Cozumel’s cuisine has expanded over the years from a base of Mayan and Spanish Creole cooking to a medley of foods from all over Mexico and beyond. Part of this change was due to the influx of Mexican workers who migrated to Cozumel from central and northern Mexico when Cozumel’s tourist boom began in the 1980s. That’s when wheat tortillas, arrachera, nopales, and other norteño foods began to show up alongside the standard cochinita pibil and relleno negro in the island’s restaurants.
More outside influence began to affect the island’s gastronomy when the cruise ships began hiring Indonesian and Filipino workers. Some of these folks started ethnic restaurants on Cozumel and the local grocery stores began carrying Asian foodstuffs. If you want to try some authentic Asian dishes, try one of these crew-member eateries.
But, Cozumel’s real culinary treasures are the old family recipes handed down for generations that can still be sampled in small, unpretentious restaurants scattered all over San Miguel. So, instead of describing the recent-to-Cozumel gastronomical fares, the following pages will help shed some light on the typical, traditional, Cozumeleño dishes.
Non-alcoholic drinks and beverages
The US has lemonade. In Quintana Roo, we have lemonade, limeade, orangeade, watermelon-ade, guanabana-ade, and many other varieties. They can be made with either agua natural (still water) or agua mineral (sparkling water).
A few of the many flavors are:
Key lime (Limonada)
Hibiscus flower (Jamaica)
Many of these same flavors can be had as licuados, a drink made from chunks of fruit (not just the juice) blended with water and sugar in a blender and served over ice cubes. They can also be made with milk (licuados con leche). The US has milkshakes. In Quintana Roo, we have licuados con leche. These thin, but refreshing, milkshakes come in several flavors:
Horchata is a traditional, sweet, milky-white drink made from rice, almonds, sugar, and cinnamon.
Agua de coco is the clear, refreshing liquid found inside the ‘pipa,’ or immature coconut, often advertised as coco frio. It is absolutely nothing like the canned ‘coconut milk’ in stores.
Xtabentun is a local alcoholic bottled beverage that is made from honey (traditionally from honey made by the wild, stingless bee of Yucatan), anise, and rum. A very nice digestive.
Michelada is a new arrival from the North of Mexico, a cold beer served with salt, lemon and salzon (sometimes the sazón is soy-sauce based, sometimes Lea&Perins, and sometimes Maggie sauce).
A cocktel is a seafood cocktail appetizer made with your choice of seafood, and a tomato-based sauce similar to American ‘cocktail sauce.’
Ceviche is seafood marinated in lime juice, cilantro, onions, and tomatoes
Conch (Caracol )
All of the above (Mixto)
Tuchitos (means “little boogers” in Mayan) Conch eyes and mouth parts in ceviche.
Vuelve a la Vida is a cocktail made of raw oysters, shrimp, octopus, and their juices, which is purportedly good for hangovers.
Sopa de Pescado is fish soup
Sopa de Mariscos is seafood soup
Puchero is a hearty soup of vegies and beef, pork, and chicken
Potaje de Lentejas is a soup of lentils, bacon, and sausage
Sopa de Lima is lime soup (chicken, chicken broth, lime juice, & tortilla crisps)
Crema de Frijol is black beans with herbs mashed and strained to make a creamy soup
Caldo Xochitl is a chicken-broth with shredded chicken, avocado, onions, tomatoes, rice, lettuce and cilantro)
Frito means fried
Entero means whole
Filete means filet
Sopa de Pescado means fish soup
A la Veracruzana means cooked in a tomato, onion, and olive sauce
Empanizado means breaded
Tikinxic is traditionally a fish (usually barracuda) split lengthwise, marinated in achiote (annatto) and lime juice, and grilled over an open fire. Today, it can be any kind of fish marinated in achiote and lime juice and baked in a banana leaf.
Huachinango is red snapper
Pargo is snapper
Robalo is snook
Lisa is mullet
Pez leon is Lion-fish
Anchoa is anchovy
Tiburon, cazon, both mean shark
Mero is grouper
Jurel is horse mackerel
Pulpo is octopus
Calamar is squid
Cangrejo, jaiba mean crab
Camaron, gambas mean shrimp
Pez espada is swordfish
Langosta is spiny lobster
Boquinete is hog fish
Boquilla is white grunt
Chac Chi (red mouth, in Mayan) is a French grunt
Poc-chuc is thinly sliced pork, marinated and grilled, served with roasted tomatoes and pickled onions
Frijol con puerco are black beans, pork, epazote, and onions, stewed together for hours
Chicharon is crispy, fried-out pork skin
Asado means roasted
Lechon means suckling pig
Lechon asado is a whole, oven-roasted, suckling pig
Cochinita Pibil is a whole baby pig, slow baked (originally underground) with bitter orange juice
Rojo means rare
Termino medio, or a su punto means medium rare
Tres cuartos means medium
Bien cocido means well done
Non-Yucatecan meat cuts now found in Cozumel are:
Suadero (a contracted version of sudadero) means “sweat-blanket” or “saddle blanket,” but is now the colloquial term for an oddly smooth-textured piece of meat cut from an area between the upper leg and the stomach of a cow or steer. It is often grilled and then chopped-up to be served in tacos in Cozumel.
Arrachera is the cow’s diaphragm, the muscle that separates its chest cavity from its belly cavity. In the US it’s called the “skirt.” It is not the same as “flank” steak, which is a part of the abdominal muscles of the cow. Skirt steak is divided into two parts, the “inside skirt” and the “outside skirt.” The outside skirt is normally what you get when you order arrachera in Cozumel. This tough piece of muscle needs to be marinated in some kind of meat-tenderizer in order to make it chewable. It is also served cut across the grain. The piece of diaphragm gets its name from its similarity in looks (and texture!) to an arrachera, a regional name for a saddle cinch, the belt that goes underneath the belly of a horse and is used to keep the saddle from falling off.
Beef Fajitas are the Tex-Mex version of either grilled flank or skirt steak, which are served cut into strips and served on a hot cast iron griddle. In Cozumel it is almost always skirt.
Al carbon means charcoal grilled
Mole is a chocolate, sesame, peanut, and pepper sauce
Relleno Negro is a black blend of spices (called chimole) used to make a broth in which a chicken (more traditionally, a turkey or pavo) is slow cooked.
En Escabeche is a way to serve marinated or pickled chicken along with the cooked marinade
Pollo Pibil is chicken basted in achiote and bitter orange and baked in a banana leaf
The traditional tortilla in Cozumel is a small corn tortilla, but these days many places also have flour tortillas for the immigrants from Central and Northern Mexico. This little, round, ground-corn flat-bread is the building block of many of Cozumel’s most treasured foods. It is served by the stack with most traditional meals to use as a pusher, sop, taco-wrapper, or just to eat as an accompaniment to the meal. When cut into triangles and fried into crisp chips, they’re called totopos.
Tortillas used in snacks or as part of the main dish
Panuchos Take a fat corn tortilla, fry it until it puffs up, add shredded roast chicken, lettuce, onion, tomato, avocado, and a slice of jalapeño and you got a great snack called a panucho.
Salbutes Take a flat, crispy, fried corn tortilla, top it with shredded roast chicken, black beans, tomato, lettuce, and avocado, and you got a salbute.
Papadzules A corn tortilla, soaked in a thick chicken and pumpkin seed broth, wrapped around a stuffing of chopped, hard-boiled eggs and covered with the same thick broth used to soak the tortilla.
Tacos A meat filling wrapped up in a corn tortilla. In Cozumel, all tacos are soft ones and typically made with corn tortillas.
Tacos de cachete (cheek)
Tacos de Ojo (eye)
Tacos de Lengua (tongue)
Tacos de Sesos (brain)
Tacos de Chicharrones (porkskin)
Enchiladas Just like the ones in the US, but never made with that dark, chili gravy so popular in Tex-Mex cooking. They can come in one of 4 varieties:
Suizas (chicken, tomato sauce, and sour cream)
Rojas (chicken, covered in red chile sauce)
Verdes (chicken, covered in green chile sauce)
Mole (chicken, covered in mole sauce)
Sincronizadas A hot ham and cheese sandwich made with tortillas instead of bread.
Quesadillas Tuck some fresh cheese into a doubled-over tortilla and grill until the cheese melts and you’ve got a quesadilla. Shredded, roasted chicken, or fried chorizo can also be added to these little snacks.
Tamales The word tamales is the Spanish plural of tamal. Only Americans call one tamal a tamale. The masa (ground cornmeal and fat) used to make tortillas is also used to envelope a variety of fillings and steamed in a banana leaf to make tamales (de puerco or de pollo). Sometimes cinnamon and sugar is added to the masa to make a dessert tamal.
Tamales Colados (tamales of strained masa batter)
Tamales de Espelon (fire-roasted tamales made with Yucatecan black-eyed peas)
Mucbipollo (Baked, chicken-and-egg-stuffed masa, only around Halloween time)
Note: In Spain, a tortilla is an egg and potato omelet. These are now being served in some Mexican restaurants now under the name Tortilla Española, not be confused with a Mexican tortilla.
Eggs (huevos) are served in a bunch of different ways here. Some of the most popular ways are:
Huevos Motuleños A crisp, fried tortilla is overlaid with a fried egg, tomato sauce, ham, cheese, green peas, refried black beans and a fried, ripe banana
Huevos Rancheros A fried egg on a soft tortilla, cotija cheese, with a spicy tomato sauce on top
Chilaquiles Scrambled eggs with tortilla shreds and a red, green or black sauce.
Migas are also scrambled eggs with pieces of old tortillas.
Revueltos are Scrambled eggs
con Longaniza = lean smoked pork sausage lightly flavored w/ paprika
con Chorizo = fatty pork sausage heavily flavored with paprika
Estrellados means sunny side up
Volteados means flipped-over
Huevo cocido or duro is a hard-boiled egg. Huevo tibio means soft-boiled egg.
Some other recipes you should try while visiting Cozumel are:
Queso Relleno A whole round of Edam cheese, hollowed out and stuffed with ground pork, and then baked in a creamy sauce studded with raisins, capers, green olives and onions.
Polkanes (“snake-heads,” pumpkin-seed masa fritters)
Papadzules (tortillas wrapped around boiled egg and covered in pumpkin seed sauce)
Kibis (Fried fritter of wheat bulgur, ground meat, spearmint, & onion)
Relleno Negro A chicken (traditionally, a turkey) is slow cooked in a broth made with a concoction of burnt chilies and spices.
Frijol con Puerco Black beans, chunks of pork, and Mayan herbs are slow cooked in chicken broth for many hours, then the soup is de-constructed and each ingredient served separately; beans, broth, and pork all go in their own dishes. Garnished with cilantro, chopped radish, minced onion, each diner then re-mixes the ingredients with steamed white rice into his own, personal blend, in his own plate.
Puchero (three-meat stew)
Helado de Elote Fresh corn ice cream. Try it. You’ll like it!
Xnipec A very hot salsa made with habanero peppers. The word means ‘dog’s nose’ in Mayan, because it makes your nose run (your eyes will, too!)
Fruits you may be unfamiliar with, but should try:
Guanabana is sour-sop, in English
Naranja agria or sour-orange (for cooking only!)
Pitaya or Dragon fruit, a spectacular hot-pink and green fruit with a sweet white center speckled with tiny black seeds.
Mamey is a football-shaped fruit with a brick-red meat. Very tasty.
Chicozapote is the fruit of the tree that makes chicle, the sap once used for chewing gum. Taste like a pear sprinkled with cinnamon!
Caimito (star apple)
Sapote Negro (“chocolate-pudding” fruit)
Saramuyo (Sugar apple)
Esquites are corn kernels served in a cup with mayonnaise and other toppings, like powdered chile.
Jicama is a large tuber or root, tastes similar to water chestnut.
Nopales (cactus pads) A friend of mine calls this “industrial snot.” It is similar to okra.
Chaya is a plant leaf found in the Yucatan that is used as a flavoring ingredient in soups, casseroles, deserts, and drinks.