Bienvenidos a Los Dos: Yucatan: A Culinary Expedition

About Chef David Sterling
The Yucatecan Market
Seeds of Maya cuisine
IT IS BROADLY ACCEPTED THAT MAIZE, BEANS AND SQUASH were the first foods to be domesticated by ancient Mesoamericans. Since maize factors so dominantly in Mesoamerican culture and lore as the staple food of the pre-Hispanic diet, it may be surprising to know that recent evidence indicates that in fact squash domestication predates both beans and maize by some 4000 years, to around 8,000-6,000 B.C.1 Its domestication took place in Pacific southwestern Mexico in the region now defined as Oaxaca.
The squash genus native to the New World was Cucurbita, a member of the Cucurbitaceae family, which includes cucumber. The most common Old World squashes, on the other hand, belonged to the genus Lagenaria (also a part of the Cucurbitaceae family).2  The fossil record indicates that the most prevalent New World species of Cucurbita was C. pepo, which includes the patty pan and zucchini squash varieties – those that are still found today most predominantly in the markets of Yucatán, and known in Spanish as calabaza and calabacita, respectively. Also planted widely in more remote parts of the region are the C. moschata (including the Butternut Squash variety) and C. argyrosperma (such as the Striped Cushaw).

While pre-Columbian peoples ate all parts of the squash – including the flesh, the flowers and even the runners – the preferred part was the seed. Squash seeds were generally toasted lightly on a comal prior to eating. A handful of crunchy, toasted pumpkin seeds may be enough to prove why the pre-Columbian Maya consumed them in such quantity, but there may be a physiological reason, too. In fact, the oils from seeds and nuts were the main source of fat in the diet of these early peoples before Europeans brought the domesticated pig and other farm animals. Further, squash seeds are rich in polyunsaturated fats, which are known to be vital for membrane and neuroreceptor functions, and for cellular metabolism.

Although delicious in their unadulterated state, squash seeds were so ubiquitous in pre-Columbian life that they found their way into a wide array of early recipes, both humble and complex. Sophie D. Coe, in her comprehensive history, America’s First Cuisines, lists a tempting menu of squash seed dishes. Toasted, ground seeds were included in the maize porridge atolli to give it flavor and texture. Tamales were filled with toasted, ground squash seeds; tortillas were stuffed with eggs and covered with squash seed sauce. The ground seeds could be mixed with charred, crushed tomatoes for something resembling a dip or spread (see Sikil P’aak). And toasted or green seeds were even boiled in honey, which was then poured into small puddles and allowed to cool into a sweet treat.3 But perhaps the defining moment of all squash seed recipes is that known as pipián.

Most Mexican cookbooks define pipián as a sauce made of ground nuts or seeds – particularly the squash seed. The origin of the word remains somewhat mysterious: in fact, it rarely appears in Spanish dictionaries. The dictionary of the Real Academia Española defines it as “an American dish made with ground almonds”. Half of the statement is correct: it is most certainly an American dish, but as for almonds, the indigenous peoples of the Americas would have to wait for this fragrant nut until the Spanish brought almond trees to the New World in the years immediately following the conquest.

But we know pipián predates the conquest. One of the earliest references to pipián – which simultaneously records both the name and the recipe – appears in the reports of Bernardino de Sahagún, the famed Franciscan missionary and chronicler of events among the Aztecs in central Mexico in the early 1500s:

“The lords also ate many kinds of casseroles;...one kind of casserole of fowl made in their fashion, with red chile and with tomatoes, and ground squash seeds, a dish which is now called pipián. . . “

Because of this early reference to pipián in central Mexico, some have suggested that the word is of Nahuatl origin, although that theory is of doubtful scholarship; it is certainly not of Mayan origin, since the term for pipián in Mayan is óom sikil, which translates roughly to “squash seed foam.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the word pipián (sometimes also written as pepián), does find a place in the Diccionario Breve de Mexicanismos thereby locating the dish squarely in the New World. It defines the word as “a sauce made with toasted and ground squash seeds” and in fact suggests the origin of the words pipián and pepián as perhaps simply and obviously linked to the Spanish word for seed: pepita.

Whatever its etymology, a variety of squash seed sauces were evidently made throughout pre-Columbian Mesoamerica – some purely vegetarian, and some that included local animals such as the ever-popular venado (deer). Diego de Landa, in his Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán, which he wrote in 1566, reports sampling thickened “ragouts” of venison, which could indeed have been a type of pipián. And Coe describes the pre-Columbian Maya custom of using squash seeds “. . . ground and mixed with achiote and salt and some liquid. . . “4 to make a sauce for fish or venison. This perfectly describes the delicious pipián rojo.

Regional variations of pipián still abound: pipianes in other parts of Mexico may be thickened with tortillas, bread or just the seeds themselves, whereas in Yucatán the thickening is almost always achieved with masa. The chiles used for pipián rojo in Mexico may be ancho, mulato or pasilla, whereas in Yucatán it will invariably be the tiny chile de país (chile seco) or sometimes the chile de arbol, and the red coloring will come not from the chiles but from the ubiquitous Maya condiment – achiote – as Coe describes. Another Yucatecan peculiarity is to add a touch of sourness by including ciruela (Spondias purpurea), also known as Spanish plum or purple mombin – a fruit indigenous to a broad swath of the New World tropics from southern Mexico through northern South America.

In Yucatán, the savory red sauce can be an accompaniment to any one of a long list of proteins: eggs, chaya, black beans, pheasant, quail – even iguana. But the hands-down winner by popular vote is venado, or venison. Venado en Pipián Rojo still bears the imprint of its ancient origins. Maya hunters frequently cooked what they killed on the spot, digging a hole in the jungle floor – known as a pib – and burying the meat on top of hot stones and smoldering embers. Meat left uncooked could easily spoil under the fierce Yucatecan sun in what might be a long journey home, while meat smoked in a pib would last many days as it slowly dried. The leathery toughness was relieved and the meat refreshed by re-cooking it in a sauce – frequently one composed of the plentiful squash seeds – and Venado en Pipián Rojo was born. Most modern recipes, as does ours, call not for starting out with raw venison, but rather for venison pre-cooked in a pib. The smoky quality is essential to dishes from Yucatán, such that beef cooked over a charcoal fire is a suitable substitute.
A trip to Mérida's Lucas de Gálvez market will reveal an abundant link to the Maya's past and present reliance on squash, as the above photos testify. Piles of both calabaza and calabacita are hawked daily; squash flowers enter only sporadically and are sold out before mid-day; squash seeds, both hulled and not, stuff large burlap bags alongside hibiscus blossoms and dog chow; and tubs full of toasted and ground pepitas, some pre-mixed with achiote, are sold by the scoop for a multitude of culinary uses.

1. Smith, Bruce, D. “The Initial Domestication of Cucurbita pepo in the Americas 10,000 years ago”. Science, May 9, 1997.
2. Teppner, Herwig. “Notes on Lagenaria and Cucurbita (Cucurbitaceae) – Review and New Contributions.” Horn, Austria: Phyton, Vol. 44, December 30, 2004.
3. Coe, Sophie D. America’s First Cuisines. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1994.
4. Ibid.
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