One of the most delightful food discoveries for us in Mérida was xnipek (pronounced SHNEE-peck). The name comes from the Mayan language and means "dog's nose." Unappetizing as that might sound at first, rest assured there is no dog in the recipe. It's simply a reference to this salsa's heat level. Hot chiles can cause the nose to run, thus the metaphor.
There's more to xnipek than just heat, though. It not only uses the Yucatecan powerhouse chile--the habanero--but also includes the native fruit known as naranja agria, or bitter orange, which is also the secret to great Yucatecan escabeche. It's hard to find fresh in the States, so there's a brief recipe for a reasonable facsimile following our rendition of this fiery relish.
We found many versions of xnipek in our travels around the Yucatán. All had the habanero and bitter orange, but beyond that they varied widely. This is why we prefer the term genuine to authentic--it allows for many interpretations while still remaining true to tradition.
Xnipek is one of the salsas collectively referred to as Pico de Gallo, or "beak of the chicken," a reference either to the size of the chopped ingredients or to chicken feed. It's made of many ingredients chopped together to form more of a relish than a sauce (or salsa). Our favorite renditions include the unique addition of fresh cabbage, which adds another layer of flavor and crunch.
½ cup green cabbage, chopped or shredded
2 fresh habanero chiles, seeded and minced (you could substitute any chile, but you'd lose the right to call it "genuine")
2 medium-ripe tomatoes, cored and diced
1 red onion, peeled and diced
½ cup fresh-squeezed bitter orange juice (or use the facsimile, below, but stick with fresh)
3-4 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
Soak the cabbage in ice water for an hour or so to make it crispy. Drain and dry thoroughly using a salad spinner or paper towels.
Toss the cabbage together with the habaneros, tomatoes, onion, and bitter orange juice. Let stand at room temperature for a couple of hours, or in the refrigerator overnight, then add the fresh chopped cilantro right before service.
Yields around 2 cups
Makeshift Bitter Orange Juice
Combine in a 2:1:1 ratio, fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice, orange juice, and lime juice. Let stand for an hour. It will keep in the refrigerator, covered, for up to 1 day.