From the Heart of the Yucatán, El Turix, Cozumel, Mexico | Rafael Ponce

from Gastronomica 4:2

El Turix is our restaurant on the island of Cozumel, off the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico. Our cuisine is Yucatecan, and the flavors, ingredients, and presentation of our food reflect the history of the region. The Yucatán is the land of the Maya; much later the Spanish came. The region was also influenced by the presence of the French and the Lebanese. In the past the Yucatán Peninsula was isolated from the rest of Mexico. The shipping industry that brought foreign goods to the Yucatán meant that the European influence here was very strong—it used to be easier to go by ship to France from the Yucatán than to travel to Mexico City! Just as the scents from the tropical flowers and the salt and heat of the Caribbean Sea touch our senses, so do diverse cultures permeate our culinary heritage.

I am Rafael Ponce, born in Mérida, the capital of the Yucatán Peninsula. I come from a family that owned a brewery for more than eighty years (the brewery is now owned by Corona). I left my family home with a deep appreciation of fine foods.

My mother, from the north of Mexico, created Mexican dishes, integrated Mayan cuisine into her cooking, and had a special passion for French cuisine. But it was the cooking and traditions of my Mayan nana that really influenced the foods of my childhood. From my nana I learned always to look for the freshest ingredients in the market, to give the dish better flavor and color. Even today I roast garlic as she did, by wrapping the cloves in aluminum foil and placing them in a frying pan to cook over slow heat until juicy and perfectly done. I then use the garlic to prepare various sauces. Our manner of marinating meat in orange juice and other ingredients, to give it time to take on fuller flavor, also comes from my nana.

Rafael Ponce in the kitchen of El Turix. Photograph by Deborah Morningstar © 2004

In 1976 I met and married Maruca Pacheco Ontiveros. Her mother was also a wonderful cook, and after we married Maruca discovered her own culinary gifts. Twenty-five years ago, el destino brought us to the island of Cozumel, the island of Ix-chel, the goddess of fertility. At that time there were few restaurants here, and the choice of cuisines and the quality of the food were extremely limited. Maruca and I had to work hard to create good food for our family and friends. The challenge of finding quality ingredients based on our knowledge of the local cuisine deepened our understanding and appreciation of Yucatecan food.

We moved our family to Montreal for five years to learn more about fine cooking. Maruca took classes in Chinese and international cuisines, and we dined at restaurants that broadened our horizons. Being so far from home, we came to appreciate how valuable your own native food is, how much it is a part of you. We wanted to return to Cozumel to open a restaurant that would teach people to appreciate the wonderful food of the Yucatán.

We built a small, Mayan-style plaza in front of the beautiful Corpus Christi church on Cozumel. Our plan was to have a variety of fine restaurants. The first one we opened was La Cocay, which means “firefly” in Mayan. It specialized in Mediterranean food. The high-quality food and beautiful setting raised the standards for restaurants in Cozumel. A year later we opened El Turix. In Mayan this word means “dragonfly.” The Mayans believed that if a dragonfly comes to your place you will have many visitors. We wanted many visitors from all over the world to experience the flavor of the Yucatán.

Since turkey is a traditional Mayan food, we wanted to begin with this dish. We located a live turkey and tried to find someone to dress it. At one p.m. on the day we wanted to open the restaurant with this dish, we still hadn’t found anyone who could kill the turkey. So I had to do it. I spoke to many local people about what method to use, but everyone had a different opinion. I ended up doing it the way my nana had when she made special stews. That day we knew we had embarked on an enterprise that was going to teach us a lot and just as often be a challenge.

Today, we offer several Mayan dishes at El Turix, but a favorite of our customers is cochinita pibil. Traditionally this dish was begun by cooking the pork in an underground oven. This method is still used in many parts of the Yucatán, but for our purposes we cook the pork in a modern oven. The sauce is a red sauce, made from achiote. In ancient times achiote was an important ceremonial offering to the gods; it is one of the most important spices in the Yucatán, with a distinctive but very mild flavor. The achiote comes from a little tree grown in the area, whose fruit resembles a chestnut with a prickly husk. When the fruits ripen and open, they contain little seeds, which we grind to create the base of our red sauce. We wrap our food in banana leaves so that it doesn’t dry out when cooking. The leaves also impart a nice flavor as well as a specific smell, a telltale sign that something special is being cooked. Another native ingredient that we use is pumpkin seed—raw, toasted, or ground.

We feel very strongly that part of our success comes from our hands-on approach. Maruca and I do all the cooking and all the serving. We are most excited about sharing la cochinita pibil with our guests, because it represents Yucatecan cooking at its best. We also are very proud of our coconut pie made with fresh coconut. Customers love our dzotobichay, a little tamale prepared with fresh corn flour, chaya (Mayan spinach), and ground toasted pumpkin seeds served with tomato sauce. We also offer chicken, pork, and pork loin in an orange sauce. Some of our techniques reveal foreign influences, such as the Yucatecan stews that originated in Spain. The method of sofreír (browning) the meat for stews before adding the rest of the ingredients is French, and very old.

Returning customers know they will see us each time they visit El Turix, and we are grateful for our returning friends. One of our greatest desires when we created the Mayan plaza was to expose younger people to the joy of fine dining and the excitement of learning about various foods. Maruca and I have watched the younger generations lose this appreciation in their fast-food culture. We hope that El Turix will give everyone the opportunity to relax, remember what dining is all about, and remember that food, the essence of life, is deeply connected to our histories and our families, and that by joining together to share a meal we share our hearts.

It is our pleasure to share our story with you, to share our history, and to extend to you our invitation to visit us on the island of Cozumel, to learn about our region and to feast on the spirit of diversity. Muchísimas gracías y les invitamos a visitarnos. Buen provecho!