Dec, 2016: Habanero chilis, achiote*, citrus and smoke. These are some of the key ingredients which make up the regional cuisine from the Yucatán peninsular in Mexico. The Yucatán is rather hot and sweaty so back in the days before refrigeration the locals had to rely on marinating and pickling with citrus juice as a means to keep meat from spoiling. Cochinita Pibil (literally ‘little pig cooked in an earthen oven’) is a slow roasted pork dish which brings these techniques and ingredients to the fore. While in the beautiful old colonial centre of Merida we heard about this little cantina pumping out 100’s of servings of Cochinita Pibil each day, cooked to the same 65 year old recipe. We knew we had to get involved.
Taqueria la Socorrito is an unassuming little comedor a few blocks up from the Merida central square on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsular. It consists of a couple of plastic tables and chairs and a small serving counter which is almost entirely taken up with a glass hot box filled with slow cooked pig, otherwise known as Cochinita Pibil. From this simple setting, three generations of the Socorrito family have been serving up their Cochinita Pibil to Merida’s hungry masses. The pig takes pride of place in their window and they stay open until it’s all gone.
While these days most people use a modern day gas oven for Cochinita Pibil, the Socorrito family think too much smoky goodness is lost. As a result they stick to the traditional, more laborious, wood fired option. They marinate their pig in a paste of achiote, seville orange juice, oregano plus a few other spices (see below). They then wrap the whole lot up in banana leaves along with the pig’s heart for flavour, the trotters for moisture and the ears….well….because, they like pigs ears. This all then goes into a wood fired, earth oven dug into the ground and lined with rocks to hold in the heat (otherwise known as a ‘pibil’).
After cooking overnight, the pork is unwrapped from the banana leaves and broken up into slightly sweet and smoky chunks of juicy pork. This is then heaped into fresh bread rolls and served simply with finely diced fresh onion and coriander and a liberal hit of Habanero hot sauce. The pork is smoky, slightly tangy with citrus and with a hard to describe achiote earthiness, it’s delicious. The onion and coriander provides just enough freshness to counter-act the overnight richness of the pork and the hot sauce is, well, spicy and awesome. We thought our whole experience with the Socorrito family was delicious enough that we asked for their Cochinita Pibil recipe.
Our Cochinita Pibil recipe is adapted from what the Socorrito family told us plus a great recipe from Rick Bayliss and our own experimentation. We cooked our pork in a kettle style Weber barbecue but you would still get awesome results in your home oven. It’s also worth noting that we started the process three days ahead to allow time for the marinade flavours to infuse, the meat itself to marinade plus at least half a day cooking time. You could definitely do the recipe in one day but the flavours aren’t going to be quite as tasty so preferably plan ahead and take your time. Enjoy!!
Cochinita Pibil Ingredients:
2.5kg pork shoulder (if possible get hold of a heart and a pair of trotters as well….get ears too if you want them but we’re not all that crazy on slow cooked pigs ears)
1 cup of seville orange juice (if not available create a mix of 2 parts orange to 1 part lime juice. Grapefruit juice would also work well)
60g achiote paste
3-4cm stick of cinnamon
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp black peppercorns
5 whole cloves
6 large garlic cloves
1 Tbsp Mexican Oregano (if not available use marjoram or verbena)**
1 tsp salt
2 Tbsp honey
500g pack banana leaves*** plus kitchen twine
- Toast the cinnamon, cumin seeds, peppercorns and cloves in a frying pan until fragrant and then grind into a fine powder along with the Mexican oregano (marjoram or verbena)
- Finely dice or crush your garlic and then combine well with the spices, salt, citrus juice and achiote to create a smooth marinade. Store overnight in an air tight container (in the fridge) to allow the flavours to intensify.
- Score the skin of the pork shoulder with a sharp knife before peeling the skin off and setting aside in an air tight container for the following day. We didn’t do this the first time but reckon that by removing the skin first it will allow you to create some pretty awesome crackling later.
- De-bone your shoulder, put the meat into a plastic bag and then pour in your marinade. Squeeze as much air out of the plastic bag as possible, tie it off and gently massage the meat around to ensure that it is well coated in the marinade.
- Return the marinaded meat to the fridge along with the scored skin and leave overnight
- Remove the pork from the fridge and bring it to room temperature
- Get your Weber fired up for indirect cooking (i.e. coals to the side) giving your charcoal time to burn down (~ 1 hour). If using your home oven pre-heat to 160 degrees celsius.
- Place two layers of banana leaves in a cross like fashion in the base of a roasting dish
- Remove the pork from the marinade (keep the excess) and make into a roll around the heart and a trotter (if you have them)
- Place the meat in the centre of the banana leaves, pour over the excess marinade and then fold the ends of the leaves over the top. You’ll probably need to place a few layers of leaves across the top and maybe on the sides to ensure the pork is well sealed.
- Tie the whole package together with kitchen twine ensuring that as little marinade can leak out as possible. Take out your scored pork skin, lay across the top of your banana leaf package and season with a good sprinkle of salt
- Place the baking tray under the main grill of the Weber ready to catch any drippings. Place the pork package above ensuring the skin is facing up. If using your home oven, try and raise the pork above your baking tray so air can circulate properly.
- Cook pork for a minimum of 5 hours but ideally 7-8 to ensure it’s melt in your mouth soft. Check in every hour or two to ensure the crackling isn’t over cooking (you may need to give the crackling a final zap in a hot oven at the end to finish).
- When pork is done, carefully remove the banana leaves ensuring that minimal juices are lost. Pour juices into a separate jug and add honey to taste. Tear meat apart and then pour over juices.
- In Mexico Cochinita Pibil is usually served simply in a sandwich with onion and coriander salsa and habanero hot sauce. We like to have it with a roasted red pepper salsa, brussel sprout and red cabbage coleslaw and some rice or tortillas.
*NOTE: Achiote is a deep red, earthy flavoured spice which goes by a range of different names depending on the region in which it’s being used e.g. annato in the Caribbean or achuete in the Philippines. You’ll find it in some specialty grocers or Mexican restaurants. For more on Achiote, check out this article here.
**NOTE: Check out this article from Epicurious for more information on Mexican oregano and why it’s different from everyday oregano.
***NOTE: You can sometimes find fresh banana leaves at some good quality fresh food markets. Otherwise find your closest asian grocer and ask them as they’ll often have them in their frozen section. We would almost say that frozen are preferable as they seem more pliable than fresh ones.