Outside of Chichen Itza, a once thriving metropolis (back about a millennium ago) of 50,000 people and now one of the most significant archaeological sites in Mexico, I’ve just shoveled dirt over my dinner and am waiting for the Shaman to come give it a final blessing, when I realize I’ve gone full Mayan.
It hadn’t started out that way. I had arrived here at Mayaland earlier in the day with some trepidation. After all, the name sounded to me like a somewhat tacky amusement park. But this Colonial style hotel (think arched colonnades and tiled roofs) set amidst acres of immaculately tended gardens surrounded by the dense forests of a Yucatan jungle and just short steps away from Chichen Itza, immediately charmed instead. Built in the early 1920s by Fernando Barbachano Peon who also convinced the first tourists to visit Chichen Itza, I find that Jennifer Lopez was here just a while before I arrived.
Whether Jennifer made her own pollo pibil under the shade of a gnarled Copal tree, also known as the Tree of Life, I didn’t find out. But here in the gardens, I copy the chef, placing chicken marinated in a paste made of achiote seeds, charred garlic, toasted herbs and spices including oregano, cloves, cumin, black peppercorns, allspice, coriander seeds as well as with the juice of the naranja agria, a small pale bitter orange often used in the foods of the Yucatan, in the bright green leaves of a banana tree. The leaves, folded around the chicken, are thick and sturdy and, somewhat similar to corn husks when used to make a tamale, keep the meat moist and tasty while cooking.
These banana leaf packets are placed in a pibil, the underground method of cooking used by the Mayans. Here, wood has been smoldering for hours in a deep pit. Once a metal pot is filled with the chicken and covered with a lid, banana leaves are placed on top and then we begin to fill the hole with dirt. There’s a method to this as I find out when I don’t follow the exact pattern but once the Shaman, dressed in white, performs his blessing, carrying a metal bowl from which the burning sap of the Kobal emits a fragrant smoke, I figure my chicken should be okay.
And it is. When the pot, after hours of slow cooking—I guess it’s the Mayan equivalent of a Crockpot, we unwrap our packets and taste the tender chicken, rich with the achiote paste. It is indeed a dish fit for the Mayans.
For those of us who don’t have a pibil in the backyard and can’t persuade our neighbors to let us dig one, I turned to Pati Jinich’s book Pati’s Mexican Table: The Secrets of Real Mexican Home Cooking (Rux Martin / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30) for her recipe of Pollo Pibil. It’s not quite like eating it near the ruins of the great Maya city of Chichen Itza but it’s very good.
Pollo Pibil (Chicken Pibil Style)
Serves 5 to 6
5 to 6 pound chicken, cut in pieces
2 tablespoons seasoned achiote paste or recado rojo (available in most Latin grocery stores)
2 cups of bitter orange juice or substitute (1/2 cup orange juice, 1/2 cup grapefruit juice, 1/2 cup lime juice and 1/2 cup white distilled vinegar)
2 cups chicken broth
5 garlic cloves, charred, broiled or toasted and then peeled
1 teaspoon oregano
1/4 teaspoon cumin, ground
1/4 teaspoon allspice, ground
1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt, or more to taste
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, ground
1 red onion, roughly chopped
2 tomatoes, roughly chopped
Banana leaves, optional
To make the marinade, place the achiote paste, bitter orange or its substitute, chicken broth, charred garlic cloves, oregano, cumin, allspice, salt and pepper in the blender or food processor and puree until smooth.
Rinse chicken pieces and pat dry. Place in a zip lock bag or container and pour the marinade on top. Make sure all the chicken pieces have been bathed in the marinade. Close or seal the bag or container and place in the refrigerator for 4 to 24 hours. Flip and move around the chicken pieces once or twice along the way.
Remove the chicken from the refrigerator. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
Spread the roughly chopped red onion and tomatoes on a large baking dish/pan. Place the chicken pieces on top of that layer and pour the marinade on top, making sure the pieces are not on top of each other. Place in the oven and roast for 25 to 30 minutes or until the skin has nicely browned and crisped.
Remove the baking dish from the oven. Flip the chicken pieces to the other side and baste with the marinade. If using banana leaves, wrap them around the chicken making a bundle. Cover the whole baking dish with aluminum foil, securing it around the edges. The less steam that is able to escape, the better.
Lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees. Place the baking dish back in the oven and let the chicken bake for about 1 1/2 hours. The chicken should be completely cooked through and almost coming apart from the bones. Remove the baking dish from the oven and let it rest for 10 to 15 minutes.
Place the chicken on a platter. You may serve whole chicken pieces or remove the meat from the bones. Ladle the remaining sauce into a bowl and either drizzle the sauce over the chicken or serve it on the side. This dish is also delicious with a side of pickled onions and habanero salsa.