Pibil, a Mayan word that means buried or cooked underground, is a word describing a popular dish found in restaurants and in homes all over Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
Pibil (pronounced PEE-beel) is a cooking technique that involves wrapping pork (or another meat) in banana leaves, marinating it in sour orange and achiote—a sweet, slightly peppery red sauce made from annatto seed, a plant found in the tropics—and baking it in a hand-dug barbecue pit in the ground for several hours. The meat becomes tender and flaky, with a subtle smoky flavor, and is generally served piled into soft tortillas. For sides, expect dishes such as garlic rice and black beans. You'll often see the dish garnished with pickled pink onions and freshly grilled peppers.
A popular preparation, which can be found on menus throughout the Yucatan, is Cochinita Pibil, made from a whole suckling pig which is pit-smoked. You'll also see this term used for pulled pork that is cooked in a different way, sometimes in a slow cooker, to get a similar fall-off-the-bone effect. However, without cooking the dish in the traditional way, you won't get the smoky taste with the spices infused into the tender, moist pork.
Sometimes you'll find Cochinita Pibil used in enchiladas, as a stuffing for chile or in empanadas, those delightful savory pies.
Where to Get Cochinita Pibil in Mexico
It is said that the only authentic cochinita that you can find aside from a local family gathering is in street stands and little taquerias. In traditional Mexican homes, Cochinita Pibil is usually served as a weekend family feast kind of like the American family backyard barbecue.
Where to Get Cochinita Pibil in the United States
The best places to get Cochinita Pibil are where people with roots in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula are the cooks.
And, like in Mexico, you may find some of the best versions of this dish at street markets or small Mexican restaurants. In Los Angeles, they are raving about the Cochinita Pibil in Gilberto Cetina's Chichen Itza in the open market space of Mercado La Paloma at 3655 S. Grand Ave #C-6 (Historic South Central District). The slow roasted pork served at this little restaurant is prepared with achiote and Seville orange, garlic and allspice and clove.
Barrio Queen, with several restaurants in the Phoenix area of Arizona, has also been critically-acclaimed for their Cochinita Pibil recipe. In addition to that signature dish, they have over 20 types of tacos and over 500 tequilas.
In Austin, Texas, Fonda San Miguel has a loyal following of customers who love their Cochinita Pibil. Fonda San Miguel provides a beautifully-decorated backdrop for their upscale version of Cochinita Pibil at an upscale price of $23.50 for the entree.
Cochinita Pibil Recipes
You may find that you aren't up to digging a pit in your backyard and lining it with stones to cook your Cochinita Pibil. For you, there are some excellent recipes that focus on the spices and slow-cooking of the pork without using the traditional pit.
Rick Bayless, the famed Mexican cuisine chef, describes in detail how to make each component of the dish in a recipe from his book, "Mexico—One Plate at a Time." For the pork, he uses bone-in pork shoulder (Boston butt) cut into 3-inch wide cross sections and roasted on a gas or charcoal grill.
The PBS program, Splendid Table, provides a recipe and instructions for Cochinita Pibil using a two-stage “grill-and-swim” cooking process. They pre-grill the meat and then slow cook it in a water bath producing a succulent pork shoulder.