Our recent vacation in the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico was also a culinary introduction to Mayan cuisine (which is actually fusion between pre-Columbian Mayan cuisine and Spanish cuisine). One of the most famous Mayan dishes is Cochinita Pibil. Cochinita is Spanish for female suckling pig. Pibil is Mayan for “buried in a hole in the ground” and refers to a Mayan cooking technique of steaming food by wrapping it in banana leaves and than burying it with smoldering wood to steam it. This can take days.
The pork is first marinated with recado rojo. Recado means spice mix, and rojo means that it is the red variety (there is also white and black recado, for example). The red comes from annatto seeds, that are harvested from achiote shrubs. The paste of the seeds is therefore also known as achiote paste. This paste is diluted with bitter orange juice and vinegar, and enriched with garlic, oregano, cumin, allspice, and black pepper. It may also include cinnamon and cloves. You could cook the pork with just the store-bought achiote paste, as was done by Richard, but I thought that adding the spices to the paste made it more flavorful and balanced out the flavor of the annatto.
Bitter oranges are used for everything in Mayan cuisine. It is also known as Seville orange or sour orange. It is only available in winter and can be hard to find outside of Mexico. You can substitute it with a mixture of regular orange juice and lime juice, because it is less sweet than regular orange juice, but less sour than lime juice.
You could of course dig a hole in your yard, make a fire in it, and cook the pork in there, but I thought using sous vide was a more practical. I have used banana leaves as well and it looks nice for serving, but I don’t think it adds significant flavor or aroma, so you could just omit the banana leaves if you don’t have them. I make a large batch of 16 portions at once and cook them in 8 bags of 2 portions each. This is hardly more work than preparing 1 portion, and it is much more efficient to cook 8 portions at once and freeze them to be reheated, as the sous vide cooking takes 24 hours.
For the pork and marinade
- 2.25 kilos (5 lbs) pork shoulder or neck (pork butt)
- 150 grams achiote paste
- 250 ml (1 cup) bitter orange juice, or substitute with a mixture of regular freshly squeezed orange juice and lime juice
- 3 Tbsp apple cidre vinegar
- 4 garlic cloves
- 1/2 Tbsp dried oregano
- 1/2 Tbsp cumin seeds
- 30 grams salt (about 4 tsp table salt)
- 1/2 tsp black peppercorns
- 3 pieces allspice
- 50 grams (1/2 cup) chopped onion
- banana leaves (optional)
For the habanero salsa
- 4 habaneros
- 80 ml (1/3 cup) bitter orange juice (or substitute with a mixture of regular freshly squeezed orange juice and lime juice)
- 1 tsp table salt
- 4 garlic cloves
For the pickled red onions
- 300 grams (3 cups) sliced red onions
- 1/2 Tbsp table salt
- Bitter orange juice to cover the onions (or substitute with regular freshly squeezed orange juice)
- 2 bay leaves
- 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 tsp freshly ground allspice
- soft corn tortillas
- refried beans
Instructions for the cochinita pibil
I used blood oranges instead of regular oranges, as they are more like bitter oranges. I still added some lime juice as well. The red color doesn’t hurt, as the spice mix is supposed to be red anyway.
Toast 1/2 tablespoon cumin seeds in the oven at 180C/350F until they start to darken, about 5 minutes.
Toast 4 garlic cloves in the oven at 180C/350F as well. They need a bit more time and should not burn.
I had brought a box of La Extra achiote paste from Mexico, which comes in handy portions of 25 grams. The brand La Yucateca has the best reputation, but strangely enough it was not available at the supermarket in Yucatán where I looked for it.
Use a spice grinder to grind 1/2 tablespoon dried oregano, the toasted cumin seeds, 1/2 teaspoon of black peppercorns and 3 pieces allspice…
…into a fine powder.
Combine 150 grams achiote paste with 250 ml juice and 3 Tbsp apple cidre vinegar.
Add the ground spices, 30 grams of salt, and 50 grams of chopped onion.
Puree this with a blender. (You may wish to use a more narrow container than I did to prevent making a mess.)
Cut 2.25 kilos of pork into cubes of about 5 cm (2 inches). Place them in a bowl, and add the marinade.
Stir well to coat the meat with the marinade on all sides. Cover and refrigerate, and allow to marinate for at least several hours, but preferably overnight.
When the meat has finished marinating, take it out of the marinade, shake off excess marinade, wrap it in banana leaves (optional), and vacuum seal. The meat should be covered in marinade, but do not include too much of the marinade, because we will be mixing the juices from the bag with the pulled meat, and using all of the marinade would make it too strong.
Vacuum seal the meat in portions to your liking. I made 8 portions of about 300 grams each, enough to serve 2.
Cook the pork sous vide for about 24 hours at 74C/165F.
After cooking sous vide the cochinita pibil can be served at once, or chilled and frozen for later use. If the package is flat like I did, you can put it in the sous vide for 1 hour at 74C/165F to defrost and reheat it. (A thicker package will take more time.)
Instructions for the pickled red onions
Peel the onions, cut them in half, and slice them.
Put the onions in a container and mix them with 1/2 tablespoon table salt, 2 bay leaves, 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, and 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground allspice. Cover with bitter orange juice, or a mixture of regular orange juice and lime juice. (The ingredient photo shows only lime juice, but that will make the onions too sour.) Allow to marinate at room temperature for at least an hour.
Instructions for the habanero salsa
Toast 4 habanero peppers and 4 garlic cloves under the broiler until the peppers are blistered and the garlic is soft (but not burnt).
You could remove the seeds to make the salsa less hot. I do this with teaspoons to avoid touching the peppers with my fingers. If you do touch them with your fingers, make sure to clean your hands well before touching other bodyparts (especially if you are male and need to go to the bathroom).
Place the roasted habaneros and garlic in a blender with 80 ml of bitter orange juice (or a mixture of regular orange juice and lime juice; again just using lime juice will make it too sour) and 1/2 tablespoon of salt.
Puree until smooth.
Put it in a bowl. This will keep well in the refrigerator for quite some time, and a little goes a long way. It is quite spicy, so the advice is to apply it by the drop.
Instructions for serving
Open a bag of sous vided cochinita pibil and pour the liquid into a saucepan.
Pull the meat with two forks.
Bring the liquid to a boil and allow to reduce somewhat.
Add the pulled meat, then turn off the heat at once to prevent drying out the meat.
Stir until the meat has absorbed most of the liquid. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt.
Serve the cochinita pibil with pickled onions, habanero salsa, refried beans, and warm corn tortillas.
Everyone can make their own tacos. In Mexico the tacos were usually served with just the meat and all the other stuff on the side.
This is great with a medium-bodied red wine that is spicy with low tannins, such as a Zweigelt from Austria.