Imagine smoke rising out of a canopied rain forest in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and a fascinating story of the ancient Maya’s cultural and agrarian resourcefulness emerges from the mist of a distant past.
Pibil, meaning buried, refers to a method of cooking known as poc chuk devised by the ancient Mayans and still widely practiced to this day. A pib (pit) is dug into the ground, lined with rocks, fired up with charcoal, and when embers are glowing they are moved to the side, marinated meats wrapped in banana leaves are then lowered into the pit, covered with stones topped with earth, and slow steamed for several hours to tenderize and infuse the meat with the deep flavors of the marinade.
Early pibils included wild game hunted in the forest; pavo (turkey), perro (dog), and iguana. Today’s pibils are mostly, but I add, not exclusively, reliant on domesticated animals such as cochinita (suckling pig), pollo (chicken), or pavo. That said, I was treated to grilled tepesquintle, a plump jungle guinea pig like rodent, on a canoeing safari through the Guatemalan peten which,surprisingly, was very tasty indeed. Never say never when traveling.
The ancient Mayan method of marinating the meat in a mixture of ground annatto, spices, and citrus juices, persists unchanged. The aroma of the steaming succulent spice infused meat emerging from the pit is irresistibly intoxicating and transports your senses to an ancient time deep within the Yucatan jungle.
Not enthralled with the prospect of going out to dig a pit in your backyard? Not to worry, a dutch oven or sealed roasting pan will produce equally authentic results coming out of your oven. Once tried this is a dish you will find yourself cooking again and again.
The recipe works equally well for pork or turkey with increased cooking time. see note below.
Traditionally, the meat is pulled, tucked into fresh warm tortillas (see here), topped with pickled red onions, and served along with avocado or guacamole, and beans. However plating the chicken pieces intact is ideal for entertaining western style with a Latin American flair.
Pollo Pibil with Pickled Red Onions: serves 4
- 2 tablespoons achiote paste (available at Latin markets), or make you own. (See recipe below)
- 1 large red onion, peeled and minced
- 2 fresh red chilies, seeds removed and minced
- 2 tablespoons cold pressed peanut oil
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves (Mexican if available)
- 3 tablespoons cider vinegar
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled and grated
- ½ teaspoon sea salt + more to taste
- 6 tablespoons fresh Seville orange juice (or 4 tablespoons fresh orange juice and 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice)
- 2 pounds chicken breasts, skin on (or 2 breasts and 2 legs with thigh attached, skin on)
- 2 large fresh banana leaves (or frozen, available at Latin/ Asian markets)
- water or stock as needed
In a bowl large enough to hold all the chicken, combine the achiote paste, minced red onion, minced red chilies, peanut oil, pepper, oregano, cider vinegar, garlic, ½ teaspoon salt, Seville orange juice (or orange and lime juices) and stir until well combined.
Add the chicken to the bowl and massage the marinade in each piece of chicken. Press the chicken tightly into the bowl, cover with cling film, and set aside to marinate for at least several hours, or ideally 24 to 36 hours, refrigerated.
Pickled red onions:
- 2 red onions, peeled, halved, and thinly sliced into rings
- ¼ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
- ½ teaspoon oregano leaves
- ¾ teaspoon toasted cumin seeds
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced lengthwise
- 1 jalapeno, seeded, cut into thin strips/rajas (optional)
- ¼ teaspoon sea salt
- pinch of sugar
- 1/3 cup/80 ml cider vinegar + enough water to barely cover
- fresh cilantro sprigs for garnish
Blanch the sliced onions in boiling water for 1 minute. Drain and transfer to a non-reactive bowl. Add the remaining ingredients and stir until well combined. Refrigerate for several hours or overnight. .
Preheat the oven to 325F/160C
Line a dutch oven or roasting pan with large fresh banana leaves (or frozen from a latin or Asian market)., placing one lengthwise and one crosswise, pressed into the pan. Place the marinated chicken on the banana leaves in the pan and spoon all the marinade over the chicken. Fold the lengthwise banana leaf over the chicken and fold the crosswise banana leaf over all. Trim any excess banana leaves and, using a toothpick, pierce the top leaves to hold the leaves together. Add enough water or stock to nearly reach the top of the wrapped chicken. Place the lid on the dutch oven, or tightly seal the roasting pan with foil, and transfer to the oven. Set timer to 45 minutes. Total cooking time will be 1 ½ hours for large chicken pieces and 1 ¼ hours for smaller chicken pieces. The chicken should be very moist and tender.
Note: If using pork increase the cooking time to 3 hours. For turkey, halve the turkey and separate the legs with thighs attached. Cooking time will vary depending on the size of the turkey, but generally about 2 to 2 1/2 hours.
After 45 minutes, check the liquid level and add additional liquid as needed. This will insure the pot doesn’t dry out during the final 30 to 45 minutes of roasting.
Remove the chicken from the oven. Open the banana leaves and transfer the chicken pieces to platter, or another pan, cover, and set aside to rest.
Spoon off any excess fat from the roasting pan and place the pan over medium heat and reduce the pan juices to the consistency of a thin sauce.
To serve, place the chicken on individual plates and spoon the sauce over the chicken. Top with pickled red onions and cilantro sprigs and serve.
Achiote paste (if not available)
- 2 tablespoons annatto seeds (available at Latin markets)
- 1 teaspoon toasted cumin seeds
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
- 6 allspice berries
- ¾ teaspoon sea salt
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled and grated
- 4 tablespoons lime juice
- water if needed
Annatto seeds are very hard and must be softened before proceeding with the recipe. Place the annatto seeds in a small pan and add water to partially cover. Place the pan over low heat and bring to a simmer for a minute. Remove the pan and set aside for an hour or so to soften the seeds. Drain off the water and proceed with the recipe.
Place the annatto seeds, cumin seeds, oregano, allspice berries, and salt in a spice mill and grind into a powder. Transfer to a bowl and add the garlic and lime juice. Stir until combined with a paste like consistency. If the paste is very thick add a little water to thin. Set aside until needed.