Chef-author David Sterling is presenting at Saturday's second SA Book Festival with a few dishes from Yucatan, Merida. The Current talked to the chef, owner of Los Dos Cooking School, about writing this first book and his beloved Yucatan cuisine.
Was there any extra pressure when Diana Kennedy said you should write a book?
I'm still terrified. I know she's seen the book, she wrote a blurb for the book cover, but I don't think she's read the whole thing. We have a really great relationship, I just adore her. We have little disagreements about food. I know there's things she'll be horrified from the book, but she'll come to peace with it.
Ooh, disagreements? About what?
One particular thing that comes up is a discussion we had about panuchos. I have to preface and say that I have the ultimate respect for her and in her defense she's a generalist (of Mexican cuisine), but right now for the past 10-12 years, it stands to reason that I might have a little more insight into certain details. It all started when she came and taught a class with me on Christmas and we topped the panuchos with grilled chicken. In the '50s when she was here, there were making them with sauced pollo en escabeche. I pointed out that simply, like all foods, panuchos evolved. They originated in the late 1800s, early 1900 as away for people to use leftovers. Panuchos are hollowed tortillas filled with refried beans, frijol colado, pickled onions. Eventually they became extremely popular here, panucherias sprang up all over Merida and the popular thing to do was to go with your date and a female chaperone and eat there. Panucherias, by the time Diana was here, had evolved and they were using pollo en escabeche. Now you see just about everything on top of panuchos.
What's your cooking philosophy?
I don't adre to the idea of authenticiy of cooking. People, chefs, cooks like to play with their food and that's as it should be. A constant continuum.
What was moving to Merida like?
Assimilating was difficult, but not as difficult as you might think. I remember six months in, at 5'9" I stood out. But by now, and yes I still get some looks I guess you might say, I have a lot of friends here, but occasionally it's like who is this gringo doing this cooking thing? Still the overwhelming reaction is that they're so proud of their food and can't believe a gringo would take such profound interest. Their pride in the food outweighs anything else.
What will you be cooking on Saturday?
I'll be making two recipes. One's a sikil p'ak, of toasted ground squash seeds. It's eaten as a dip with totopos. In the olden days, you'd eat it by taking a tortilla and grabbing a fistful of it. The other dish is a crema de cilantro soup. You start with leek and potato soup base, add in Serrano chiles, squash and a ton of cilantro–about 2 cups of tightly packed cilantro. It's got a very fresh herbaceous taste, and its not for the cilantro averse. You serve it hot in Yucatan. I tried to serve chilled soups here and they don't get–they want soup to be hot.
Sterling will present at 4 p.m. inside the Central Market Cooking Tent.