The final product, Cochinita Pibil. I served it on the banana leaf because it reminded me of presenting restaurant food in the 90's, and because it took two hours of walking around Oaxaca last Saturday to track them down.
In the mythology of the Maya, Itzam Na was the name given to the rainmaker, creator of all men. To avert agricultural disasters, offerings would be made to Itzam by digging a pit two feet deep, filling it with hot stones and performing ceremonial cooking. In a "pib", the Mayan earth-oven, the food is wrapped in banana leaves then covered with the broken soil for slow cooking resulting in a flavour and texture that is incomparable.
Cochinita pibil is the traditions most famous dish, indeed it is still commonly prepared in villages in Yucatan today–if in a somewhat more secular fashion. Interestingly, since the pig is an immigrant to the Americas, cochinita pibil was certainly never prepared before the arrival of the Spanish. A more likely substitute would have been turkey, fish or venison, all of which where plentiful in the peninsula. Incidentally, cochinita refers to the diminutive form of the Mexican term for pig, coche (Ko-Chay), therefore "little pig", and pibil to indicate its method of preparation.
In conclusion of the ceremony when the dish was ready, the priest would again speak to the creator of all men, now embodied in the earth. Before disturbing the oven to remove the goods, he would cry, "Open your mouth, Itzam. Lo, it is broken apart". When mine was ready, I said something similar to my nine-litre convection oven. And I didn't feel silly in the slightest.
Paste spices before roasting and blending.
Moments before going in the oven.
Cochinita Pibil | serves 6
1kg pork shoulder, trimmed of any sinew
3 teaspoons salt
juice of 2 lemons, 2 limes and 1 orange, combined
40g Achiote paste
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon oregano
3 whole allspice
2 cloves garlic, peeled
3 bay leaves
1 inch cinnamon quill, broken up
2 feet banana leaves
- 12-24 hours ahead of time, pierce the pork shoulder with a carving fork or paring knife to allow the marinade to penetrate. Combine half of the citrus juice mix with 2 teaspoons of salt, pour into a ziplock bag and add the pork. Squeeze out the air, seal the bag and massage the pork a little to get the juice into the holes. Refrigerate.
- 6 hours ahead of time, dry roast the garlic, cumin, allspice and peppercorns for 2 minutes. Add the oregano and roast for a further 30 seconds. Place in a blender with the remainder of the citrus mix, the achiote paste and 1 teapoon of salt. Blend to a fine paste–it will be slightly runny. Pour into the bag with the pork, squeeze the air out again and seal. Work the marinade into the pork again. Refrigerate.
- 4 hours ahead of time, Preheat your oven to 160 degrees Celsius (320 Fahrenheit). Line a Dutch oven (a Le Creuset for example) with Banana leaves, empty the pork mixture into the pot, add cinnamon and bay leaves then cover with more banana leaves and place the lid on. Place in the oven, then be patient for 3-3 1/2 hours.*Please see notes on alternatives for this step and others.
- 15 minutes ahead of time with (you may care to play Europe's, "The Final Countdown" at this point) remove the pork from the oven and shred with a fork, or pair of tongs and pour the juices over. You will not need a knife. Change the background music and serve with warm tortillas or simply steamed rice, and a side of Yucatecan pickled onions.
*If you don't have have time to get the pork marinated 24 hours in advance, simply cut it into 4-6 equal size pieces like I did. This will increase surface area for the marinade to penetrate, so you can halve all the marination times–ie. 12-6 for citrus, 3 for paste.
*If you don't have banana leaves, just go without. They do impart a wonderful flavour, but it is still a stunning dish in their absence.
*If you don't have a cast iron pot, just use a tray and seal it well with foil, as I did.