Cooking with seeds: Semillas en la cocina
This month, as the Equinox marks the start of spring, the idea of planting a garden begins to seem like more than a distant dream. Northerners look toward the return of warmer weather, and south-of-the-border farmers anticipate the advent of the rainy season. But, while the time for sowing seeds is still at least a month away, using them in the kitchen is a year-round practice in Mexico.
A culinary legacy of the pre-Hispanic people, cooking with seeds remains an important and nutritious aspect of Mexican cuisine. All seeds contain some type of stored-up energy used by young plants in the first phases of their lives, and the ancient Mesoamericans made use of this energy, most often found in seeds as carbohydrates and fats, as a significant part of their dietary needs. (Beans, while botanically considered to be seeds, more commonly store energy in the form of protein and have been discussed in an earlier column, Fabulous Frijoles: Mexico's Versatile Legumes, October 1999.)
Besides being nutritious, seeds contributed to the flavor and texture of such foods as tamales, mullis - the precursors of mole - porridges and beverages. So highly esteemed were edible seeds that two of them, chia and amaranth, were used as tribute grains to the Aztec emperor. Others, such as achiote, were used for mild flavor and, most importantly, color.
Achiote (annatto) is a red coloring and flavoring derived from the seeds of the bixa orellana, a decorative tropical shrub native to Latin America and later brought by the Spaniards to the Philippines. Used by both Aztec and Maya people to color chocolate beverages, achiote was of ritual importance to the Maya, who prized it for its color, which was substituted for blood in offering religious sacrifices. The dark red seeds, called ciui by the Maya, are nowadays made into a delicious paste used to season cochinita pibil and many other characteristic dishes of the Yucatan. Annatto seeds are also used to color oil, butter, margarine and cheese.
Another edible seed whose use dates to pre-Hispanic times is the chia ( Salvia hispanica). Aztec runners, bringing perishables from far-flung parts of the empire, subsisted on chia seeds during their journeys, as did warriors going into battle. The Tarahumara people of Chihuahua, known as champion long-distance runners, still use chia seeds, which absorb twelve times their weight in water, to prolong hydration. These small bundles of nutrition provide all essential amino acids, omega 3 fatty acids, antioxidants and fiber, as well as containing 19-23% protein by weight. The gel-forming property of chia seeds slows digestion, thus maintaining balanced blood sugar levels. Mexicans make a delicious, refreshing beverage called agua de chia, which is particularly popular during Semana Santa (Holy Week) which falls this month (2005).
Another popular drink is made with papaya ( Carica papaya), a fruit used extensively in blended drinks and salads and for tenderizing meat, but less well known for its seeds. Said to have anti-parasitic properties, fresh papaya seeds resemble black peppercorns and have a similarly distinctive taste when ground with other ingredients to make dressings and condiments. Their lively flavor has also been likened to those of mustard and cress, and lends a distinctive flavor as well as a tenderizing quality to meat marinades. Mexican natural healers tout papaya seeds as remedies for menstrual, liver and spleen ailments, as well as being used as a vermifuge. Although they contain carpine, a substance that acts as a nervous system depressant, the amount of fresh seeds used in natural remedies and recipes is most likely too small to make carpine effective.
A seed with a distinctive substance of its own is that of the chile ( Capsicum annuum), which comes in hundreds of varieties throughout Mexico. Found in the Tehuacan valley of southern Puebla in sites dating back to 7200B.C., chiles come in several shapes, sizes, colors and degrees of piquancy. Although they contain vitamins A and C, the main attraction of chiles is as a flavoring, specifically because they contain capsaicin, the pungent substance produced in the placenta, the seed-bearing part of the chile. Capsaicim is not water soluble, and can only be dissolved in either fat or alcohol, so the chile seeds used to add extra piquancy to soups, stews, moles and pipians must be sautéed in oil or fat as part of a recipe.
Other seeds used commonly in moles and pipians are those of the pumpkin or squash (cucurbitaceae.) Known in Mexico as pepitas, pumpkin and squash seeds are found roasted and salted in nearly every street corner snack stand and are nutritionally far preferable to chips. In pre-Hispanic times, the most important edible part of the squash was the seed, eaten raw or toasted, ground with chiles to make a mulli, or used to fabricate sweets. The pepita bars in hardened sugar syrup sold today, similar to peanut brittle, are most likely descendents of a similar confection made with honey before sugar was introduced by the Europeans. When they did arrive, the Spaniards were quick to notice that pepitas, ground and sweetened, would be an excellent and economical substitute for the almonds used in making the Spanish nougat candy called turron. In early colonial Mexico City, this was sometimes molded into shapes and even gilded to adorn the dessert courses of the very wealthy. Today, in addition to being used in sweets, pepitas continue to be an important ingredient in many of the finest Mexican regional dishes, especially in the green pipians of Central Mexico and the papadzules of the Yucatan.
The third important mole and pipian seed, sesame (sesamum indicum), was introduced to Mexico by the Europeans. Generally recognized as being native to East India, sesame is one of the most widely used foods in the world, with names for it in nearly sixty known languages. With over 50% fatty oil and 25% protein, sesame is valued for both flavor and nutrition. The antioxidant called sesamic gives it a good shelf life, and toasting brings out its nutty flavor. The seeds are lierally bursting with energy, and the fact that they pop open upon ripening led to the expression "open sesame." Today Mexico is one of the top five exporters of sesame in the world, and claims it as an integral part of its national dish, mole poblano.
The following recipes using the aforementioned seeds will expand anyone's Mexican culinary repertoire and add a great deal of the nutrition and energy found in seeds. For a discussion of the important pre-Hispanic seed amaranth, as well as several amaranth recipes, see Mexico's Grain of the Gods: Cooking with Amaranth