David Sterling is chef, owner and maestro at Los Dos in Mérida, Yucatán, the first culinary adventure destination devoted exclusively to Yucatecan cuisine. He is the author of Yucatán: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition. In 2015, the book was honored as Best International Cookbook and Best Cookbook of the Year by the James Beard Foundation; it also won The Art of Eating Prize for best food book of the year. Sterling has been featured on The Martha Stewart Show (“Martha in Mexico”) and Mexico: One Plate at a Time, with Rick Bayless. He’s also been acclaimed by The New York Times, The New Yorker, Gourmet, Travel & Leisure, Globe & Mail, ELLE, National Geographic Traveler, Condé Nast Traveler and Frommer’s.
Valladolid is an elegant old colonial town almost exactly midway between my home in Mérida and Cancún on the Caribbean coast; it is also just a heartbeat from the magnificent Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá and from Temozón, a tiny pueblo famous for its smoked meats. Not surprisingly, I have ample excuse to pass through Valladolid several times a year.
Whenever there, my first stop always has to do with savoring a particular flavor more than visiting a specific dining spot. Recado blanco is that flavor. Yucatán is famous for its recados, which I like to describe as “the curries of Yucatán.” In short, recados are seasoning blends in paste or powdered form that provide the basic flavor profile for many of our unique dishes. We have a red recado that acquires its color and flavor from achiote (Bixa orellana); we have an olive drab recado that is composed of our indigenous oregano and black pepper; and we have a distinctive black recado that is made of dried red chiles that have been burned completely to ashes. Many of these mixtures are ancient; others were made possible only after the introduction of spices from the Moluccas in the 16th century.
To my palate the most distinctive – and most rare – must surely be recado blanco, or “white recado.” In more than a dozen years trekking through Yucatán, I have rarely seen it outside of Valladolid. Contrary to its name, it isn’t white at all but rather a deep graphite color. I’ve asked many local cooks about the name, and the only answer I have ever received was, “It’s called white to distinguish it from the black one.” OK.
Enjoying recado blanco is like savoring a fine, complex wine. The top note is a potent punch of black pepper – it should really be quite fiery – followed by an herbaceous scent of cumin and finishing with an air of fragrant cloves. It’s the clove note that lingers at the back of your tongue and that is the most memorable aspect of the recado. Now, imagine these layers of flavor on pork or turkey or fish!
El Mesón del Marqués is a venerable old restaurant right on the main square. Their claim to fame is pavo en escabeche oriental, which I describe as “soused turkey.” (By the way, even though this dish is loaded with Asian spices, the “oriental” refers to anything from Valladolid, since it is east – oriente in Spanish – of Mérida, the cultural capital of the peninsula.) The turkey is first marinated in the seasoning blend, then grilled over a wood or charcoal fire. It’s finished in a rich stock flavored with the zing of white vinegar and lots of pickled white onions. The requisite garnish is a whole charred chile x’catik – or Anaheim chile.
Perhaps my favorite use of recado blanco can be found at Taberna de los Frailes – a charming palapa-roofed restaurant next to the old convent of San Bernardino de Siena. The particular dish is called “Mero Maya” and was created by the brilliant chef/owner, Maruja Barbachano. A beautiful fillet of grouper (mero) is marinated in the recado, rolled tightly, then grilled quickly over a wood fire. It’s the simplicity of the dish that gets to me every time. There are only three basic elements: the butteriness of the fish, the smoke from the fire and then the recado, which in the end unfolds in your mouth and nose like a lotus blossom.
(top photo by Eduardo Cervantes, above photo by Mark Randall)