Pork Knuckle Pibil

November 18, 2011

Pork Pibil

Updated pork pibil recipe HERE.

A couple of weeks ago I did a stall selling my new Peckham Jerk Marinade at Ms. Marmite Lover’s Underground Farmer’s Market and found myself pitched up next to the Capsicana Chilli Company. Like a kid in a sweet shop I stocked up on loads of Mexican chillies and as I was packing up I heard a ‘psst’ from behind me; I swung around to find the chilli guy, Ben, offering me a pouch of achiote powder like it was illegal drugs, “hard to find in the UK” he whispered, “have a little play around with that.”

Achiote (annatto) is the seed of the achiote tree and is an essential ingredient in Mexican cuisine; I had a little ‘aha!’ moment when I first mixed it up into a paste – it smelled instantly familiar even though I’d never cooked with it before. It has a curious smell, almost like a cross between chilli and citrus. This was the flavour I was always trying to identify when I ate ‘proper’ Mexican food like Buen Provecho’s tacos.

I turned to Diana Kennedy’s classic tome, ‘The Essential Cuisines of Mexico’ for this pibil recipe, which calls for a pork shoulder to be smothered in the prepared achiote paste, wrapped in banana leaves, cooked for a torturous eternity and then doused in an incredibly fiery sauce. My butcher had no pork shoulder so I bought pork knuckles instead, allowing a bit of extra weight for the additional bones.

To make achiote paste I mixed the achiote powder, oregano, cumin, allspice and water to a thick red sludge which I smeared all over the pork as directed, having sliced it here and there to let the flavour get deep inside and given it an initial bath in salt and orange juice. There’s some garlic and ground piquin chillies in there too. The knuckles were wrapped in banana leaves, which Diana insists imparts a particular flavour; I have to say I didn’t notice it, but then I didn’t know what I was looking for and wrapping things in banana leaves is still fun. You can obviously use foil instead.

Pork Pibil


They were in the oven for 6 hours by which time I was going clinically insane with anticipation. I unwrapped the parcel and found the meat just slipping off the bone; there’s a lot more meat on a pork knuckle than I realised. The meat shredded easily and the achiote powder gave it an earthy flavour that is impossible to substitute. A word of warning to potential pibil cooks though: make sure that package is tightly sealed. I lost about half the juices when I turned the pork midway through cooking which was very traumatic; protect that precious cargo! Still, I had enough to play with and there’s a fantastic separate accompanying sauce, too. It is hot, consisting as it does of orange juice, red onion and THREE WHOLE SCOTCH BONNETS. I wimped out and settled on two which was enough. The acidity of the orange juice does cook the chillies a little though, taming their ferocity somewhat.

We made big, messy tacos, piling the meat on with our hands and topping with creamy guac and a spoon of that orange-chilli sauce. I almost cried when I took the last bite of the last taco and wiped the final bit of sauce from my food flecked face. One to firmly embed in the repertoire.

If you liked this you may also like the look of my pork cheek tacos with blood orange and chipotle or chipotles en adobo

Pork Knuckle Pibil Tacos

3 pork knuckles
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons orange juice
1/2 teaspoon ground piquin chillies or other dried chillies, ground (Diana says you should use powdered ‘chilli seco yucateco’ or paprika)
4 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons orange juice mixed with 2 tablespoons lime juice

Banana leaves, for wrapping (you’ll need foil as well and you can leave out the leaves if you can’t get hold of them; they’re cheap in Peckham but can be expensive in shops elsewhere. If you do use leaves you’ll probably need to clean them with a damp cloth and make them more flexible by heating slightly over a flame)

For the achiote paste

2 tablespoons achiote powder
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
Pinch black pepper
6 whole allspice
1.5 tablespoons water

Make deep cuts in the pork knuckles with a long knife then rub it all over with the salt followed by the orange and lime juice.

Make the achiote paste by combining crushing the allspice berries to a powder and mixing with all the other ingredients. Crush the garlic with the piquin (or other dried chillies), 1 teaspoon salt and 3 tablespoons orange juice, then mix with the achiote paste. Smother this all over the knuckles, rubbing well in. Make a parcel by first layering tin foil, then banana leaves and placing the knuckles in the centre; fold the package to seal it and wrap with foil. Refrigerate overnight.

The next day, remove the pork from the fridge about an hour before you want to cook it and preheat the oven to 165C. Get a big roasting tin and put a rack inside it (I just put a cooling rack in a tin) then put 125ml water in the bottom. Place the pork package on top of the rack and cover it tightly with foil. Cook for 4 hours then turn the knuckles over and baste them. Cook for a further 3 hours or until the meat falls easily from the bone.

Carefully remove the knuckles from the parcel, taking care to save those precious juices. Tip the juices into a bowl and set aside. Shred the meat from the knuckles and set aside in a bowl then pour the juices over and give it a good mix. This is now ready to serve with the sauce and guacamole.

For the sauce

1/2 a red onion, finely chopped
3 scotch bonnets, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
165ml orange juice

Mix all the ingredients together and set aside for 2 hours.

For the tacos

I always cheat and buy ready made corn tortillas then cut circles from them and warm them through in a dry pan.

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  • Reply Lizzie November 18, 2011 at 9:45 am

    why would you do this to me at 9am? I want a morning taco now.

    Have you tried Mexican oregano? I picked some up at Casa Mexico in Bethnal Green and it has a great flavour. Big fluffy buds too.

    • Reply Helen November 18, 2011 at 9:52 am

      Herro! Ha ha, sozzles! I haven’t but the original recipe does call for it. I didn’t fancy my chances of finding any but I am keeping my eyes peeled.

  • Reply Kavey November 18, 2011 at 9:58 am

    Capsicana sent me some of their chillis to try a while back, they smell amazing, don’t they?

    • Reply Helen November 18, 2011 at 10:01 am

      They do – all imported from Mexico as he thinks the chillies are so much better grown in their natural environment.

  • Reply Brown November 18, 2011 at 10:02 am

    AWESOME!! been wanting to make pibil pork for ages and now I shall!!! Thanks!!

    • Reply Helen November 18, 2011 at 10:07 am

      No problem! The achiote makes all the difference.

  • Reply KSalty November 18, 2011 at 10:11 am

    Dang, I wished I’d picked up some of these chillies at the UFM now – next time! I’m guessing you can probably buy these and Mexican oregano at the Spice Shop in Notting Hill too, though it is eye-wateringly expensive.

    • Reply Helen November 18, 2011 at 10:18 am

      Yeah, thought it might be expensive! Still want some though…

  • Reply the_wu November 18, 2011 at 10:20 am

    D R O O L!

    I found wrapping it in parchment paper then the foil helped retain the juice.

    Gonna try the sauce next time instead of the pickled onions.


    • Reply Helen November 18, 2011 at 10:21 am

      Yeah, I love the pink pickled onions but the sauce has got the onions and the chilli, plus a lovely flavour from the orange juice.

  • Reply zuko November 18, 2011 at 10:29 am

    The pork looks amazing, but I’m staying well away from that double scotch bonnet sauce 😀

    • Reply Helen November 18, 2011 at 10:34 am

      It is hot, of course but as I said the orange juice does cook the chillies a bit and the flavour is fantastic. Perhaps you could try it with one scotch bonnet if you’re worried?

  • Reply Oliver standing November 18, 2011 at 11:44 am

    Wow, this looks like a highly worthy successor to the pig cheek taco thing you made a while ago (and I copied)…so much better to see pictures of recipes and not just tread them in a book.

    • Reply Helen November 18, 2011 at 11:46 am

      I do love a taco! I might make this the ‘winter of tacos’ – there’s no stopping me

  • Reply Louise November 18, 2011 at 2:22 pm

    Oh my GOD Helen, this looks incredible, I want one now!! xxx

    • Reply Helen November 18, 2011 at 2:23 pm

      ha ha, thanks lady! Can you eat the corn tortillas? Probs not…

  • Reply Shu Han November 18, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    oh that looks amazing! the best thing is, pork knuckle is so cheap and underused! i’m a fan of using cuts that are unpopular. often they are more flavourful too!

    • Reply Helen November 18, 2011 at 3:14 pm

      I agree! And there was so much more meat on them than I thought there would be.

  • Reply Chris November 18, 2011 at 3:41 pm

    Now listen Graves, I’ve warned you before about this. If you insist on cooking food this good without inviting me over to try it, you only have yourself to blame for the consequences. I KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE.

    • Reply Helen November 18, 2011 at 3:56 pm

      HA HA HA. Sorry Pople. Don’t start tipping the tables and calling me a…you know what now will you

  • Reply msmarmitelover November 22, 2011 at 9:13 am

    Damn, I didn’t realise he had achiote too. I love it and have used it in many recipes. Our food instincts are so similar, apart from the fact I don’t eat meat!

    • Reply Helen November 22, 2011 at 9:24 am

      I didn’t realise he had it either! And I agree, very similar indeed!

  • Reply Jonathan November 22, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    Good Lord. This is awesome. You had me at “knuckle” but then I just got more and more excited.

    • Reply Helen November 22, 2011 at 1:47 pm

      No-one can resist a porky knuckle

  • Reply Tad November 24, 2011 at 8:22 pm

    For the banana leaves to impart flavor, (a kind of smoky perfume) they have to be in contact with what they are wrapping. Also, they have to singe a bit. So it’s best not to have foil in between the meat and the banana leaves, and maybe not even have foil wrapping the leaf package. I agree this could take some wrapping skill. And you WILL have to singe the leaves by passing them briefly, waxy side down, over a gas flame, or they will just break as you fold them.

    • Reply Helen November 25, 2011 at 8:11 am

      Thanks for your comment Tad! My banana leaves were in contact with the meat and they did singe a bit in the oven so perhaps they did impart flavour but I just didn’t recognise it, as I said. Also as per instructions in the recipe, I found warming them over a flame really helped. Excellent info, thanks. I hope some people can give it a go – banana leaves are very cheap here in Peckham but I’ve seen them sold in the local Asian supermarket for a fiver! Outrageous.

  • Reply Fidelio November 25, 2011 at 1:36 pm

    Hi, this looks more than delicious. But why would you open the package half-way and baste the meat when you turn the package anyway?

    “Place the pork package on top of the rack and cover it tightly with foil. Cook for 4 hours then turn the knuckles over and baste them.”

    • Reply Helen November 25, 2011 at 4:19 pm

      Hi, sorry I don’t quite understand what you mean. You don’t turn the package at all, you just open it and turn the knuckles over.

  • Reply Jim November 28, 2011 at 4:55 pm

    Help! Can’t seem to get a pig knuckle or six, for love nor money at short notice in Cambridge. What would be the best more readily available cut to try this with do you think?
    Cheers, Jim

    PS I… I Iove you.

    • Reply Helen November 29, 2011 at 8:20 am

      Ha ha! Cheers Jim, good to know you’re an, ahem, big fan. Anyway the original recipe calls for shoulder so just use that. Woohoo! Make sure you make lots of cuts in it so the marinade can get right in because you’ll have less surface area to play with. Enjoy!

  • Reply Crispy December 4, 2011 at 8:42 pm

    Thanks for reminding me to cook this. Great recipe.
    For those struggling to find annato, i got some pre-made achiote paste from a great little shop in bethnal green called Casa Mexico ( Mainly sells mexican house good but has a small mexican grocery section. I found 1/2 of the 100g packet (£2.50) was enough for 750g of cubed shoulder meat.

    Oh..and love the site helen. Particularly that jerk chicken 😉

    • Reply Helen December 4, 2011 at 8:46 pm

      Great, thanks for the info Crispy!

  • Reply simon fernsby April 18, 2012 at 5:21 pm

    I ‘ve been making this dish with pork shoulder for some time, most of the recipes suggest bitter orange or a combination of orange and grapefruit, the accidity melts the fat to keep the pork moist. Annatto (achiato) seeds are available from the South American internet cafe on Camberwell Church Street. Traditionally conchinita pibil can also be served with pickled red onions the best recipe requires that you blanch the onions, gently heat a mixture of lemon lime and orange just with brown sugar salt cumin chillie and vinegar which you can then pickle the onions overnight in.

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