The History of Cochinita Pibil
In pre-Hispanic times, the predecessor of cochinita pibil was a Mayan stew made with pheasant, wild boar or venison, and it was cooked in the “pib” or “earth oven”. This dish was commonly prepared as an offering for the dead, and was placed on an altar prepared for that purpose. From very ancient times, the Mayans have given veneration to the dead and as part of this adoration, they had the custom to bury their deceased inside their houses since they believed that the soul was immortal and that they returned from the underworld on certain days to visit their loved ones and enjoy the offerings arranged in their honor. For this reason, the altar was frequently placed inside the house.
With the arrival of the Spaniards during the colonial period, in their eagerness to evangelize the indigenous people and speed up this process without being too aggressive, there was a syncretism between many of the autochthonous beliefs and the Catholic festivities brought by the Spanish people. In this way, the indigenous customs and beliefs related to the dead of all the tribes of Mesoamerica conquered by the Spaniards, were syncretized with the festivities of “the day of all saints and all the animas”, a celebration that took place in Spain from October 28 to November 2. In this process, the custom of burying the dead inside the house changed to cemeteries, and then the offerings were made on the grave. Also, pheasant, wild boar, and venison were exchanged for pork in the traditional Mayan dish.
Thus, in the Yucatan peninsula, the tradition of altars dedicated to the dead has survived to this day in the celebration called “Hanal Pixan” (Food of souls).
The earth oven or “pib”
Pib is a Mayan word that means “to bury” and that gives meaning to the name of the dish due to its original way of preparing it. In many parts of the Yucatan peninsula, especially in communities located in the jungle, the use of the earth oven is still as popular as in ancient times. The earth oven is a hole in the soil floor which has approximately 60 cm deep and 50 cm in circumference. Its walls are smoothed with mud, stones are placed at the bottom to retain the heat of the firewood which is placed on top of the stones. It is lit forming a bonfire that must be fed for at least four hours until the hole is very hot. When the stones reach a reddish hue, some of them are removed along with a part of the hot embers, which will serve to cover the hole. Then, more firewood is placed at the bottom creating a base, to put the meat pot perfectly wrapped with banana leaves. Then, the hot stones and embers that had previously been separated are placed on top and finally the hole is covered with more soil, and the meat cooks for at least six hours.
In our days, modernity has gradually replaced the use of these ovens by steam pots or conventional ovens.
We invite you to take a journey to the land of Mayan in preparing this Yucatecan delicacy: