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TASTE OF TRAVEL: YUCATAN | SPECIAL MEXICO ISSUE

It's No Sacrifice

Eating with pleasure across the landscape of the Maya

November 15, 1998|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MERIDA, Mexico — It is Sunday in Merida, the graceful capital of the state of Yucatan. In every park there is music, a marimba here, a trio there, or dancers tapping out the alluring rhythms of the jarana, the stately folk dance of Yucatan. And in every restaurant there is puchero, because that is what one eats on Sunday in Yucatan.

Puchero is a meal in a pot, the Yucatecan version of a New England boiled beef dinner or France's poule au pot (chicken stewed with vegetables). Instead of one meat, you get three--pork, chicken and beef, along with potato, cabbage, carrot, chayote, plantain and avocado. Drained of their broth, the meats, vegetables and fruits are arranged together on a plate. The broth is served on the side, with noodles added. It's a gentle, lovely meal, unless you add the fiery salsas provided.

On this Sunday, I am the only tourist in Santa Lucia, a small restaurant on Calle 60, near the Parque de Santa Lucia. The puchero is wonderful, and I order an ice-cold chelada as relief from the humid heat outside. Invented by a bartender in Cancun, the chelada is beer trying to be a margarita. The frosty combination of lime juice, ice and Yucatan's Montejo beer comes in a glass mug rimmed with salt.

Merida's musical Sundays are well organized. Programs list the schedule of performances, and the center of downtown is closed to traffic, making it easy to walk from one venue to another.

There is music in the restaurant too--sentimental Yucatecan songs sung with lots of soul by customers who take turns at the mike. Without the slightest embarrassment, an older couple gets up to dance in undulating tropical style. Space is so cramped that the waiter can barely ease by them with his tray.

In my hotel, the Caribe, music is a way of life. Old-timers gather at a table in the back of the open-air restaurant each noon. They sing to one another for an hour or two, passing a guitar back and forth and recalling the days when venerable ballads such as "Peregrina" (Wanderer) and "Un Rayito de Sol" (A Sunbeam) were new.

It is August and very hot, and I am back in Yucatan for the first time in 18 years. Much has changed. If anything, travel is easier and more comfortable. Credit cards are widely accepted. and the shopping mall has arrived, complete with multi-screen movie houses, trendy shops and fast food. I was shocked to find a Burger King on a corner near my hotel, interrupting the antiquated look of the neighborhood.

Not to worry, though. Merida, founded in the 16th century on the site of a deserted Maya ceremonial center, has not lost its charm. The old-world colonial ambience remains mostly intact. Horse-drawn carriages (calesas) still ply the streets, carrying residents as well as tourists. And families still gather under the portales (arcades) along the main square for icy treats at the Sorbeteria Colon. This ice cream shop dates from the early 1900s. The flavors change as fruits come into season. The brilliant orange mamey fruit and tiny yellow nance fruit were around when I arrived, joined later by the creamy, custard-like saramuyo.

Vendors still roam the portales, selling everything from carved Chinese fans, decorated pens and hammocks to magic tricks. (I wound up with a trick box of matches--now you see them, now you don't.) One night, a small boy was hawking a tray of luscious cakes straight from the oven. But I waited for the vendors of sweets. Their trays are stacked with irresistible dulces such as dark, smoky coconut candy from the nearby state of Campeche, fresh coconut pralines, marzipan made from squash seeds and snowy meringues that are crisp on the outside but soft and fluffy inside.

Restaurants that I remember from the past, like Los Almendros and Alberto's Continental, serve the same dishes as before. Los Almendros' menu reads like a dictionary of traditional Yucatecan cuisine. Alberto's offers Lebanese dishes, which are not an oddity here because Merida has an old and prosperous Lebanese colony. Panaderias (bakeries) display pan arabe (pita bread) along with pan dulce. In the Parque de Santa Lucia, I bought onion-stuffed kibbee--the Lebanese ground-lamb and bulgur wheat cakes--from a food stall, and I saw cracked wheat for Middle Eastern cookery in a supermarket.

Fresh from three days spent sampling Mexico City's innovative, contemporary cuisine, I was plunged into a region where the classics are revered, without alteration. Everyone still eats poc chuc (in Mayan, that means pork grilled over charcoal), panuchos (tortillas stuffed with black beans and topped with shredded chicken or turkey) and papadzules (tortillas wrapped around hard-cooked eggs and bathed in squash-seed sauce).

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