Cooking in Cobá
My husband and I both have birthdays at the end of May. We were married on the 16th of that month as well. For years we have celebrated these as a combined occasion, usually with an extended adventure. It has become known as our “birthiversary.” This past May was no exception when we traveled to the Yucatán Peninsula for Birthiversary 2016: Mayan Edition.
If you read my last post, you’ll recall that bees were part of the adventure at Casa Itzamná. In that post I mentioned that there were other stories yet to be shared from our day in Cobá. And wouldn’t you be disappointed if our adventures hadn’t involved food? Of course you would. I do not like to disappoint.
The Casa Itzamná experience continued after we met the beautiful little Melipona I introduced you to. We had a tour of the garden and saw many of the plants that have been–and continue to be–used for food and medicine by the Mayan people. And then there was a small cooking lesson. See? I told you I do not like to disappoint.
One of the first things you might note in the picture below is that the Mayan women I am learning from are tiny and that I am, well, a giant. This is not a trick of perspective, it is the reality of the situation. Then, if you’re anything like me, the second thing you’ll notice is the collection of wooden mortars and the gorgeous molcajete carved from local stone. It is in this molcajete that we prepared a traditional Mayan dish ‘Sikhil Pák’, a dish that is a mix between a hummus and a pesto. Recipes abound on the interwebs but I have tried to recreate the one we made and have included it at the end of this post.
But what can’t be captured in a recipe, is the experience I had cooking with these women, Hermalinda (left) and Alberta (right). They spoke in Mayan while I tried desperately to communicate in bungled present-tense Spanish and with wild gestures that might have resembled interpretive dance.
I try to cook with locals whenever I travel since cooking together can not only break down cultural barriers, it can help bring to the surface cultural biases that often stop one from seeing a situation through someone else’s eyes. Someone whose life experiences are vastly different from one’s own. Such was the case when Alberta tried to teach me how to form tortillas by hand. Her tortillas were small and perfect and made at the speed of light. Mine, on the other hand, were misshapen blobs that tore under the force of my big gringa paws. For every 5 perfect tortillas she made, I managed to eek out one sub-standard tortilla-like object.
Alberta looked from my mangled tortillas to Kevin and back again before muttering something to Hermalinda who looked up at the gentleman acting as a translator and posed a question. The translator smiled and said, “They would like to know how many times a day you make tortillas.” I laughed and said, “I don’t. Isn’t that obvious?” Again, they glanced at Kevin, who appears to be fed well enough, and asked, “Who makes your tortillas?”
And then it dawned on me that these women made tortillas several times a day to feed hungry families (not to mention hungry travelers like us) and that they could not imagine a world in which a woman did not do this. They also could not imagine a world where fresh, warm tortillas were not a part of every meal. Likewise, my initial response revealed much about my life. These women assumed that I had someone else make my tortillas (because, again, it was a foregone conclusion that our meals included tortillas and it was apparent I lacked skill in this area). I told them that, when we did eat tortillas, I bought them at the store. They seemed disappointed and shrugged as if to say, “Well, how unfortunate for you and your family.” I cannot disagree.
Kevin pointed out that this was the Mexican version of my Wait, you teach what? moment in Cambodia. He was spot on with that observation.
Once I was released (banished?) from our cooking circle around the fire, Kevin and I were invited to have lunch, which included the hot-off-the-comal tortillas, the sikhil pák I had helped prepare, and other traditional Mayan delights. The recipe below is what I recall from that hot, humid, tortilla-filled afternoon.
Have you experienced similar cultural a-has when traveling? I’d love to hear your stories.
- 2 plum tomatoes, cored
- 1 small onion, sliced into 1/2″ rounds
- 1 jalapeño
- 1 cup pumpkin seeds toasted in a dry skillet
- 1/4 – 1/2 of a habañero chile, finely minced
- 2 – 3 T cilantro, coarsely chopped
- 2 – 3 T chives, coarsely chopped
- 1 lime, zested and juiced
- Salt, to taste
- Heat a well-seasoned comal or cast iron skillet over high heat. Once it is quite hot, add tomatoes, jalapeño, and onion rounds. Cook, moving the vegetables from time to time, until the chile is blackened and blistered all around (about 4 minutes), the onions are seared on both sides and somewhat softened (about 4 minutes), and the tomatoes are blackened, softened and the skin is beginning to peel off (about 6-7 minutes). Set the vegetable aside and allow them to cool.
- Meanwhile, grind the toasted pumpkin seeds using a mortar and pestle, molcajete (pictured above) or by pulsing them in a blender. Remove to a separate bowl.
- Once the vegetables are cooled, peel the skin off the tomatoes and the pepper (wear gloves when working with chiles if you have sensitive skin). Discard the skin and coarsely chop the tomatoes; finely mince the jalapeño. Add these chopped vegetables, along with the minced habañero to the mortar (or blender) and mash (or pulse) into a thick paste. Add the herbs and continue to process until incorporated.
- Now add in the toasted and ground pumpkin seeds.
- Stir in lime juice and salt to taste. Serve with corn chips, carrot rounds, or, if you’re felling up to the challenge, warm, handmade tortillas.
You’ll note that Alberta’s sikhil pák (pictured above) is quite a bit soupier that what I prepared. She simply added water to hers but I prefer a drier, more spreadable consistency. Add water. Or don’t. Your choice!