I find Transita Varguez Pacheco, a petite 78-year-old, working alongside her sister, Ernestina, and granddaughter Azul, directing them in her native Mayan, punctuated with Spanish words. In the Yucatan, both languages are often spoken, interchangeably. The Maya, an ancient Mesoamerican people, have occupied the peninsula for millennia. Their heritage is everywhere, but perhaps nowhere more than in the food. This is why I'm here. I've always been fascinated by the region's cooking, and Transita has invited me to watch her make tonight's meal.
The vast limestone peninsula that is the Yucatan seems worlds away from Mexico City, where I grew up. It's the country's easternmost point, physically and spiritually closer to Havana than to Mexico's capital. Though the native foods are the same as those in the rest of Mexico—squash, corn, tomatoes, chiles—it's in the Yucatan where the Maya mastered the cultivation and cooking of them. I admire the region's excellent tamales and pumpkin-seed salsas; I crave the bold recados—pastes made with chiles, herbs, and spices—that are rubbed on or stirred into all kinds of dishes.