Food & Drink: May 2024

By Abby & Kevin Tankersley

Ancient Recipes in the Modern Age

For their one-year anniversary in 2005, Carrie and Fernando Arroyo took a month-long trip to Campeche, the capital city of the state of Campeche, in southeast Mexico. It’s the area where Fernando was born and lived for part of his childhood until he and his mother and brother moved to Waco in the 1980s.

Fernando suggested the trip as a way to connect with his heritage, “to know more about where I was from,” he said.

He wanted to study the Mayan language and learn more about the cuisine of the area.

“What were the international influences that created this gastronomic kaleidoscope that is Yucatec-style food?” he asked. “Which has Arab influences, which has Spanish influences, which has French influences?”

During the month-long stay in Campeche, Carrie studied the Spanish language while Fernando focused on Mayan in a 20-student intergenerational course. His classmates ranged in age from 7 to 70, and their instructor was “an indigenous Mayan woman who was working on helping to maintain the Mayan culture,” Arroyo said.

The teacher led her students on a field trip during one day of the class, and she took them to her home village so they could cook with her family. The village was located in a clearing in the jungle, and the thatched-roof homes there consisted of one room where families rested and slept. Cooking was done outside over an open flame. At one point, Arroyo heard some familiar music, and explored around the village until he found its source. In a nearby hut, teenagers were lounging in hammocks watching a Jennifer Lopez video on a big-screen TV while drinking Coca-Cola.

“The juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern was fascinating to me,” he said.

During the cooking portion of the lesson, Arroyo’s task was to squat next to one of those open flames and stir the ingredients in a large metal pot.

“I was stirring and stirring, and then I started stirring in the other direction because my arm was getting tired. I’m just not used to squatting and stirring,” he said. A Mayan woman helping with the lesson noticed the change in direction and began yelling and gesturing at Arroyo. Confused, he asked his teacher to translate what the woman was saying.

“She was telling me that all the goodness that I was creating while stirring it in one direction, that I was beginning to spoil the food by undoing that good energy and that goodness — that I was doing it by stirring in the opposite direction,” he said. “And even though I don’t fully understand or could possibly understand their belief system or the historical influence of that, it did mean a lot to me.”

He related the experience to that of Brother Lawrence, a 17th-century monk who, “while cooking and cleaning and scrubbing dishes, and later, while mending shoes…constantly thought about the love of God and the character of God. He worked in constant prayer,” according to an article by Nicholas Cash at Seedbed.com.

“And the way that I translated at that time was that there’s good in even the most simple thing, and even the most mundane thing. I appreciated a lot from that moment,” Arroyo said.

Arroyo, who is chief people officer at Waco Family Medicine, graduated from University High School, McLennan Community College — thanks to then-dean of education Richard Coronado, who helped the first-generation student navigate college — and Baylor University.

When he was working on his master’s degree at Concordia University in Austin, Arroyo could find plenty of Mexican food, but nothing like what his mother cooked. Instead, he found similarities with food at Middle Eastern and Indian restaurants in the city. He really made the connection when he had a dish of rice pudding that contained dates and raisins and cardamom and realized that the food he grew up eating had roots in the Middle East, but along the way to Mexico, had picked up influences from Spain and Cuba and Africa.

“There’s a lot of syncretism in the cuisine, a lot of food combinations,” he said.

Campeche is on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, so seafood is a major component of the cuisine there, but with Waco not being particularly close to the ocean, Arroyo often cooks with more easily-obtainable ingredients like pork and chicken. (His family actually raises a few chickens in the backyard of their home in Sanger Heights.) One of Arroyo’s favorite dishes is Cochinita Pibil, which means suckling pig roasted in the ground, which he has done. To save time and a lot of effort, the dish can also be prepared using a pork butt or loin in an Instant Pot or slow cooker, which Arroyo did on a recent Friday evening. One of the secrets to Cochinita Pibil is to cook it in banana leaves, whether it’s going to be buried and roasted in the ground for several hours or simply prepared in a slow cooker.

We shared a recipe for Cochinita Pibil in the November 2023 issue of the WACOAN, which is available online.

Arroyo said his mother didn’t really cook from recipes, so during one trip to Campeche, he bought a small cookbook titled “Yucatecan Cuisine of the Hacienda Teya”. It contains a recipe for Cochinita Pibil, as well as a couple of recipes that we made recently. According to the book, Panuchos consist of corn tortillas stuffed or topped with broiled chicken and a host of condiments, including pickled red onions. The cookbook lists ingredients but is somewhat lacking in what to do with those ingredients, so we had to improvise a bit, but the results were delicious, as was the Cochinita Pibil that Arroyo made for me recently.

We also have a recipe for a refreshing drink that is from the Campeche area as well. Get the recipe at wacoan.com and flip to the next page for a refreshing drink that is from the Campeche area as well to accompany your meal.

The Recipes

Panuchos

  • 8 corn tortillas
  • 2 cups refried black beans
  • 10-12 ounces leftover roasted or rotisserie chicken
  • 4 jalapenos
  • 2 tomatoes
  • 4 lettuce leaves
  • 1 avocado

Warm the tortillas over the stove’s gas flame. Once the tortilla is lightly browned, spread a layer of black beans on one side. Add chicken, jalapeno, and a slice of tomato, lettuce and avocado. Makes about 8 servings.

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Pickled Red Onions

  • 1 red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1-2 jalapeno peppers, to taste, sliced
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • Orange juice

Boil the sliced onions until they begin to soften, about 10 minutes. Immediately plunge the onions in a bowl of ice-cold water to stop the cooking process. Drain, then place the cooked onions, jalapenos and salt in a jar. Add the orange juice to cover the top of the onion and refrigerate until ready to serve, at least 1 hour.

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Pitahaya Agua Fresca

  • 3 fresh pitahayas (also known as dragon fruit)
  • 4 cups water
  • 1/2 cup cane sugar, or to taste
  • Juice of 2 limes

Cut the pitahayas in half and use a spoon to scoop out the flesh. Add the pulp, 3 to 4 cups of water, sugar and lime juice to a blender.

Blend on high until no chunks of fruit remain, then strain the mixture into a jar or pitcher. Taste, and add more sugar if needed.

Place the pitcher in the refrigerator until cold and stir the mixture just before pouring over ice and serving. Garnish with a lime slice and piece of pitahaya, if desired. Makes about 10 drinks.

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