María Elidé Castillo began cooking 23 years ago at her mother’s behest. Castillo, who goes by Elidé, was a single parent in her 30s at the time and feeling the pressure of providing for her children when her mom gifted her 4 pounds’ worth of white pumpkin seeds (pepitas) and tomatoes. As her mother began roasting the tomatoes and seeds, and then grinding the ingredients, Castillo recalls her saying, “This is the knowledge that I can give you. With this you’ll feed your family, and you can either use it all or make it grow.”
Castillo’s mother knew that every home in the small town of Motul, Mexico, where the family was living at the time (they later moved to nearby Mérida), needed a condiment to use in preparing and serving alongside their meals. Taking those words to heart, Castillo started walking door to door, selling her seeds and condiments (achiote paste, habanero sauce and ground-garlic spread, to name a few). From there she moved to the local market, and in 1996 Semilla de Dioses (Seed of Gods), a cooperative focused on gourmet Yucatán condiments, was born.
Delfina Castillo Tzab joined her sister at the co-op in 2008 and describes herself as Castillo’s “official sous chef.” The more talkative of the two, Tzab clearly loves working with her sister, and the women obviously complement each other. Over the years, their co-op has developed a large following, and now chefs like Quintonil’s Jorge Vallejo Marta Cardillo and Noma’s René Redzepi source their ingredients and call on the women for their regional cuisine expertise. They currently employ eight women full time and also provide part time employment for many women and men as a result of the agricultural chain created by Semilla de Dioses.
As part of Fonda San Miguel’s 2019 All-Women Guest Chef Dinner Series, the sisters came to Austin earlier this month to prepare a multi-course Yucatán meal based around their seeds, condiments and cooking techniques. We were lucky enough to chat with the warm and knowledgeable women as they prepared the meal and thanks to translator Endy Teran-Levin, who was also instrumental in coordinating the special dinner, they were able to share a brief history of their recipes, family and the co-op.