Bienvenidos a Los Dos: Yucatan: A Culinary Expedition

About Chef David Sterling
The Urban Matrix: Mérida
The Lebanese connection
ONLY A FEW MONTHS AFTER MOVING TO YUCATÁN, I was invited by a local community pillar to a lavish Christmas party in his fabulous mansion. The place was festooned with garlands of fresh fir (I still have no idea where he acquired them), and scores of candles added sparkle to the magical night air. A chamber group had been hired for the evening, and the dining room’s enormous main table as well as two sideboards were groaning with tempting delicacies. Some of these were the usual suspects: smoked salmon with hollandaise, a giant bouquet of pink shrimp, paté. And others were festive local additions: empanadas, chorizo, guacamole. This was the first time, however, that I had been introduced to another whole set of party finger food possibilities in Mérida: tabbouleh, baba ganoush, pita, kibbehs. I realized these were a few of the traditional mezze – or finger food snacks – so typical of Arabic countries. Only later did I discover how they came to be here. Welcome to the exotic flavor of the mideast in Yucatán! Don’t be surprised when it bumps into tacos and lechón on your plate! Savor the mixture and you will begin to understand the true complexity of regional Yucatecan cuisine. – David Sterling

LITTLE KNOWN TO FIRST-TIME VISITORS TO MEXICO is the fact that the country has been enriched by many outside cultural influences, much like the melting pot that we consider the United States to be. Prominent among these influences are the Arabic/Islamic cultures that began to transmit their heritage via the Andalusians arriving on the first ships to land in Yucatán, and that experienced a second wave of influx in the last half of the 19th century.

In 1511, as a result of a shipwreck off the coast of Cuba, a Spanish priest named Jerónimo de Aguilar became the first European to set foot in Yucatán, and therefore in the country that was later to be named Mexico. By 1519, Hernán Cortés arrived and the bloody conquest of this exotic land began. Many of the first Spaniards to arrive in Yucatán were from Andalucía – currently the southernmost province of Spain but at that time a realm occupying virtually the entire lower half of the Iberic peninsula. In 711, Iberia had been invaded by the Moors – Islamic warriors from Arabia and North Africa – who claimed the vast region for themselves and named it al-Andalus. The Moors ruled Andalucía for some 800 years, and marked it with the stamp of their own culture known for its ornate palaces, manicured gardens, fountains and of course, culinary riches.

Naturally, the first Spanish settlers of New Spain wanted to enjoy all the familiar comforts and foods of home, and so they brought with them from Andalucía the things that in turn had been brought by the Moors: cherries, apricots, melons, parsley, cilantro, eggplant, garbanzos, fava beans, lentils, cardamom, almonds, sesame seeds, pistachios, capers and raisins. Many other ingredients, for example the mango, cinnamon, citrus, ginger, coffee and especially cane sugar, succeeded in being slowly acclimatized in American soils and, above all, in the palates of its inhabitants.

It has been said that the 19th century represents the second discovery of Mexico, although this time the protagonists were not armed conquerors and monks, but businessmen, adventurers, diplomats and in general people looking for a new land in which to live. The result was that toward the end of the 19th century, different communities – French, Lebanese, Italian and Jewish – crossed the Atlantic. Once again, their culinary customs mixed with the local gastronomy.

In the years between 1880 and 1910, the first wave of Lebanese immigrants, mostly Christians, arrived in Mexico, driven from their native land by the oppression of the Islamic Ottoman regime, rife with religious tensions and political instability. These immigrants arrived on Mexico's eastern shores and settled in the Yucatán peninsula, as well as in the Gulf coast ports of Veracruz and Tampico.

During World War I, the Ottomans sealed off the entire mountain range that runs through central Lebanon, creating severe conditions of famine. Many of those who were able to escape came to Mexico and became providers of food and arms during the Mexican Revolution. During the 1920s and 1930s, thousands more Lebanese arrived, and Mexico's oil boom of the 1930s witnessed most of them settling on the Gulf coast. Some continued into central Mexico in the same decades, but it was not until the 1940s, with the influx of World War II refugees and the reunification of many Lebanese Mexican families, that large numbers of them migrated to Mexico City and Puebla. However, the largest group of Mexicans of Lebanese descent still lives in Mérida, Yucatán.

The Lebanese quickly assimilated in their new land, becoming productive contributors to the local culture and economy. In an atmosphere tolerant of their ancient customs, they succeeded in conserving a large part of their traditions, including their culinary heritage.

Fortuitously, many of the ingredients they used on a daily basis had arrived with those early Spaniards some 400 years earlier. Therefore, a trip to the local market produced virtually all the essential ingredients needed to prepare favorite dishes. Tabbuleh, for example, could be concocted with very few problems. The original recipe calling for wheat semolina with olive oil and citrus juice, parsley, tomato, salt and pepper was only lacking fresh spearmint. Some Yucatecan and Campechano recipes called for the addition of cucumber, onion and juice of the ubiquitous naranja agria (Seville or sour orange). The acceptance of this salad in the peninsula was overwhelming; in fact, this recipe is frequently an important feature of antique regional cookbooks in which it is identified as ensalada árabe (Arabic salad). Similarly, fattoush – a salad devised to employ stale pita bread – includes the same ingredients as tabbouleh as well as garbanzos or eggplant, and any other vegetable that may be in season.

It is thought that a variant of these mixtures possibly gave birth to x’nipek, the recipe for which is really quite similar to tabbuleh: finely chopped tomato, onion, cilantro, salt and sour orange juice and a purely local ingredient – the chile habanero – which was slowly included in certain other Lebanese dishes as well.
For the first immigrants, it was also relatively easy to find or make things like jocoque (a fresh cheese made of drained cow’s milk yogurt), sharmula or chermula (a sauce and marinade comprised of parsley, cilantro, garlic, cumin, olive oil, pepper and vinegar) and sweets based on almonds and sugar, such marzipan and its many variations. (And the exchange works both ways: local Maya women have adapted the traditional recipe for marzipan and substitute pumpkin seeds for the almonds – a treat found in every street stall.) And favored dishes such as fish in tahini (a sauce composed of sesame seeds and sometimes olive oil) could be prepared without missing a beat. In the decade of the 1950s, pita bread – known here as pan árabe – was prepared artisanally by Mérida’s Lebanese families and delivered door to door wrapped in brown paper. Nowadays all of these foods are widely available in Yucatecan supermarkets, produced by small companies and global conglomerates alike.

In this way, many of the Lebanese ancestral recipes were preserved intact. However, some essential ingredients were less readily available, if at all: grape leaves, olives, lamb, as well as certain condiments. In these cases Lebanese cooks were left with no choice but to borrow elements from their new land.

The incorporation of new ingredients into old recipes resulted in a hybrid cuisine that is now legendary in the region. For example, the kibbeh or kibi – which in the ancestral homeland was always made from lamb in its diverse preparations, whether raw, fried or baked – now had to be prepared with beef, deer, fish or potatoes. This adaptation therefore secured the place of kibis as a favorite among Yucatecan Lebanese families, and further, naturalized it as a real Yucatecan dish. To such an extent have kibis been adapted to Yucatecan tastes that they have become a street delicacy that today are still offered in cities like Mérida and Campeche by roving vendors. Another local touch is that they are served with pico de gallo or x’nipek instead of yogurt or hummus.

Other typical Lebanese meat dishes also replaced lamb – uncommon in the Maya world – with pork. The famous mideast finger food featuring chopped lamb and rice wrapped in grape leaves had to be almost totally Mexicanized, if not to say “Yucatecanized”: the grape leaves were replaced with chard or even chaya in the Maya world, while the lamb was replaced with beef or pork. And the traditional spit-roasted meat called shawarma – generally comprised of layers of seasoned lamb on a vertical skewer that rotates in front of a flame – evolved locally with the substitution of pork marinated in achiote with a pineapple balanced on top. Thin pieces of pork and pineapple are shaved off of the skewer and onto a fresh tortilla. The now-Mexicanized name of this dish – tacos al pastor, or shepherd’s taco – reveals its ancient mideastern roots and belies its principal ingredient, which would no doubt be viewed as a scandalous twist in the pork-eschewing land of its origin. Again, this taco is finished – and localized – by the diner’s own addition of chile tamulado, x’nipek, lime juice or other typical condiments.

Today, Mexico's Lebanese, who number about 400,000 in a country of 100 million, have become proud Mexicans, and many of them are prominent members of the society. Carlos Slim, the business magnate and Latin America’s wealthiest man, is the son of a Lebanese immigrant father. In Mérida, the Chedraui and Chapur families are successful merchants, owning empires of supermarkets and department stores, respectively. And Alberto Salum, whose grandparents were part of the great surge of refugees to Yucatán at the turn of the last century, is owner of the famed Alberto’s Continental – part restaurant, part social center, part cultural icon – for almost 40 years a meeting place of Mérida’s Lebanese families and still a place to load up a plate with kibis and hummus, and savor the faraway flavors of Lebanon.
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