Imagine tender pulled pork, a slightly citric, garlicky sauce, with hints of cumin and the brush of a pepper that you can't quite identify. Now add red onion and habanero peppers soaked in lime juice to make them sharp and spicy – bringing tears to your eyes. Are you crying because it burns? Or because you imagine that you might never taste anything so good again for the rest of your life? That's the way it is when you fall in love with cochinita pibil.
A small stand with no official name sits in the far back of two rows of food carts under a pedestrian bridge in Las Lomas de Chapultepec, Mexico City. The stand belongs to Sylvia, a tiny 50-something Mexican woman with the first streaks of silver shining in her hair. Mely and Rosy are behind the grill. Every day around 1 pm, office workers fill this tiny gastronomic corridor and patrons shout to make their orders heard over the vendors' cries of tacos, chilaquiles, and tortas. Sylvia and her workers serve lots of Mexican favorites, but their hidden secret is the cochinita pibil.
Just 50 pesos (around 4 dollars) will get you a plate of four cochinita tacos with a side of rice and beans that you will never be able to finish. Ever felt like you've died and gone to heaven?
That is Sylvia's cochinita.
After the very first bite, I was hooked and determined to find out everything about it and sample it everywhere I went.
The recipe comes from the Yucatan peninsula area of Mexico and it is a mestizo dish that took shape when the indigenous Yucatecos combined their local spices with slow-roasted pork – a protein introduced by the Spanish.
At David's taco stand (right) in the city of Veracruz, a gaggle of servers and cooks fill the space behind the tiny outdoor kitchen. An old man plays a makeshift drum and harmonica while diners are served tightly rolled pulled-pork tacos with a cochinita broth poured on top. Cochinita tacos are a breakfast food in the port. The flavor is light, subtle and delicious, but nothing like Sylvia's.
I decide I have to try the recipe for myself. Jose and Michelle, two friends and Mexico City natives are sure that we can make something just as good as what I've tasted. After hours of lime and orange squeezing, habanero chopping, and meat marinating, we finally sit down to dinner. The flavor is right, the meat tender, but it's not the creamy cochinita I have been dreaming about.
Next up, the search continues for the perfect cochinita pibil...