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Recipe from The Art of Mexican Cooking (Bantam Books, 1989) -
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By Diana Kennedy

This is a Yucatecan tamal pie, filled with a highly seasoned mixture of chicken and pork and cooked in a banana leaf. It is the Mayan tamal pie offered to the dead on All Saints' Day, traditionally accompanied by a cup of hot chocolate. Muk-bil literally means "to put in the ground" or to cook in a pib (an underground oven).

John L. Stevens, in Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, describes the feast of todos los santos in the middle of the nineteenth century in Yucatán

"…and besides the usual ceremonies of the Catholic Church throughout the world, there is one peculiar to Yucatán, derived from the customs of the Indians and called Mukpipoyo. On this day every Indian, according to his means, purchases and burns a certain number of consecrated candles, in honor of his deceased relatives, and in memory of each member of his family who has died within the year. Besides this, they bake in the earth a pie consisting of a paste of Indian corn, stuffed with pork and fowls, and seasoned with chili, and during the day every good Yucateco eats nothing but this. In the interior, where the Indians are less civilised, they religiously place a portion of this composition out of doors, under a tree, or in some retired place, for their deceased friends to eat, and they say that the portion thus set apart is always eaten, which induces the belief that the dead may be enticed back by appealing to the same appetites which govern them when living; but this sometimes accounts for by malicious and skeptical persons, who say that in every neighbourhood there are other Indians, poorer than those who can afford to regale their deceased relatives, and these consider it no sin, on a matter of this kind, to step between the living and the dead."

This dish is cooked in the villages in pibs (underground ovens) and comes out with a golden, crisp top and a faintly smoky flavor. Very often the chicken will just be jointed, but it makes it a great deal easier to serve if the bones are removed.

Yield: 6 servings

Fat for the Dough
  • A small frying pan
  • ½ pound pork fat, cut into small cubes
Heat the fat over a medium flame, or in the oven, until the lard renders out of it. Turn the pieces from time to time so that they do not burn but become evenly crisp and brown.

  • A large saucepan
  • A 3-pound chicken
  • ½ pound pork shoulder
  • 4 cloves garlic, toasted
  • 1½ teaspoons salt
  • Water to barely cover
Cut the chicken into serving pieces and the pork into 1-inch squares. Put them into the pan with the other ingredients and barely cover with water. Bring to a boil, lower the flame, and simmer until the meat is just tender - the chicken should take about 35 minutes; the pork a little longer. Strain the meat, reserving the broth. Remove the bones from the chicken. Set the meat aside.
  • A small saucepan
  • 1½ cups reserved meat broth
  • 2 Tablespoons tortilla masa, or 1½ Tablespoons masa harina (see Editor's Note)
Stir the masa gradually into the broth. Bring to a boil, lower the flame, and stir the mixture until it thickens a little. Set the thickened broth aside.

  • ¼ teaspoon peppercorns
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 Tablespoon achiote (see Editor's Note)
  • 1 Tablespoon mild white vinegar
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled
Grind all the seasonings together to a smooth sauce and set aside.
  • A frying pan
  • 3 Tablespoons rendered pork fat
  • 1/3 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 chile habanero, whole
  • ½ medium green pepper, diced
  • 1 large sprig epazote (see Editor's Note)
  • 1 large tomato
  • The cooked meats
Melt the pork fat and fry the chopped onion, chile, green pepper and epazote, without browning, until they are soft. Add the ground seasonings and continue cooking the mixture for about 3 minutes. Add the tomato and the cooked meats to the ingredients in the pan and continue cooking the mixture for 10 minutes over a medium flame. Set aside.

Preparing the Pan
  • A metal baking pan about 8 x 8 x 2 inches
  • 4 lengths of string, each measuring about 30 inches
  • Some large pieces of banana leaves
Lay 2 pieces of string parallel across the length of the dish and the other 2 pieces across the width - there will be a large overlap for tying.

Quickly pass the leaves over a flame to make them more pliable, and line the dish with them, smooth, shiny side up, so that they overlap the pan by about 5 inches all the way around. Set the pan aside while the dough is prepared.

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

  • 2 pounds prepared tortilla dough, or 3½ cups masa harina plus 2 cups boiling water (see Editor's Note)
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • ¼ teaspoon hot paprika
  • The melted fat and fat pieces
If you are using masa harina, mix it with the boiling water to a soft dough. To the dough, add the salt, paprika and fat and mix thoroughly.

  • The prepared pan
  • The dough
  • The filling
  • The thickened broth
  • A piece of banana leaf approximately 11 x 11 inches
  • The remaining dough

Press about two-thirds of the dough into the prepared pan to form a crust about ¼-inch thick on the bottom and sides of the pan.

Put the filling into the lined pan and pour the thickened broth over it. With the smooth, shiny side of the leaf upward, press out the remaining dough onto it about ¼-inch thick. This will be the cover for the pie.

Carefully turn the leaf upside down so that the dough completely covers the pan, with enough of an overlap to seal it together with the dough around the sides of the pan.

Fold the leaves over the top of the pie and tie them down firmly with the string. Bake the Muk-bil Pollo for 1½ hours and serve it immediately.

Note: In Yucatán they do not use strings to tie up the pie. They use the hard central vein of the banana leaf and make the rest by tying together 1/4-inch strips torn off a banana leaf, with the grain. It is a lot of work but it looks nicer.

If you look at the banana leaf you will see that it has a shiny, smooth side and a less shiny, ridged underside. Always put the tamal dough onto the shiny side.

If you can time it so that you serve it hot, straight out of the oven, it is well worthwhile. However, if you have to reheat it, then put it into the oven in a water bath to keep the dough soft. It freezes quite well cooked. Put it frozen into a water bath in a 350°F oven to reheat.

Editor's Note: Mexican seasonings like masa harina, epazote and achiote are available at Mexican and Latino markets. Also, check out The CMC Company, purveyors of Mexican seasonings and spices:

The CMC Company
PO Box 322
Avalon, NJ 08202
Tel: (1-800) CMC-2780
Fax: (609) 861-3065

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