For a third consecutive year, Chichen Itza held its annual “Habanero Eating Contest” on Father’s Day at Mercado La Paloma. Those in attendance witnessed contestants eat as much habaneros as possible within a span of 20 minutes.
Convened by the Yucatecan Chef Gilberto Zetina through its renowned restaurant, the event received great feedback from the participants.
Zetina already enjoys an excellent reputation and recognition as a chef in Los Angeles. However, looking for a way to preserve their Mayan roots and to show the world the wealth of Yucatecan food, Zetina found a way to do it through sports and fun.
“The competition basically has three years and was created with the idea of doing something fun, where the parents have a place to entertain in celebration of Father’s Day, then do the activities that we householders like,” he said. “This year we had a magnificent response from the people. We appeared on media outlets such as ESPN, Channel 9, and ABC, etc.”
Note that this contest is unique in this city and is only habanero chili, which is a symbol of the state of Yucatan cuisine. It has great nutritional properties including vitamin C, loaded well above any citrus, and it contains a unique and delicious flavor. So, logically, this colorful spicy habanero had to be the object of competition, as it is the emblem of the Mayan cuisine to the world.
Originally from the Tizimín town in Yucatan, Zetina says his love of cooking comes from an innate since he was born and raised in a restaurant. His mother had a business of this kind in his homeland; therefore, culinary activities have been a part of him his entire life.
“I have taken some culinary classes to improve my own techniques, but the recipes and the type of food I cook I learned basically from my mother,” said Zetina. “So what I did was within my own methods and ways to refine the kitchen, or rather to perfect my techniques.”
Zetina immigrated to the United States 30 years ago, but never gave up his love of cooking from his homeland. Although the road has not been easy, he has many efforts since February 2001 to succeed in owning his own restaurant.
Today, it’s recognized as the best of its kind in the city. You can certainly say people are eating authentic Yucatecan food with original ingredients.
“I specialize in Yucatan food,” he added. “I try to spread my culture through gastronomy. Yucatecan food is ranked among the top ten in the world. Its roots are Mayan, but it also has influences from Spain, Lebanon, France and the Netherlands; therefore it’s unique. There may be other cuisines with the same influences but none has the combination of Mayan roots and those influences. So that makes us different.”
One of the secrets that reveals our interviewee is that Yucatecan cuisine is based on a few ingredients like tropical fruits, sour orange, spices like achiote and banana leafs, which are key to their development. These elements are what distinguishes the Yucatecan cuisine and not used anywhere else in the world.
The habanero pepper was the main actor of the competition, which offered cash prizes, $500, $300 and $200, respectively, and a medal in recognition of the first three places.
The crowd gathered at the restaurant to see the ten contestants compete. It involved two women willing to give battle to eight men, which spiced the competition even more.
Another curious fact is that the competition had opponents of different breeds including an American, an African American and an Asian. It was diverse, just as L.A. is.
The competition consisted of the 10 participants eating as many habaneros in a span of 20 minutes. The previous record of peppers eaten was 30, but two contestants broke that mark this year: Maria and Martin, whom each consumed 32 habaneros and won in first place tie.
Between joy and happiness, Zetina announced that this year was unusual, yet historic for the competition having two first place winners, two placing second, and two others that tied in third.