Los Angeles is home to people from many countries who share their culture, and their food, with their neighbors. We talk with a family with roots in southern Mexico that is preserving and teaching others about their culinary traditions.
Gilberto Cetina Jr. and his father are conducting a special class to teach high school students about the food of Yucatan, their native state in southern Mexico. The food is distinctive, with marinades made from tropical spices and citrus.
Chef Cetina says his restaurant, called Chichen Itza after an ancient city of the Mayan people, appeals to people of all ethnicities. “We try to show our culture to the world,” he said.
Gilberto Cetina Senior worked for 20 years as an engineer. But for the past 11 years, he and his son have run this small restaurant in a Los Angeles marketplace. Critics have praised their cooking and included Chichen Itza on lists of the top Latino restaurants in the country.
Some of the food is standard Mexican fare, including tortillas, the ubiquitous Mexican flatbread. Other dishes have roots in the cultures of southern Mexico: the ancient Mayans and the more recent Lebanese immigrants. When they settled in Yucatan a century ago, they introduced a popular treat called kibis, fried patties of meat, bulgur wheat, mint and spices. Dutch merchants brought gouda cheese, which is now a local staple.
The signature dish, called cochinita pibil, is pork simmered in spices and wrapped in banana leaves.
The lives of Mexican immigrants revolve around family -- often extended families whose members live in both the United States and Mexico. Son Gilberto Cetina Junior was raised on both sides of the border. “So I really got to experience the culture, the food. I was very involved with our family and obviously, anything that involves family with us involved cooking,” he explained.
The Cetinas have shared their family recipes in a cookbook called Sabores Yucatecos, or Yucatan Flavors. Most of the recipes come from Gilberto Cetina Senior’s mother and had never been written down.
Coauthor Katharine Diaz says the Yucatan peninsula, although a part of Mexico, remained somewhat isolated after the Spanish conquest 500 years ago. “And so it’s always maintained a bit of independence. Hence, its food is very different as well,” she stated.
Members of this immigrant family take pride in sharing their cuisine and traditions with their neighbors.