fruit’s bright orange flesh. I decided to buy one from the market and finally taste one. When I returned back to my hotel, I inquired to one of the porters for the name of this alien fruit. The porter gave a large smile and said, “mah-meh.” I cut open the fruit and was surprised to find a single, elongated seed in the middle. I took my first bite and was pleasantly surprised by its intense sweetness, with a consistency much like that of papaya.
So wherever your travels may take you, try to eat as the locals do, and avoid all the tourist traps. Be curious, explore, and ask as many questions as the language barrier allows you! Happy travels and, as always, happy eating!!!