Cochinita pibil

It starts with this dish, as offered by the restaurant Reposado in Palo Alto:

Pork marinated in achiote & citrus slowly braised in banana leaves, habanero mango & jicama pico de gallo, creamy jasmine rice with rajas

In a photo taken at the restaurant by James Higa [you can see some of the rice, but not the pico de gallo]:


From Wikipedia:

Cochinita pibil (also puerco pibil or cochinita con achiote) is a traditional Mexican slow-roasted pork dish from the Yucatán Península of Mayan origin. Preparation of traditional cochinita or puerco pibil involves marinating the meat in strongly acidic citrus juice, seasoning it with annatto seed [the achiote] which imparts a vivid burnt orange color, and roasting the meat while it is wrapped in banana leaf. [A bit of banana leaf is visible in #1.]

Cochinita means baby pig, so true cochinita pibil involves roasting a whole suckling pig. Alternatively, pork shoulder (butt roast), or pork loin is used in many recipes. The high acid content of the marinade and the slow cooking time tenderizes the meat, allowing otherwise tough pieces of meat to be used. The Yucatecan recipes always employ the juice of Seville or bitter oranges for marinating. In areas where bitter oranges are not common, juice of sweet oranges combined with lemons, limes, or vinegar are employed to approximate the effect of the bitter orange on the meat. … Traditionally, cochinita pibil was buried in a pit with a fire at the bottom to roast it. The Mayan word pibil means “buried”.

A small linguistic mystery: I don’t know why it’s cochinita pibil (with the fem. cochinita rather than the masc. cochinito for ‘piglet, piggie’), but puerco pibil (with the masc. puerco ‘pig’).

Etymological note: cochino ‘pig’ (of which cochinito is a diminutive) apparently has nothing to do with China, India, or southeast Asia, but seems to have originated in an imitation of the noise pigs make, possibly also used as a sound to call pigs.

Digression on Spanish ‘pig’ words. Standard European Spanish has cerdo, dim. cerdito, but Latin American dialects have several additional items, at least:

for ‘pig’: chancho, puerco, cochino

for ‘piglet, piggie’: cochinello, cochinito, chanchito, puerquito, lechón [specifically ‘suckling pig’, related to leche ‘milk’]

I’m sure there’s a lot to be said about which variants are used where, for what purposes, and with what connotations, but I’m not the person to say it.

However, we should expect a profusion of ‘pig’ words in varieties of Latin American Spanish, especially in the Mayan areas of Mesoamerica, where pigs play a central role in the cultures.

Back to cochinita/puerco pibil. More from the Wikipedia article:

The puerco pibil is a recurring element of the movie Once Upon a Time in Mexico directed by Robert Rodriguez, where it is the favorite food of a CIA agent played by Johnny Depp, who orders this dish every time he enters a Mexican restaurant and urges every person he has lunch with to taste it. He will go as far as killing a cook because his puerco pibil is “too good”. Robert Rodriquez also includes a recipe for puerco pibil and demonstrates how to prepare it in the special features section of the DVD.

On the movie, from Wikipedia:

Once Upon a Time in Mexico (also known as Desperado 2) is a 2003 American action film written, produced, edited, cinematographied, scored, and directed by Robert Rodriguez. It is the third and final film in Rodriguez’s Mexico Trilogy, and is a sequel to El Mariachi and Desperado. The film features Antonio Banderas in his second and final performance as El Mariachi. In the film, El Mariachi is recruited by CIA agent Sheldon Sands (Johnny Depp) to kill Armando Barillo (Willem Dafoe), a Mexican drug lord who is planning a coup d’état against the President of Mexico. At the same time, El Mariachi seeks revenge against a corrupt general responsible for the death of his wife, Carolina (Salma Hayek).

A poster for the movie:


Banderas, Depp, Hayek. Steamy, and violent.

Wait! There’s more! Yes, there’s a plant (and another, very small, plant family). From Wikipedia:

Achiote (Bixa orellana) is a shrub or small tree [in the family Bixaceae] originating from the tropical region of the Americas. Central and South American natives originally used the seeds to make red body paint and lipstick. For this reason, the achiote is sometimes called the lipstick tree.

The tree is best known as the source of annatto, a natural orange-red condiment (also called “achiote” or “bijol”) obtained from the waxy arils that cover its seeds. The ground seeds are widely used in traditional dishes in South and Central America, the Caribbean, and Mexico; such as cochinita pibil, chicken in achiote and caldo de olla. Annatto and its extracts are also used as an industrial food coloring to add yellow or orange color to many products such as butter, cheese, sausages, cakes, and popcorn.

The species name was given by Linnaeus after the Spanish conquistador Francisco de Orellana, an early explorer of the Amazon River. The name achiote derives from the Nahuatl word for the shrub, āchiotl … It may also be referred to as aploppas, or by its original Tupi name uruku, urucu or urucum (“red color”), which is also used for the body paint prepared from its seeds.


(Note: one pod split open to reveal the seeds inside.)

On the family: “The Bixaceae are a family of dicotyledonous plants commonly called the achiote family. … The Bixaceae include three genera and a total of 25 species” (Wikipedia).

One Response to “Cochinita pibil”

  1. Alon Lischinsky Says:

    I would say that ‘puerco’ and ‘cochino’ are Standard Spanish without any geographical markedness, even if they may be more frequent in the left than the right side of the pond. I’d also add ‘marrano’ to this list. Besides ‘chancho’, I’d think the only specifically LatAm term for pig is ‘currucho’, which is restricted to Nicaragua.

    Spain has its own series of regionalisms for the animal, quite reasonably given its important economic and culinary role: ‘cocho’, ‘cuchí’, ‘cuino’, ‘gocho’, ‘guarro’ (dim. ‘gorrino’, ‘guarrapino’, ‘gurriato’), ‘sancho’.

    (And now, of course, I’m hungry.)

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