Thursday, February 18, 2010

Cochinita Pibil: A Mayan Tour de Force

Cochinita pibil (aka puerco pibil) is a traditional Mexican slow-roasted pork dish from Yucatán Península. Now served all over Mexico, preparation of traditional cochinita pibil involves marinating the meat in strongly acidic citrus juice, coloring it with achiote (annatto seed), and roasting the meat while it is wrapped in banana leaves. It is traditionally accompanied by a pickled red onion and habanero salsa.

Cochinita refers to a baby pig, so true cochinita pibil would involve roasting a whole suckling pig. Since most of us don't have the wherewithal to do that, pork shoulder (butt roast), or pork loin is what we use instead. The high acid content of the marinade and the slow cooking time tenderizes the meat, allowing otherwise tough pieces of meat to be used. The Yucatecan recipes always employ the juice of Seville or bitter/sour oranges for marinating. In areas where bitter oranges are not common, juice of sweet oranges combined with lemons, limes, or vinegar are employed to duplicate the effect of the bitter orange on the meat.

Traditionally, cochinita pibil was buried in a pit with a fire at the bottom to roast it. The Mayan word "pibil" means "buried", so cochinita pibil basically means “baby pig roasted under the ground”. (You might think of it as the Mayan version of Hawaii's kalua pork.)

This recipe was given to me many years ago when I was living in Playa del Carmen (before Playa got big and famous). It takes a full day of marinating before you can cook it, so you have to plan ahead. And ideally you should use banana leaves to get the full flavor, but if you find banana leaves in short supply you can wrap the meat in tin foil instead.

No Mexican feast in the Yucatan is really complete without cochinita pibil, IMO, so you'd better give it a try. You will SO not be sorry once the cooking is done and the eating commences...

Serves about 6

  • 3 to 4 pounds untrimmed boneless pork shoulder roast (aka pork butt) or the equivalent in chunks of pork
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 2 Tbsp regular orange juice
  • 3 Tbsp Seville orange juice (about 1 orange-- see note)
  • 4 oz. crumbled achiote paste (about 3/4 cup) or 1 heaping Tbsp achiote seeds (you can find the paste at if it's not available in your area)
  • 1/4 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1/4 tsp oregano
  • 12 peppercorns
  • 3 whole allspice
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1/4 tsp powdered chile seco (anaheim chiles ripened and dried) or hot smoked paprika
  • 2 tsp sea salt
  • 3 Tbsp Seville orange juice (see note below)
  • at least 2 large pieces banana leaf (sold in most oriental or latino grocery stores in the frozen section)


On the day before you intend to serve this:

Pierce the pork all over with a fork and rub in the 2 teaspoons salt and 2 tablespoons orange juice. Set aside.

Pulverize the achiote/annatto seeds, cumin, oregano, peppercorns and allspice together in a spice grinder (aka a coffee grinder) or mash them in your mortar and pestle to make a fine powder. In a blender (or by hand), crush the garlic and blend together with the chile seco and 3 tablespoons Seville orange juice. If using achiote paste instead of seeds, this is when you will add that. When well blended, add the powdered spices and mix well. The mixture should be a thick paste. Thoroughly coat the pork with the paste (use gloves if you don't want stained fingers!).

Lay the banana leaves flat and cut any thick edges away. Carefully rinse the leaves under cold water and wipe away any white spots. Then, using tongs, carefully pass each leaf over a hot burner (or low flame, if you have a gas stove), until the top of the leaf turns shiny and softens. This only takes a few seconds, so be careful not to scorch them. Flip the leaf and repeat. Use a damp kitchen towel to wipe both sides of the leaves to remove any remaining dirt or spots.

Line a large roasting pan with aluminun foil. Place the banana leaves flat on top of the foil, with ends of leaves hanging over the sides so that the leaves can fold back over the pork once it has been set inside. Place the coated pork on top of the leaves and wrap it up. Cover the pan with more aluminum foil and refrigerate at least 8 hours, the longer the better. NOTE: If you can't or don't want to use banana leaves, just wrap the pork up in heavy duty aluminum foil instead.

On Serving Day:

Preheat oven to 325 F.

Remove pork from refrigerator. Remove top layer of foil and pour 1/2 cup of water inside to help keep everything moist. (If just using foil without banana leaves, you can skip that step.) Cover again, tightly, with foil and slow roast for about 3 to 4 hours, or until pork is falling apart tender. Remove from oven. Remove foil from top and carefully pull banana leaves away from meat. Using two forks, shred the meat and place in serving dish. Pour the fat and juices from the pan over it. Serve hot with tortillas so that each person can make his or her own tacos/burritos/sandwiches.

For Pickled Onion Salsa:
  • 1 Red onion
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 3 chiles habaneros, very finely chopped (optional; this will burn your lips clean off!)
  • 1 litre Red Wine Vinegar

Cut the onion in thin, long slices and place in sauce pan along with bay leaves and optional chiles habanero. Barely cover with a mixture of half Red Wine Vinegar and half water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and keep at a high simmer until onion is fully cooked (about 10 minutes). Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. Refrigerate overnight. Remove bay leaves before serving (should be served cold).

Serve the cochinita pibil with warm tortillas and eat taco or burrito style. Or you can heap it on warm telera rolls or bolillos and eat it sandwich-style. In either case, don’t forget the pickled onion-habanero salsa!

SPECIAL NOTES: A rough approximation of Seville orange juice may be attained through the following: For 1/2 cup blended juice, combine 1 teaspoon finely grated grapefruit rind, 3 tablespoons orange juice, 3 tablespoons grapefruit juice and 2 tablespoons lemon juice.

Be aware that the sauce will stain everything, and it is indelible! Wear an apron while preparing the meat, don't serve it on your good tablecloth, and give everyone a bib (wink) while eating it.

(Image from Wikipedia)

Buen Provecho!

If you have a favorite recipe for a Mexican or Mexican-inspired dish, I'd love to add it to our recipe box! email (and put "recipe" in the subject box so I'll know what it's about)


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