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La Chaya Maya

31 Jan

La Chaya Maya can’t be found in our Lonely Planet guidebook, but plenty of travellers have discovered this secret little gem. It serves traditional Yucatan food, and therein lies its charm. A couple of ladies dressed in traditional garb sit near the diners pressing and cooking tortillas. The room is decorated with various artefacts from the Yucatan region, including beautiful lampshades, bags and curtains made from sisal. Sisal, sometimes referred to as ‘green gold’, is a fibre made from the henequen plant.

On to the food. A lot of superlatives spring to mind, and the fact that we have now eaten there three nights in a row speaks for itself. Fourth and fifth journeys are planned.

One night we ordered cochinita – pork marinated in sour orange juice and baked in a banana leaf. It’s no exaggeration to say it was the most tender pork I’ve ever eaten in my life. On previous nights we’d eaten a slow-cooked chicken (pollo pibil) in banana leaf, delicious poc chuc – thinly sliced marinated pork and empanadas de cazon (tender shark) . The accompanying soup, Caldo de Pavo, was simple but incredibly moorish and consisted of strips of turkey, turkey broth, pickled onion, cucumber, tomato and chaya – a delicious spinach-like plant. A quick google search reveals that chaya leaves are toxic, containing a glucoside that can release toxic cyanide, and they must be cooked to inactivate the toxic components. Overall the soup reminded me of Aunty Mary’s hearty home made chicken soup. In fact, every dish reminded me of Aunty Mary’s cooking – simple but made with lots of love, and you come away feeling good … right down to the soul.

The accompaniments to the mains, as well as the little dips brought out before the meal, are also a highlight. The pepita de papadzul is a thick paste of grinded pepita seeds. As you look around the restaurant you can see every table asking the waiter for the recipe to this and drooling for more. The roasted tomato salsa was unlike any other tomato dish I’ve tried and we are still trying to hunt down the recipe.

I could go on, but you get the idea. I haven’t even mentioned the delicious bread and butter pudding – once again very simple but far better than most I’ve tried. The place is packed to the rafters at all hours of the day and everyone who walks by stops to take a picture of the handicrafts inside. For a real Yucatan experience and sensational food, you can’t go past this one. Shame we don’t get Mexican food like this back home!!

Un Secreto

25 Jan

Our eight days in San Agustinillo were relaxing, peaceful, and one of the highlights of our Mexican trip. The only downside was that as we travelled there in the off season, many of the restaurants were closed, so we only had the choice of three or four places. But Un Secreto was so good that I’m positive it would have been in our top eateries there anyway, even in the middle of peak tourist season. On the main street at night, and on the sand by day, Un Secreto is run by the effervescent and chatty Julien, who learnt his recipes from watching his mum cook good, simple French food back home in France. He’s brought the recipes to sleepy little San Agustinillo, including (my personal favourite) spaghetti with fish in a creamy tomato sauce, fish cooked in foil with cream and basil, skewers of prawns and fish and delicious calamari (Dan’s favourite).

The restaurant’s décor is sparse – there’s a few wooden tables covered with various tablecloths, flowers, and a great mix of music with a lot of Norah Jones playing. It’s dimly lit and Julien serves the tables casually in thongs, shorts and t-shirt. His two cooks in the kitchen, he tells us, have mastered his mother’s recipes so well that they make the food better than he can now make it! Despite being simple, homely food, it’s lovingly prepared, and oh so delicious. The pasta sauce, although I’m sure is terrible for me, is so rich and flavoursome we keep dipping bread in it until the plate doesn’t even need to be washed, it’s that clean.

The calamari was tender and lightly battered, the croquettes of shrimp and fish tasty and juicy. Dan heard another table eating the bruschetta – I say “heard” because he remarked on how fabulously crunchy the bread seemed, and when we ordered it it was deliciously crunchy with heaps of garlic and fresh tomatoes and basil. Perfect simple beach food with a twist.

El Califa

6 Dec

It was unfortunate that we discovered our favourite place to eat in Mexico City on our last day there. Walking through leafy Condesa one afternoon and acting on a tip from our Mexican friends Mario, Heike and Dan, we went to El Califa – a slightly more upmarket tacqueria than what we’d been eating at. We took a quick glance at the tables and diners around and quickly asked for a table.

What was our first experience with tacos al pastor (tortillas filled with pork cooked on a spit) was truly memorable, and one we’ve yet to create elsewhere at other restaurants. The meat spins on a spit similar to one at souvlaki places, but with a whole pineapple also wedged onto the top, and the carver expertly and deftly carves off a chunk to go on the top of the meat. Eaten alone or with cheese, these little morsels were heaven in two bites. In fact, Dan went as far as to say it was the best meal he had eaten in Mexico.

Along with the pastor tacos, the cecina tacos (thin slices of beef in a tortilla) were excellent  – moist and succulent, salty and flavoursome with only a bit of chilli and pico de gallo needed on top of them.

I’m a particular fan of Mexican cheese, and we tried the crater de pechuga (crunchy tostada filled with melted Oaxacan cheese and chicken) which I devoured. Oaxacan cheese is also sometimes referred to as string cheese, as it peels off like string. It’s a fabulous melting cheese and is used often in quesadillas.

Of course, our meal wouldn’t have gone down so well without a “michelada” – our favourite Mexican beer, Victoria, poured into a glass with salt around the rim, with ice, lime juice, Maggi, worcestershire and chilli sauces. Yes, it sounds strange, but the taste is unusually “refresco” and one we’ll bring back to Australia with us.

We ordered seconds of all the tacos we loved, and washed down the meal with an incredible hazelnut smoothie. We could have easily made return trips to this place, but we had places to be the following day…

Hearty home cooking

11 Sep

Recently we had a few people over for burritos. The toppings for the burritos were delicious, if I do say so myself, even though I can take no credit for them whatsoever – Jess cooked the whole meal by herself while I was held captive (literally) to unforeseen circumstances for 5 hours while she was in the kitchen.

Anyway, back to the toppings. Even though Jess cooked them, she cannot quite take all the credit either, as the recipes were given to us by a few friends of ours in Beijing.

The chilli beans – a meal by themselves, but just as good added to burritos – are Ellie’s specialty. Ellie, a fellow volunteer over here in Beijing, straddles the vegetarian and carnivore worlds with aplomb. She’s a food lover who eats meat, but her long term partner Brendan is a vegetarian. It’s probably as a result of this gastronomic balancing act that her food creations are so very, very tasty. Ellie has been very generous with her recipe to vegans, vegetarians and food-lovers alike, so I’m sure she won’t mind me saying her chilli bean mix comprises a few types of beans (we used four), celery, chilli, onion, spices and canned tomatoes. Simply delicious and very healthy. Ellie has also introduced us to an Eritrean eggplant dip, handed down to her by her Eritrean friend. I’ve tried to make it as good as Ellie but it just wasn’t on par. I think Ellie could potentially be withholding a few essential ingredients …

Anyway Ellie, you’ve enriched our food world and we’ll think of you when we leave Beijing and cook your creations.

There were other toppings which we can lay claim to, like Jess’s spicy chicken mix with celery and capsicum, and the stock standard guacamole we make, but the corn sauteed with red onion, cumin seed, fresh chili and finished off with fresh coriander and lime juice is a recipe provided to us by Jemma and Andrew, two Kiwi pastors who are very good cooks. Thanks to you J & A as well for such a simple but tasty recipe. And while on the topic of Kiwis, It would be remiss of me not to say sorry about the rugby game on the weekend (Australia won the Tri-Nations after 10 long years of being defeated by the All Blacks). I promise not to choke on any of my food over the next few weeks during the World Cup (NZ, despite being far and away the consistently best team in the world, have only won the World Cup once since 1987 and usually choke at the tournament).

If you’re inspired to cook burritos with any of the above toppings, my suggestion would be to knock them down with a few pomegranate margaritas, or freezing cold beers. We’re off to Mexico in a little over a month and are hoping to have plenty of those …