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.
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Elidé and Delfina, who were visiting Austin for the first time, called it an “honor to bring their gastronomy here.” Beautifully dressed, Elidé made a point of mentioning her attire, which consisted of two parts: a hand-embroidered colorful tunic and an all-white underskirt, whose material resembled lace, both unique to the Yucatán.
Elidé says, “I felt school was not for me, and this is why my mother suggested for me to go into cooking. I wasn’t too sure about it, but I took her advice. I thought I would have to sell a lot in order to support my children. I would buy and sell every day. During the day, I would sell, and at night, I would cook my products. It was very tiring, but this way I could keep my children with me in the kitchen. Soon I realized I could sell my products at events also. I never imagined my talent would be in the kitchen. My mother was right. She told me: Follow my dreams and you will always have food on the table.”
Elidé’s recipes were also used in preparing the pigs and turkeys that were cooked as part of her town’s annual gremio, or festival of the saints, celebration. Bringing her food to this large audience was instrumental in the co-op’s gaining a large word-of-mouth following. “Elidé first began working with spices and the condiments and then later became interested in working with what spice went with what meat, or what vegetable, and how to combine them,” explains Delfina.
From a family of nine, Delfina and Elidé’s five siblings have chosen a path of self-employment or business ownership. “Our parents were an example of work and dedication,” recalls Elidé. “My dad was a farmer, and my mom was a housewife and would do laundry for other people. They always had a purpose and taught us the same. My mom, she would always cook at lunchtime, and in the evening would transform it into something else. On Monday, it’s very typical to eat pork with beans. Then later that evening, she would blend the meat and the beans with spices, refry that, and spread it on bread [something akin to a French baguette].”
A sikil pak, or Mayan pumpkin seed dip, is the basis for the salsa prepared by the sisters during our time together. Using a molcajete and temolote, or mortar and pestle, Delfina and Elidé added roasted habanero, salt, roasted tomato, chives, sikil pak (a thick paste made from whole roasted pepitas), sour orange and more salt to taste.
Notes photographer Mackenzie Smith Kelley, “Elidé let us taste the salsa by spooning a small amount onto the thick pad of the palm of our hands. And the sisters did it themselves several times before declaring the sauce to be finished. This was a sweet — and efficient — way to taste a sauce without contaminating the whole batch or dirtying up a bunch of spoons.”
“Lunch is the biggest meal, and then in the evening, it’s a merienda, or a lighter meal,” explains Endy, who was also born and raised in Mexico.
Guests were greeted with a festive cocktail in the restaurant’s colorful atrium before moving to the dining room, where owner Tom Gilliland introduced Elidé and Delfina.
Delfina and Elidé prepared two menus — one vegetarian and one that involved meat. This dish, called ts’am chaak chay con joroches de frijol negro, was earthy and meaty.