Last updated: April 2022
Quietly nestled in the rural Yucatán jungle – worlds away from the nearby, tourist-laden coastline of the Riviera Maya – is Yaxunah: a tiny Maya village that has found itself solidified on the map thanks to one celebrated resident. Intrepid travelers, foodies and locals alike are now heading to the home of Chef Rosalía Chay Chuc to experience what can best be described as an epicurean journey steeped in centuries-old Maya traditions.
Here, cochinita pibil is the culinary star: a Maya rooted, slow-roasted stewed pork traditionally cooked in a pib (underground oven). The resulting dish is not only marvelously tender, but bursting with a blend of savory, smoky and tangy flavor thanks to notes of citrus and its signature recado rojo (red, seasoned paste made with endemic achiote seeds).
In Yaxunah, Chay has been making cochinita pibil since age 8 – perfecting the generational craft under the guidance of her abuela (grandmother). Perfected so well, in fact, that word began to spread not just through the immediate community but throughout the greater Yucatán region. Until it reached the ears, and palate, of Roberto Solís. In Yucatán state’s vibrant capital Mérida, Solís leads pioneering takes on traditional Yucatecan cuisine as chef and gastronomic mastermind behind fine-dining destination Nectar. After traveling to Yaxunah and trying Chay’s cochinita pibil for himself, Solís was so impressed he then shared the culinary find with one worldwide-renowned chef under whom he apprenticed years before: René Redzepi of Copenhagen’s acclaimed Noma. Chay’s ancestral cooking methods not only helped inspire Rezdepi’s wildly successful Noma Tulum pop-up in 2017, but Chay herself was even brought in to lead the creation of arguably the most critical component of each meal: the tortillas.
Safe to say word was out. And it didn’t take long for Netflix to follow. In 2020, the streaming network featured Chay and her now internationally-famed cochinita pibil in a mesmerizing episode of the popular Chef’s Table BBQ series. An international spotlight was effectively cast and viewers around the world were drooling for a taste of Chay’s spectacular Yucatecan cooking. Since the show, Chay has participated in a number of culinary events and collaborations around the region accomplishing just that. Ahau Tulum, Royalton CHIC Cancun and Rosewood Mayakoba have all introduced Chay’s coveted cochinita pibil to a bevy of international epicureans. During our visit, we asked Chay which collaboration has been her favorite. Rosewood Mayakoba she told us, as they thoughtfully equipped their kitchen with the same cooking utensils and methods, such as firewood, that Chay uses at home in Yaxunah – allowing her to cook in her true, signature style.
Casting an even wider net in sharing her famed Yucatecan dishes, Chay has now teamed up with Mexico Lindo Cooking to offer travelers visiting the region a 2 1/2 hour, culture-driven “Cochinita Pibil Experience.” The location? Chay’s own home in Yaxunah, a 1-hour drive from nearby pueblo mágico (magical town) Valladolid. The home, in modest Maya style, is a warm showcase of the property’s own natural resources: carefully carved wood, thatched palapa roofs, and natural tableware made from dried jicara shells.
As you enter the culinary haven you’re greeted by Chay’s magnetic smile, emanating from the backdrop of her rustic cocina (kitchen). The property’s centerpiece is brimming with activity in preparation for the day’s feast. A tour of the grounds follows, where you’ll meet Chay’s prized cerdos pelónes (hairless pigs). This rare Yucatecan breed is a descendant of Spain’s famed, Black Iberian breed – which you’re familiar with if you’ve ever eaten jamón ibérico – and just one of the reasons why Chay’s cochinita pibil is so coveted.
You’ll watch a demonstration of how recados (seasoned pastes) are made, hand-ground with a limestone roller by Chay herself. A subsequent recado tasting includes the aforementioned recado rojo used in cochinita pibil, as well as recado negro (black paste). The latter is the star ingredient in another traditional Yucatecan dish you’ll try here: relleno negro.
Next, you’ll marvel as her two sons, Jesús and Filipe, dig up layers of earth and peel back banana leaves to reveal the indigenous Maya pib. This underground oven is where Chay’s cochinita pibil slow-cooks for anywhere from 12-24 hours, surrounded by gradually simmering coals and wood. Two pots are retrieved: one containing cochinita; one containing relleno negro. Both stewed to tender perfection.
You’ll then watch Chay’s sister, Tere, effortlessly hand-press tortilla after tortilla made from native, nixtamalized maiz (corn). You’ll have the opportunity to try the art form for yourself although warning: it’s not as easy as it looks.
Finally, you’ll enjoy a 5-course tasting menu complete with sikil p’ak (a delicious dip made from tomatoes and toasted pumpkin seeds), panuchos con pollo (fried tortillas stuffed with refried beans and topped with shredded chicken), tamales colados (a savory, banana-leaf wrapped treat made from steamed, melt-in-your-mouth corn masa dough), and the aforementioned relleno negro. Typically this dish is made from shredded turkey stewed in the dark, smoky-spicy recado negro, though Chay makes hers with the same tender pork as her cochinita.
Now, the reason you’re here: Chay’s famed cochinita pibil, authentically served with pickled red onions, habanero salsa (it’s sacrilege to eat cochinita with any other kind) and of course – heaps of perfectly pressed corn tortillas. Your experience ends with a pick-me-up in the form of the region’s historic, and delicious, café de olla (spiced coffee prepared in a clay pot) followed by a taste of xtabentun (a local Maya liquor made from anise and the region’s famed honey).
TIP: When we asked Chay which she likes better between cochinita pibil and relleno negro, without hesitation (and to our surprise!) she opted for the latter. If this is any indication, make sure to devote plenty of room to fully enjoy this complex, lesser known Yucatecan dish during your meal.
Perhaps the most memorable part of the experience? Chay’s radiant smile and endearing aura. Amongst all the newfound fame and global guests – our seating included visitors from Mexico, the United States, South Africa, Finland and Japan – she remains as humble as ever. Unfazed by the many notable visitors now dining at her home, she did however reveal to us one starstruck moment: meeting Mexican journalist Carlos Loret de Mola, who even interviewed her for his evening show Así Las Cosas on W Radio. Committed to preserving ancestral traditions not just in cooking, Chay even sews her own huipils (traditional, embroidered Maya dresses) herself – taking up to a full month each depending on the intricacy of the embroidery.
Chay has no plans to leave Yaxunah and although many are wondering, no plans to open her own restaurant. Rather, she prefers to share her remarkable culinary heritage in the intimate setting of her home amongst family and friends – newfound crop of international dining companions included.
Chef Rosalía Chay’s “Cochinita Pibil Experience,” located in Yaxunah, Yucatán, is offered in English on Wednesdays (11:30am or 3pm), Thursdays (11:30am or 3pm), Saturdays (11:30am) and Sundays (11:30am). The approx 2 1/2 hour experience runs $98.00 USD per person or $36.00 USD per child aged 7-13. Mexican Citizens have a reduced price of $800.00 MXN per person or $400.00 MXN per child aged 7-13 when booking the Spanish-led, locals-only time slot of 3pm on Saturdays or Sundays. Prior reservation is required for all guests which you can make here.
All photos in this post courtesy of your favorite pair of @travelinglamas, unless noted otherwise.
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