It's early morning at the Mayan ruins of Uxmal on Mexico's Yucatán peninsula, and chef Patricia Quintana and I are the only people in sight. From our vantage point high on the steps of the crumbling Palacio del Gobernador, we see massive gray stone structures with fantastically carved serpents and masks all around us. There is nothing that an ancient Mayan wouldn't have recognizedexcept for us, that is.
"You see," says Quintana as we make our way down the steep, uneven stones, "before the tour buses arrive, you can almost feel what it would have been like for the Mayans before the conquistadors."
Quintana, the chef and co-owner of Izote, one of the hottest restaurants in Mexico City, is passionate about tracing Mexican cuisine back to its pre-Columbian roots. She's especially fascinated by the Yucatán, where she's made dozens of trips over the past quarter century to research her 14 cookbooks. Yucatán cuisine is distinctive partly because the region was geographically isolated from the rest of the country for centuries, Quintana explains as we head toward the market in the capital of Mérida, on the northwestern side of the peninsula. Our driver speeds along the Paseo de Montejoa broad avenue lined with faded colonial mansions in varying states of restoration. This part of Mérida, just outside the center of the city, is architecturally reminiscent of Havana: The Yucatán peninsula juts into the Caribbean Sea, so Mérida is actually closer to Cuba than it is to Mexico City.