Bienvenidos a Los Dos: Yucatan: A Culinary Expedition

About Chef David Sterling
The Pueblos
AS LYON DID FOR THE ZESTY POTATO DISH AND HAMBURG FOR THE UBIQUITOUS MEAT SANDWICH, so the tiny town of Motul in northeastern Yucatán has lent its name to a handful of dishes now famous throughout the region. Look for the descriptor motuleño on any local menu and you’ll know at least the legendary origin of the meal you are about to eat. And you will also know that you will probably be savoring something or other smothered in tomato sauce, peppered with cubed ham and peas and dusted with grated Edam cheese, as in the satisfying Huevos Motuleños.

Just 44 kilometers (28 miles) northeast of Mérida, the sparkling clean little town of Motul lives day by day in relative anonymity, too modest to compete openly with her grander sister to the west, too humble to promote the glories of her past, and thereby unable to reap the rewards of the heavy tourist traffic throughout the area, flowing from the beaches in the north, to Valladolid and Chichén Itzá in the south, and of course to her rival sibling, Mérida, just a stone’s throw toward the sunset.

As is true for large cities and tiny pueblos alike across the Yucatán peninsula, Motul was formerly the site of an ancient Maya civilization and ceremonial center. Founded in the 11th century by a Maya priest named Zac Mutul, who gave the city its name, this particular region of Yucatán was ruled at that time by the chieftainship of Ceh Pech, and Mutul was the seat of power. Descendents of the Pech family ruled Mutul for 140 years, during which time it became one of the most important cities of the region due in large part to its production of henequén (also known as sisal) – a strong natural fiber extracted from agave leaves, used for rope making and other important products.

Another powerful force shaped the city starting in the mid 16th century, when Francisco de Montejo – a Spanish conquistador who was Captain General of Yucatán – converted the Maya ceremonial city of Mutul into the Spanish colonial city of Motul.

Motul continued in importance with respect to the henequén trade, a trend that lasted well into the 20th century. In fact, with its half-dozen nearby henequén plantations and desfibradoras (factories for extracting fiber from the agave leaves), Motul was long considered the heart of the henequén zone, especially after the construction of the famed Motul-Mérida railway used for the transport of the raw product. Along with the entire peninsula, Motul’s glory soon faded after the invention of nylon and the collapse of wealth of the henequén barons.

Motul’s charming coat of arms reflects the city’s past links to the henequén industry: a machete and a coa (a large hooked knife) were used extensively by field laborers; the golden Moorish arch reflects the entrance arches of many local haciendas; and at the bottom, the famed henequén plant. The ribbon beneath the shield reads ZAC MUTUL in reference to the ancient Maya city’s founder.

Motul has not only earned a place in the culinary lexicon but also in the history books due to one of its most famous citizens – Felipe Carrillo Puerto – the man for whom Huevos Motuleños (Motul-style eggs) were indeed created.

Felipe Carrillo Puerto
Of mixed indigenous Maya background, Carrillo Puerto was born in Motul in 1874.  He was one of 14 children, the majority of whom worked diligently to better the lives of the Maya people. A progressive favoring land reform, women’s suffrage and rights for indigenous peoples, Carrillo Puerto served as Governor of the state of Yucatán from 1922 to 1924.

The early decades of the 20th century were tumultuous throughout Mexico. A bloody revolution had raged across the country for 10 years; the country had witnessed 11 presidents enter and leave office; and a new siege of the revolution had broken out again, this time between the ruling party in Mexico City and peasant farmers across the country. Although a member of the despised government, Carrillo Puerto was viewed as a savior among the indigenous Maya, whom he helped build schools for their children and to whom he restored autonomy in their agrarian traditions. Realizing that the Maya would never join their cause as long as Carrillo Puerto were alive, the revolutionaries began plotting to eliminate him.

On January 3, 1924, Carrillo Puerto, three of his brothers and eight of his most active supporters were taken to the Cementerio General in Mérida, lined up against a wall, and executed by firing squad. His last words were reported to be “No abandoneis a mis indios” (Don’t abandon my Indians) – the phrase that is boldly engraved in blood red across the base of a statue to the hero located in Motul’s main square.

A poignant sidebar to the story is the fact that a newspaper columnist from San Francisco, CA, named Alma Reed, and Carrillo Puerto had a romantic love affair that ended in tragedy. Due to her charitable work with oppressed Mexicans living in California, Reed had been invited by then-President Alvaro Obregón of Mexico to visit the country as his guest. During her stay, Reed traveled to Yucatán, where she met Carrillo Puerto, who was then the state governor. They fell in love at first sight, and the governor traveled with her throughout the peninsula, showing her points of interest and filling her with his own passion for the Maya people. Together, they traveled to San Francisco to seek the permission of Reed’s family for the two to be married. Carrillo Puerto returned to Yucatán, and Alma was to join him within three weeks. But during the ensuing period, Carrillo Puerto was arrested and executed. Because Mexico shut its borders during the revolutionary fervor, it was a full year before Reed learned of his death.

A memento of this episode has survived to the present day: “La Peregrina” (The Pilgrim) is a haunting song that Carrillo Puerto commissioned for Reed. It tells the story of a lovely young woman who left her land of fir trees and snow to come to the tropical paradise that Carrillo Puerto so loved, the paradise he begged her never to forget.

Huevos Motuleños
The somewhat crass juxtaposition of a legendary hero with a breakfast dish will hopefully be forgiven. But in truth the two are intricately interwoven, and I personally cannot eat Huevos Motuleños without thinking of Felipe Carrillo Puerto.

During his tenure as governor, Carrillo Puerto was known to host “power lunches” during which he could review his agenda with staff and aides, as well as turn deals with other local politicos. A favorite Motul restaurant was La Sin Rival, owned by the Siqueff family, and popular with hacendados of the region who went there for venison steak or treats from the bakery also owned by the Siqueffs. The governor’s preferred meal service was to receive many small plates, with a wide variety of garnishes and accompaniments to the main dish. On one such occasion in 1922 – which the Siqueffs had arranged to host in the famed Motul cenote – so many people showed up in attendance that the cooks realized they would not have enough service pieces. So, in a stroke of creativity, the head chef created the new egg dish that would have all of the accompaniments and garnishes served on a single plate – and Huevos Motuleños was born.

Restaurante Siqueff
The original La Sin Rival of Motul was owned by the Lebanese immigrant Jorge Siqueff Febles. The family business enjoyed success into the middle of the 20th century, and in 1959 they opened a new restaurant in Mérida, known simply as Siqueff. It was located in a grand 16th century home at the corner of Calle 68 and Calle 59, in the Santiago neighborhood. This was effectively the first Lebanese restaurant in the city, and proudly served kibis, hummus and tabbouleh to the substantial Lebanese community as well as Mérida’s growing middle class. In 1999, the restaurant moved to another lovely large home located on Calle 60, between Calles 35 and 37. There, the staff is still overseen by a third generation family member, María José Siqueff.
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