Cooking Like A Mexican

Tikin Xik
BY: ALE BORBOLLA

I have realized that lately most of my cooking like a Mexican has revolved around the Mayan culture, which was one of the most predominant in the country, so I decided to take a trip down memory lane and remember my travels and experiences living around Playa del Carmen, where Mayan culture settled thousands of years ago. Today, the recipe I write about is packed with flavor and history, not from Playa but from Yucatan, and is pretty much made the same way as the Mayans prepared it.

Tikin Xik -Tikin means “dry thing” and xiik ala fish fin- is a dish offered by the mother of the groom at a typical wedding around the south of the country, and it’s one of those dishes that is like a warm, loving hug to your soul. Many traditional communities still prepare this dish in a festive way, gathering the women in the family of the man who will be marrying, collecting all the ingredients themselves -yup, even the coconut and firewood, these women are quite the tough kind- and  banana leaves.  They sing and chatter while they prepare it. In fact, Mexican women who descend from the Mayans (around the south of the country) are the main economic support of their families, and the matriarchies are the typical family organization, as opposed as the south of Mexico, where the men are the ones who take the bread home. And they work very hard, weaving textiles, cooking and selling food, embroidering various textile products and gathering fruits, vegetables and spices.

The main ingredient here is called axiote (ash-ee-oh-tay), a spice full of flavor but not hot or picante at all, there’s a difference between spicy and picante. First off, this spice ranges from a bright orange to a terracotta brown in color, depending on its manufacture. Before it is a spice, it’s a luscious tree that grows quickly and nourishes the soil and can grow even in the poorest soils. It grows better in humid places, between July and September, August being its best blooming time. This tree has no problem with pollination, as it can be done by bees, wasps, ants, butterflies and even flies.  It is also beautiful, because once it reaches its mature peak, the pods (which look like hairy heart shaped leeches) that are bunched up and look like bright red flowers open up and reveal a bunch of tiny seeds that look like a small squished chocolate chip. Then, it is left on the tree until it turns a reddish brown, harvested and dried for at least three days. Fun fact about the seeds: they can be kept for more than ten years at 41 degrees or less, which is probably why the Mayans took such great advantage of it, they stored them in clay pots covered with a light piece of manta (cotton fabric).

Now, axiote was not mainly used for cooking, it was considered a sacred plant given to us by the gods. Mayans had a great connection with their religion and cenotes (natural underground pools) and they would paint their bodies with axiote paste and it was strongly linked to the rain. The seeds were so valuable to them, they once used them as money, like cacao seeds. Speaking of which, Mayans had a special ritual drink which I wrote about a few editions ago; the main ingredients were cacao seeds and axiote! Our ancestors also used it as a pigment for their clothes which can go from a golden yellow to a rich brown and all shades in between. The Spaniards took it to Europe, where it became more of a pigment than a spice, used to dye mostly leather. Present day, it is used as a safe food coloring for cheddar cheese and margarine among many others.  

If you’re an avid cook like a Mexican reader, you’ll know that Mexican ancestors did not typically eat beef, chicken or pork, as those species were brought by the Spaniards during the conquer. But what the coastal civilizations did eat was fish, lots of it, and some groups even had special dances and names from them.  Mayans were no strangers to fish and learned how to preserve it by rubbing sea salt on it and leaving it to dry.

Tikin Xik was traditionally cooked over a coconut wood fire, because the heat is not as aggressive as it would be with other firewood, and it helps to avoid the fish to come out too dry (remember, it is supposed to be dry, the name says it but not too much) nowadays, not many people have the time and patience to start a cooking fire, but if you are willing, by all means try it, just make sure you either have a safe spot in the ground to build it or a natural grill, not natural, but an old school grill, not gas.

Ingredients

1 whole fish (any type you can get fresh is fine, as long as it is white and has scales, but maybe you could experiment with other species-LEGAL of course) scaled, cleaned and ready to cook.

Salt to taste

200 gr of achiote paste (you can buy this at any supermarket or Mercado in Mexico)

1 tbs cumin

1 tbs oregano

1 tbs freshly ground pepper

8 limes or 2 “bitter” oranges -you should really try to find bitter oranges, they make a difference in the aroma

2 sliced tomatoes in rounds

1 sliced onion in rounds

1 banana leaf

1 clove of garlic

Procedure:

The axiote will be in a thick paste, so you will have to dissolve it in the orange juice. The mixture should be not too runny but not too thick either.

Place the fish in the middle of the banana leaf, place the tomato and onion slices on top. Throw in the garlic, oregano, cumin, salt and pepper. Close the banana leaf, first the sides, then the top and bottom to avoid spills. You could tie it with a thin slice of banana leaf too, but you wouldn’t really need it. Or you can secure it with toothpicks.

Place on the grill, in indirect heat and cook for about thirty minutes, checking until the fish is done. If its not done, leave it to cook some more, checking every five minutes. You’ll know its cooked when you pinch it with a fork and it flakes nicely.

Serve with rice, beans and salad on the side! Now, if you want to present it really pretty, place a clean banana leaf on the platter you will serve. You can get creative and make some cuts around the leaf so it looks like a palm tree leaf.