Reporting from the Mayan Riviera, and fluffy Mayan jicama and cucumber curls
Hola from the Mayan Riviera. We arrived here a few days ago and I am just getting into the swing of things. The pace is different here. The trip down was a “speedy” 26 hours with an overnight stay at an airport hotel, thanks to the monopoly that Canadian airlines have over the Canadian skies. I believe it takes the same amount of time to fly around the world.
Upon arrival we had to endure the usual ordeal of renting a vehicle here. In spite of reserving a car for our two months stay a year in advance at a reasonable price, we ended up, as we always do here, paying three times that amount, regardless of the reservation price. It has to do with “mandatory” insurance, they tell you. It feels like a rip-off, and they do it with a smile.
Once settled on a reasonable vehicle at an unreasonable price and providing a $6K “hold” on the visa for the duration of the rental period, we drove to our villa situated in Puerto Aventuras, a charming and quaint resort village down the Mayan coast and hoped for the best. A key to the villa was taped to the door (it’s safe here) and we walked into the now familiar spacious abode, opened the curtains, pushed the sliding doors wide open to blend inside and out and breathed in the fragrant, moist Caribbean air. I think it will be okay.
The first night it rained. Heavy, warm tropical rain that drenched the grass and trees, splashed heavy spray off the pool and washed the salt off the fishing boats docked below. The bright pink bougainvilleas on the patio looked especially vibrant against the rain and cloudy skies. Rainwater dripped from the palm trees branches, creating a water symphony that rivals Handel’s Water Music. Fat green coconuts hang from the palms in large clusters. I wouldn’t advise sitting under the trees. Gravity will prevail sooner or later. It’s fun to sit on the covered patio protected from the rain and watch the tropical rainstorm. The power of the elements is humbling. We went to sleep that night to the sound of the rain beating against the glass railing and the swoosh of the wet palms outside.
After a night of tropical rain, we woke up to bright blue skies and sunshine and no sign of cloud or rain. Time to get settled in the villa. Since the fridge is empty on our first day, we go out for breakfast to celebrate the beginning of our extended vacation, take a look around and check out the beach scene. Breakfast turned into a ritual and in spite of several breakfast options in the village, only one place serves breakfast on the beach. The Omni hotel sits on the picturesque Chac Hal Al bay with the restaurant patio a few feet away from the glistening water and that’s where we were headed that morning. I am a creature of habit and invariably order a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast. In the past I have written and raved about the oatmeal at the Omni. Not so fast. There must be a new chef here as the oatmeal this time was not what I have come to expect. It was “soupy”, with a oatmeal granules floating in a warm, milky liquid infused with cinnamon. What happened? I tried to scoop some of the oatmeal out of the “soup” without much success but let it go. It was my first morning here and I was not in the mood to complain to them. I’ll have to talk to the chef next time we come for breakfast. We ordered a plate of fresh fruits (papaya, melon, pineapple), a basket of local pastries, freshly squeezed grapefruit juice and a pot of freshly brewed coffee with local cream. We paid the $35 for breakfast for two and left, not satisfied with the oatmeal but enjoyed the beach scene, the beautiful Caribbean waters and quaint ambiance, as well as a visit with the Omni staff whom we have gotten to know over the years.
Years ago when we first started vacationing in this area the sandy bay was remote and pristine with a few palm trees and a palapa here and there to provide shade. I loved coming here because of the picturesque setting and authentic feel of the place. Since then a couple of hurricanes washed out much of the sand, narrowing the beach significantly and reef-like barriers were built in the bay to prevent further erosion but detracting from the clean and pristine scene that we were accustomed to. The village has also grown, built with dolphin pools, villas and condominiums for snow birds and vacationing foreigners like us. Some of the changes are good, with more and better restaurants, shops and services available, and some are less desirable, as it can get crowded during the holidays and more difficult to find a chair in the shade on the diminishing beach. Nothing stays the same.
After unpacking, checking in with the management office in the morning and getting a few warm hugs from the lovely staff, we drove up the highway to do some grocery shopping. I usually shop like I am cooking for a major wedding event, buying everything in sight, twice. This time I decided to hold back a bit and only buy enough for a couple of days. It sort of worked out. I came back with ripe papayas, guavas, pomegranates, tomatoes, avocados, garlic, red onions, green onions, beautiful glossy poblano peppers, a few jalapenos, white skinned potatoes, fat carrots, white cauliflower, tomatillos, serrano chiles, salad greens, rice, dried pink and black beans, old fashioned style oats and a stack of freshly made corn tortillas (a dollar for a 3 inch high stack of still warm tortillas, wrapped in wax paper). I see vegetable tacos for the next few days. I wish I had my Mexican cookbooks with me. I often bring them but didn’t this time. I will have to rely on my imagination and the internet for ideas. I can also call on my foodie friends, you know who you are.
There is not much on the agenda this time. We have travelled to all the archeological sites, travelled to nearby towns, visited most of the interesting hotels in the area and walked every beach around here. I plan to revisit familiar places, eat at my favourite restaurants (if they are still around this year) and hopefully cook some interesting foods. One new thing on my list this year is to find Mexican cooking classes nearby and up and down along the coast. I haven’t cooked authentic Mexican cuisine in quite some time and wouldn’t mind brushing up on my skills and learning more. I see some unfamiliar foods at the market and there are so many pepper varieties here it makes your head spin. A cooking class would be useful.
Fluffy Jicama and cucumber curls
Since you have read this far, you deserve a recipe, so I am offering a simple one for a traditional appetizer that I have seen served here in homes and restaurants as well as sold in plastic cups on the streets and along the beaches. Traditionally it is made with vegetables and fruits cut into stick and sprinkled with a spice mixture made of chilies, salt and lime. I have seen it served in fluffy little curls at a restaurant in Playa del Carmen (Maize de Mar on la Quinta) and thought it was was such a fun idea that I immediately made it at home here. At Maiz de Mar they served it with sour orange a lovely light dressing, I’ll have to check it out again when we go there next time. I served it with a squeeze of lime and a sprinkling of the spice mixture called Tajin classico con limon. It is a mixture of Mexican chilies with lime and salt and has the perfect flavour for this simple appetizer. You don’t have to curl the vegetables if it seems like too much work but it a fun little project. You can also add other vegetables and fruits as they often do here (pineapple, mango, papaya, red pepper, carrots, celery etc.).
1 cucumber, cut in 3″ secions
1 jiacama, peeled and cut in quarters vertically
A generous sprinkling of Tajin classico con limon
Cut the cucumber lengthwise into 3 inch sections.
With a vegetable peeler slice the cucumber lengthwise into thin ribbons up to but not including the seedy center.
Peel, wash and cut the jicama in half vertically.
With a vegetable peeler slice thin ribbons off the flat cut surface where you sliced it.
Have a bowl ready.
Curl the vegetables ribbons into a tight curl the best you can without snapping them and set at the bottom of the bowl leaning them against each other so the curls hold the best you can.
Pour ice water over the vegetable curls but don’t let them float and open.
Cover with ice cubes and refrigerate for a few hours. The vegetable curls will hold their shape once chilled. They do not need to stay tightly rolled.
Place in a serving bowl, squeeze the juice of a lime over the curls and sprinkle with the Tajin.
Serve immediately as an appetizer or a pre-dinner light and refreshing salad.
Next time I think I will sprinkle them with chopped cilantro as well.