The Mayan empire flourished for more than 2,000 years. During that time, they developed a body of knowledge encompassing many fields such as astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and architecture. Gastronomy was no exception; they created a sophisticated cuisine based on a wide variety of ingredients found in rich ecosystems in the jungles of the Yucatán Peninsula and what it is today Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras.
One ingredient that remains prominent in the region’s daily diet is annatto; a small, hard, orange colored seed used to complement food. Ground annatto seeds are combined with herbs and spices to produce a recado or recaudo sold in street markets in bulk and packaged in supermarkets as achiote paste. By diluting it in Seville or bitter orange juice, or at times in vinegar, it is used to make a marinade. It also imparts an orange color, adds a distinctive flavor, and a subtle aroma. This marinade is the condiment basis for cochinita pibil and for pescado tikin xik among other regional dishes. Once the fish or meat has been marinated, it is cooked in an open fire grill or a pit, or on stove tops or conventional gas ovens to obtain a very palatable dish.
Pescado Tikin Xik is the preeminent dish representing the seafood of the Yucatán Península. It can be enjoyed at the Ritz or an humble Mayan hut since the achiote paste is widely available at very affordable prices. In Mexico City, for example, I buy a package of achiote paste big enough to marinate 6 lbs. of fish for around $0.50 USD (I’m beginning to salivate now…). Being as accessible and tasty as it is, its popularity is well understood. Economics are no barrier to enjoy this delicate flavor. In fact, as soon as I finish writing this piece, I’m going to make myself a Tikin Xik dinner!
Annatto seeds are found inside the fruit of the achiote bush Bixa orellana . Achiote being a word from the náhuatl achiyotl , where achi means grain or seed. It is a native perennial shrub from the region and can be found sharing space in family orchards with fruit trees or wild in the jungle, and also in the traditional Milpa. In the cosmetics, textile, and food industries, it is used as a dye. It can be found in margarine, cheese, ice cream, and other dairy products as a food additive named E-160b. Although a natural pigment, in some rare cases, people could show an allergic reaction to it, while others would find relief using it to sooth muscular pains, burns, and healing wounds.
It is known that the Tikin Xik technique originally was used in an open fire pit fueled by coconut shells. Purists call for a whole fish butterflied with bones and scales removed, smeared with the achiote marinade and cooked wrapped in banana leaves with layers of slices of tomatoes, red onions, chile xcatic , and/or habanero and epazote . Today however, people in the Yucatán Península who do not live by the beach or do not have the possibility to cook outdoors—although unorthodox—use a frying pan and cook it on a stove top. Another popular method—closer to the traditional one—is to place the marinated fish wrapped in aluminum foil in a conventional oven to cook it and enjoy its unique flavor. The end product may vary as you can imagine but it works well.
If you want to try it at home, my advice is to practice several times and develop your own method; something that suits your cooking resources and abilities and pleases your taste. Try the stove top or frying pan method first with some fish filets. It is the easiest and fastest way—recipe below—and your kitchen will smell wondrous! Once you have mastered the pan method, work on the oven using aluminum foil on filets or a whole fish and begin to note the difference. If you want to experience the subtleties of the original dish and you feel comfortable, start cooking with banana leaves on top of your grill—low heat—over coals of an aromatic wood like hickory or pecan. You will discover the wonders of the resulting delicate flavor. I’m sure you will surprise yourself and impress your guests as well! Buen provecho !
Marinade for Pescado Tikin Xic
Even though you start with a commercial achiote paste that contains herbs and spices, I would recommend adding your personal touch as suggested below.
- 1.5 oz achiote paste
- 4 to 5 fl. oz white vinegar or Seville orange juice (substitute 3 fl. oz of orange juice and 3 fl. oz. of lemon juice)
- A pinch of your choice of: cumin, all spice, cinnamon, oregano, cloves, and salt.
- A splash of olive oil
- In a blender mix the achiote paste and the vinegar or Seville orange juice or the mix of regular orange juice and lemon juice. Add the herbs and spices you decided to use and the olive oil. Once you have a uniform mix it is ready.
- Read also the instructions on the achiote paste package to insure that they are in line with this procedure.
Yield: enough marinade for two lbs. of fish
Pescado Tikin Xic
Cooking a whole fish may seem daunting for some, but once you have the fish cleaned the rest is a snap, and you can ask your fishmonger to prepare it for you. If you cannot get hold of banana leaves use aluminum foil to wrap and cook the fish.
- 1 Whole fish of your choice (two lbs. approx.), clean of bones and scales, butterflied
- Achiote marinade per recipe above
- 2 cloves garlic chopped
- 1 onion sliced
- 2 tomatoes sliced
- 2 chiles Xcatic sliced. Substitute chile guero
- 1 to 2 chiles habaneros stemmed, seeded and deveined, finely sliced
- Banana leaves for wrapping (passed lightly over heat to soften and avoid breaking)
- Generously apply the marinade on both sides of the fish and let it rest for two hours in the refrigerator.
- Place the fish in the banana leaves and cover it with the vegetables.
- Wrap it and place it over low to medium heat on the grill over wood or charcoal coals for 15 to 20 minutes. If using aluminum foil, all this can be done also in a preheated oven at 300 degrees for 20 minutes.
- Serve with rice and extra red onions, sliced tomatoes, and chiles.
The Stove top or frying pan method:
This method works very well with fish filets. Once the marinating is done, proceed to cook the fish in a thin layer of cooking oil on a pan at medium heat. Five minutes each side will suffice. You may sautée the vegetables in the same pan right after the fish and serve them on top. Accompany with rice. Enjoy!
Yield: 4 servings
Heat Level: Medium