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Cochinita pibil is a pork dish that originated in Mexico in the Yucatan region. Originally, it referred to an entire pig that was marinated in spices and bitter orange juice before being wrapped in banana leaves and cooked very slowly in a pit until tender and juicy. Most recipes have changed over time and started to use ingredients that were more practical for an average household. A more common way to prepare cochinita pibil is to use pork loin or pork shoulder that is marinated and then wrapped in foil and baked at a low temperature for a long time. The completed pork can be shredded and served on tortillas or presented with pickled onions or shallots.
One of the key cochinita pibil ingredients is annatto. This is a red seed from the fruit of the achiote tree that grows in Mexico. It has a very distinct, floral, pepper and nut flavor. It is often sold either as a powder or as a paste mixed with garlic and salt. The annatto seed imparts a deep red color to the pork.
Making cochinita pibil starts with the marinade. The exact ingredients can vary, but the core elements are annatto paste, garlic and bitter orange juice that can be softened with stock or water. Bitter orange juice is not always available, so regular orange juice mixed with lime or lemon juice also can be used. The ingredients are mixed together, sometimes into a very loose liquid and other times into a thick paste.
The pork that is used can either be left whole or cut into cubes. If left whole, the pork should be perforated with a knife to give the marinade a way to get into the center of the meat. The marinade should be spread over as much of the meat as possible and then left for anywhere between 12 and 24 hours.
The authentic version of cochinita pibil uses banana leaves to wrap the meat, although foil or any flexible, waterproof wrapping can be used. Not only is the marinated meat wrapped, but the marinade also is included inside the package, sometimes with additional butter or lard added. The wrapped pork is then placed in an oven on low heat.
The objective while cooking cochinita pibil is to slowly cook the meat so the marinade and the steam keep it moist. Cooking can take several hours, depending on the level of heat used. Once completed, the pork should be tender enough to be easily shredded. Typical condiments served with the meat are pickled onions, salsa and roasted vegetables. Very often, the meat is spooned onto warm tortillas and eaten like a taco.