Yucatecan cuisine, from Mayan to Middle Eastern

Over the centuries, the Yucatecans adopted a variety of ingredients and put their own spin on some eastern Mediterranean dishes.

Roasted Tomato and ground pumpkin-seed dip is best eaten with tortilla chips. (photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Roasted Tomato and ground pumpkin-seed dip is best eaten with tortilla chips.
(photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Vegetarian dishes aren’t common at casual Mexican eateries, but vegetables starred on the menu celebrating the publication of the Spanish edition of Sabores Yucatecos: A Culinary Tour of the Yucatán, by chef Gilberto Cetina, Katharine A. Diaz and Gilberto Cetina, Jr.
Cetina is the chef-owner of Chichen Itza restaurant in Los Angeles, named for the Mayan city that’s famous for its impressive step-pyramid temple. Through gastronomy, Cetina wants to familiarize people with the culture of his native Yucatán, the peninsula in southeast Mexico that borders the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.
Instead of the typical meat tamales, chef Cetina served two kinds of vegetarian vaporcitos, or steamed tamales filled with corn dough – one flavored with spinach- like chaya leaves native to Yucatán, the other with black-eyed peas. They were steamed in banana leaves and accompanied by a savory tomato sauce. There was also an elaborate rolled brazo de reina, or queen’s arm tamale; it was made of chaya leaf-flavored corn dough enclosing chopped hard-boiled eggs and ground toasted pumpkin seeds, and was served in slices. This is a pre-Columbian tamale, said Cetina, but the Mayans used eggs of other birds, not of chickens.
There were vegetables in the cooling bright-green beverage made from chaya leaves, and even in the dessert – pastelitos, or turnovers filled with sweet potato and coconut.
“Only a few of the dishes in my book are purely Mayan,” said Cetina. Over the centuries, the Yucatecans adopted a variety of ingredients and cooking techniques from the Spaniards. They acquired a fondness for Edam cheese from the Dutch and for French bread from the French, and put their own spin on some eastern Mediterranean dishes.
At Mexican markets, when we have asked shoppers how they use eggplants, invariably they said they don’t. But Yucatecans do use eggplant. This may be due to the influence of Yucatán’s large Lebanese community on its cuisine. Chef Cetina uses eggplant in a dip, for which he grills a whole eggplant studded with peeled garlic cloves, purees the grilled eggplant and the garlic, blends them with raw eggs and gradually beats in oil as if making mayonnaise.
Using a similar technique as for the eggplant dip, Cetina also makes a chickpea dip called crema de garbanzo. While acknowledging the Middle Eastern influence on this appetizer, he makes it without tahini and explained that it “is not to be confused with humous.” Instead, he purees cooked or canned chickpeas with eggs, and then slowly adds oil to obtain a creamy consistency.
Kubbeh, the celebrated Middle Eastern meat and grain patty, is another popular dish in Yucatán, where it is called kibis. I asked Cetina how his is different. “I add fresh mint to the seasonings, and I serve my kibis with habanero chilies.” He turns the super-hot peppers into a salsa (sauce) to serve on the side, or uses them to flavor the pickled red onions that top the kibis.
Cetina’s tasty kibis are easier to make than classic Middle Eastern fried ones. Instead of stuffing bulgur-wheat shells with meat filling, he mixes the soaked bulgur wheat with the seasoned ground meat, shapes the mixture in flat disks and fries them.
Although Yucatecans love the lantern-shaped habanero chilies, which, wrote Cetina, are thought to have originated in the Yucatán Peninsula, the food we sampled was not very piquant. When using the chilies, “proceed with caution,” advised Cetina, “... unless you or those for whom you are cooking can really handle the heat. You can always offer the chili on the side.” He noted that these chilies are hot even if you remove their seeds and veins.
Habanero chilies flavor the chef’s pumpkin seed dip, which for us was one of the highlights of the luncheon. This dish, which is said to date back to the Mayans, is made of ground roasted pumpkin seeds and fire-roasted tomatoes, with the roasted hot peppers as an optional addition.
For customers who are fond of fiery food, the chef is providing a special occasion to enjoy it. Chichen Itza restaurant will soon host its annual habanero-eating contest
Faye Levy is the author of the award-winning Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook and Feast from the Mideast.
Meat and Bulgur Wheat Patties with Mint (Kibis)
This recipe is from Sabores Yucatecos. “The secret to making good kibis,” wrote chef Gilberto Cetina, “lies in the soaking of the bulgur. Do not soak too long or the grains will pop like popcorn when you fry your kibis; don’t undersoak or they will be dry and hard.” He serves the kibis on a bed of colorful cabbage relish.
Serves about 8 to 10; makes about 25 to 30 kibis
❖ 450 gr. (1 pound) medium bulgur wheat
❖ 3¾ liters (1 gallon) water
❖ 450 gr. (1 pound) ground beef
❖ 30 fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
❖ 1½ to 2 tsp. salt
❖ 1½ to 2 tsp. ground black pepper
❖ Vegetable oil for frying
❖ Cabbage relish (see Note below)
❖ Quick pickled red onions (see Note below)
❖ Hot chili salsa (see Note below)
Soak bulgur in 4 times its volume of water (about 3¾ liters or 1 gallon) in a large bowl. Let soak for 1 hour.
Drain bulgur in a colander, pressing to squeeze out the excess water. Mix ground beef, chopped mint, salt and pepper into bulgur with your hands.
Moisten your fingertips and palms with vegetable oil. Scoop out 55-gr. (2-ounce) balls of mixture with your hands (or use a No. 18 scoop). Slap the ball a couple of times between your palms to compact the mixture. Shape into a plump disc about 5 cm. (2 inches) in diameter. Repeat until all meat-bulgur mixture is used.
Heat about 2.5 cm. (1 inch) oil in a deep frying pan. Drop several kibis into the oil (do not crowd) and fry on both sides until golden and crispy on the outside and soft and tender inside, about 2 to 3 minutes on each side. You can also deep fry them at 190ºC (375ºF).
Remove and drain on paper towels. Repeat until all kibis are done.
To serve, spoon cabbage relish on a platter. Arrange kibis on top and top them with pickled onions. Serve salsa separately.
Cabbage Relish: Cut ¼ head cabbage, ¼ sweet red pepper and ¼ sweet green pepper in thin strips and toss them. Chop 4 to 6 sprigs fresh coriander and add to mixture. Add 1 shredded carrot, 2 to 4 Tbsp. white vinegar and 1 to 1½ tsp. salt. Taste and adjust seasoning. If possible, refrigerate several hours.
Pickled Red Onions: Combine 1 chopped red onion, ¼ cup white vinegar, ¼ cup water and ¾ tsp. salt in a bowl; liquid should completely cover onions. Cover with plastic wrap and let stand for 15 minutes, in or out of refrigerator; or serve immediately.
Hot Chili Salsa: The chef specifies using habanero peppers that are not green, but you can substitute other hot peppers. Use caution when handling them. Bring 4 cups water to a boil and add 450 grams (1 pound) hot peppers, 225 gr. (½ pound) diced white onion and 4 peeled garlic cloves. Boil 15 to 20 minutes or until chilies fall apart. Let cool. Put mixture in a blender along with 1/3 cup white vinegar and 2 Tbsp. salt. Blend to a fairly smooth mixture. For a thickened salsa, mix 4 Tbsp. cornstarch with 2 Tbsp. water until smooth. Pour salsa into a pot over medium-high heat and add cornstarch paste little by little, stirring constantly. Cook until slightly thickened. Makes about 4 cups.
Roasted Tomato and Ground Pumpkin Seed Dip (Sikil Pac)
Ground toasted pumpkin seeds are popular in Yucatecan cuisine for making sauces. They are also used to make marzipan, a New World take on the Old Word sweet made with almonds.
This recipe is from Sabores Yucatecos. Cetina wrote that the roasted hot chili adds a lot of character to the roasted tomato sauce that is blended with the pumpkin seeds, but noted that it’s optional – and suggests you could start with one quarter chili.
You can garnish the dip with whole toasted pumpkin seeds, diced tomatoes and chopped chives. Serve with tortilla chips.
Makes about 1½ cups
❖ 1 habanero or other hot pepper, roasted and chopped (optional)
❖ ¾ cup ground toasted pumpkin seeds (see Note below)
❖ ¾ cup roasted tomato sauce (see Note below)
❖ ¼ bunch cilantro (fresh coriander), finely chopped
❖ 2 Tbsp. finely chopped chives or green onions
❖ ½ tsp. salt, or to taste
If using a hot pepper, roast it on a gas burner or in a skillet in a well-ventilated area, until charred and softened but not burnt.
In a bowl, mix the ground toasted seeds, roasted tomato sauce, chopped roasted chili, cilantro and chives. Add salt to taste.
Ground Toasted Pumpkin Seeds: Using about 225 gr. (½ pound) hulled pumpkin seeds, toast them in batches: Heat a griddle or skillet over medium heat. Spread pumpkin seeds evenly, in one layer, over the bottom of the pan. Toast seeds, flipping occasionally with a spatula, until golden and crunchy; do not burn. Let cool. Finely grind the cooled seeds in a food processor or coffee grinder. Keep any extra ground toasted seeds refrigerated in an airtight container.
Roasted Tomato Sauce: Roast 10 medium plum tomatoes and 1 habanero or other hot pepper (optional) on a griddle or in a skillet, over low to medium heat, until they are charred on the outside and soft. Let cool. Put them in a food processor, pulse into small chunks and transfer to a bowl. Chop 3 or 4 sprigs cilantro. Add cilantro and ½ tsp. salt to tomato mixture. Makes about 2 cups.