Recipe: Pollo Asado Aquilino (Aquilino's Grilled Chicken)

I met Aquilino on my first trip to the Isthmus, when I was looking for a knowledgeable guide to introduce me to the local Zapotec culture. Someone in Salina Cruz came up with the name of a young declamador, one who recites poetry. Aquilino shared much beautiful Zapotec poetry and song with me -- and also this recipe with its typical southern Mexican achiote-tinted spice rub.

I have had to adjust Aquilino's original directions, which were for a whole spit-roasted chicken. If you have an electric rotisserie, you may follow this method by coating the chicken (inside and out) with the spice rub and marinating as directed, then spit-roasting for 1 1/2 hours or until the juices run clear. The chicken may also be cooked on a charcoal grill. Since the breast meat of U.S. chickens tends to dry out with this method, I suggest using 4 whole chicken legs and grilling over the prepared charcoal for 20 - 25 minutes, or until cooked through at the joint.

Pollo Asado Aquilino (Aquilino's Grilled Chicken)

Yield: 4-6 servings


2 tablespoons achiote seeds

2 tablespoons black peppercorns

1 tablespoon whole cloves

3 tablespoons cumin seeds

1/4 cup dried Oaxacan oregano, crumbled, or 1 tablespoon Mexican oregano

1 teaspoon dried thyme

4 large garlic cloves, peeled and coarsely chopped

1/3 -1/2 cup cider vinegar

One 4-pound chicken, quartered

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Grind the achiote seeds in an electric coffee mill or spice grinder and set aside. (They are ground separately because they are extremely hard.) Working in batches as necessary, grind the peppercorns, cloves, cumin and oregano. Combine with the thyme and ground achiote; mix thoroughly in a small bowl. You should have about 2/3 cup of the mixture.

Place the garlic in a blender with 1/3 cup of vinegar and blend to a paste, adding another 1 or 2 tablespoons of vinegar to thin it if it is too sticky. Scrape out into a small bowl and stir in enough of the ground spice blend to achieve a consistency a little lighter than a thin barbecue sauce. Thin with a small amount of vinegar if it is too pasty, but remember it should be thick enough to coat the chicken. Reserve any leftover spice blend for another occasion.

Choose a glass or non-aluminum metal bowl large enough to hold the chicken pieces. Rub the spice-vinegar mixture liberally all over the chicken. Brush with the oil, season with salt to taste, and arrange the pieces in the bowl. Let marinate for at least 1 hour at room temperature or (preferably) overnight in the refrigerator. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place the chicken on a rack in a shallow baking dish and bake for 35 - 40 minutes or until tender.

VARIATION: I also like to bake the chicken whole. Rub it inside and outside with spice-vinegar mixture and proceed as directed above, baking it on a rack at 350° for about 1 hour and 20 minutes or until done.

VARIATION: For a sweeter but still sprightly flavor, substitute fresh orange juice for half the vinegar.

Award-winning restaurateur Zarela Martinez blogs at You can also check out her how-to videos on YouTube.

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