Pork in banana leaf is one of the most common foods to be found in Yucatan. Slow cooked, falling-apart tender meat, with a tang of bitter orange, the earthiness of annatto, and an aroma of allspice. It’s like a Caribbean version of northern Mexican barbacoa, or Texan barbecue. The brilliant red of the sauce looks alarmingly spicy, but in fact cochinita pibil is not hot at all. In itself. The spice comes with the blazingly hot habanero salsa you
may or may not want to add. This makes great tacos, or salbutes, served simply with pickled onion and salsa. But cochinita pibil is even better as a torta (sandwich).
— Brad and Eliseo
In Yucatan, in almost every restaurant and street corner, they sell cochinita pibil and served it with quick pickled onions, and charred habanero salsa. But, while it might be a little less traditional, the vinagretta de cebolla is by far our favourite salsa with this dish.
A few of the ingredients in this recipe are uncommon. We’ll discuss substitutes for some of them, and others you can leave out altogether. This recipe is modified from the cookbook of Hacienda Teya, and from here.
You can use several different kinds of meat for this. Bone-in meat is of course delicious, but is not as typical. The best meat will have lots of connective tissue and bits of fat. When it cooks, it will fall apart, and have a tender, unctuous texture. Think shoulder, or butt. We found the cochinita pibil in restaurants pretty disappointing because they tried to use more expensive meat, like loin. This ends up dry and hard and gross. Don’t do that.
– 6lbs (3kg) pork
– 8oz (200g) of achiote paste
– 6-8 bitter oranges (or see for substitute)
– 1 tbsp (15 ml) each whole black pepper, allspice
– (or 2 tsp (10 ml) ground)
– 2 tsp (10 ml) each whole cloves, cumin
– (or 1.5 tsp (7ml) ground)
– 1.5 tsp (7ml) ground cinammon
– app. 1.5 tbsp (20 ml) salt (to taste)
– 1 head of garlic
– 1 big pinch of dried oregano
– 1 tsp (5 ml) cayenne
– 2 or more banana leaves
for quick-pickled onions
– 3 or 4 red onions
– 2 bitter oranges
– salt to taste
Roast the garlic in a flame or under a broiled until it’s charred. Peel the cloves. Juice the oranges, peeling them first to avoid the bitter oils (or prepare the substitute). If you are using whole spices, lightly toast them and grind them. Bung the juice, the garlic, and the spices into a blender, and process it until smooth.
Poke the meat all over with a fork, to ensure the juice can soak in. Combine the meat and the marinade, and let it soak for a few hours (or overnight in the fridge).
If you are using the banana leaves, you can roast them a bit first, so they are tender and flexible. A high flame (or in our case, a salamander) is good for this. It doesn’t matter too much, though. You’ll be sealing the pot with foil anyway, the leaves are mainly for taste. You can leave them out completely, with no harm done.
Line an oven-proof pot (no plastic handles, please!) with the banana leaves, and then plop the meat in. Cover the meat with more leaves, and then tightly seal the whole package up with foil. The meat will steam in its own juices, you don’t want it to dry out. Put it in the oven, and heat the oven to between 250-300F (120-150C) (or even a little less, if you want to do it overnight).
There are some recipes that say the meat will be done in 3 hours. There are others that even claim it will only take 1 hour. This is complete and utter crap: “El objetivo es que la carne quede suave y fácil de deshebrar. – The object is to make the meat soft and easy to pull apart.” You simply can’t do this in 3 hours. It’s impossible. Slow cooked meat is slow cooked. There is no way it will take less than four hours to get to the point of falling apart, more likely five. The last time we did it, it took six (I think six is pretty standard). Happily, you can do the meat quite a long while in advance (overnight, or in early morning), and just warm it up to serve.
At least one hour in advance, prepare the onions. The recipe in the Hacienda de Teya cookbook says to julienne (thinly slice) the onions, and blanch them. That is, dump them in a pot of boiling water briefly (about one minute — they’ll begin to get soft, but will still be crispy). Immediately rinse them in cold water, until they are no longer hot. Drain them.
Add the juice from one or two bitter oranges, or the substitute, and salt to taste.
Cochinita pibil is usually served with corn tortillas or baguettes and refried beans. Also serve it together with quick-pickled red onions, habanero salsa; or the wonderful vinagretta de cebolla.