Pumpkin Seeds or Pepitas: A Little History, Some Fun Facts, Benefits, Uses, and Recipes
by Victoria Challancin
Thanks to various well-respected documents from such historical sources as Padre Bernard Sahagun and the modern America’s First Cuisines by Sophie D Coe, we know a great deal about what was eaten in the ancient Mesoamerican world. In societies whose only domesticated animals were dogs, turkeys, and a type of waterfowl similar to a duck, the population had to look elsewhere for its protein sources. While the widespread use of insects, worms, spirulina algae, seafood, and wild animals provided some protein, vegetable sources provided the rest. And among the vegetables most prized, were the squashes of the Curcubitaceae family, whose flesh, flowers, and seeds enriched the diets of the indigenous people of ancient Mexico, just as they do today.
In addition to such commonly known plants as gourds, cucumbers, and melons the Cucurbitaceae family gives us the ever-popular pumpkin, whose seeds, known as pepitas in Spanish, appear in various culinary guises throughout modern Mexico. Sold in packets, either commercially-made or hand-packaged by local vendors, pumpkin seeds are offered as economical snacks, made into a brittle candy, pressed into oil, and ground as a base for the red and green pípian sauces, pumpkins seeds are extremely popular in Mexico today. They are available both hulled and unhulled, toasted or raw, salted or not. Mixed with sunflower seeds, peanuts, and sprinkled with lime juice and chile, they are a stand-out with a cold beer on a hot day.
Like many other seeds, pepitas pack a nutritional wallop as a good source of vitamins, minerals, protein, amino acids, and unsaturated fats. Specifically, they include manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, copper, zinc, soluble and insoluble fiber, and vitamins E, B (especially niacin), and K. They are also not a commonly allergenic food, which also enhances their appeal. And although they contain up to 50% oil, the fat itself is unsaturated and considered “healthy.”
Native to the Americas, the pumpkin and its seeds have a rich history in terms of folk medicine. Research shows that they flourished as a remedy all over North America and the Caribbean, where they were used as an oil or in ground form to relieve burn pain by the Navajo, for treating edema, gout, kidney stones, and urinary problems by the Cherokee, as a wound-healer by the Yuma, and as a cure for fevers and diarrheas by Jamaican voodoo witch doctors. In the seventeenth century they were adopted into Chinese medicine where they are still considered to be a symbol of prosperity and health.
Pumpkin seeds have found there way into modern herbal medicine as well. The presence of the unusual amino acid, cucurbitin, makes them one of the most efficient remedies for killing intestinal parasites, including tapeworms and roundworms, and is an age-old popular remedy used from Germany to Turkey to Mexico. Another rare amino acid called myosin exists in the seeds and is the primary protein constituent of nearly all the muscles in the body and important in the chemistry of muscular contraction. Zinc, in which the seeds are rich, contribute to its treatment for enlarged prostate glands. In fact, pumpkin seed extract is often referred to as a “male tonic” due its effectiveness in revitalizing the prostate gland and, according to some studies, for stimulating male hormone production. As a mild diuretic, the seeds also have a soothing effect on the irritated tissues associated with urinary infections.
Who should eat pumpkin seeds?
According to the UK’s Channel 4 radio program (channel4.com) the following people should eat pumpkin seeds:
- Anyone with prostate enlargement
- Anyone with intestinal worms
- Anyone with water retention
- Anyone with cystitis
- Anyone with osteoporosis
- Anyone who wants a cheap, healthful boost to his or her diet (that’s from me)
How to use in the diet:
- Eat plain, toasted or raw, as a snack
- Sprinkle over salads
- Add to hot cereals
- Use as a garnish for soups or casseroles
- Chop (or not), mix with a little parsley or other culinary herb, and sprinkle over sautéed or steamed vegetables
- Include in fruit smoothies or green drinks
- Douse with ground chile powder and a squeeze of lime
The following recipes are extremely flexible. Add or subtract such ingredients as garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh tomatoes, capers, chiles, and cheese (grated Parmesan), according to how you plan to use them. Some possible uses are: on cooked chicken, fish, or shrimp; over soft cheese such as goat cheese, brie, or Mexican panela; with a bit more oil as a salad dressing; as a dip for tortilla or pita chips; and mixed with cream cheese or goat cheese as a filling for empanadas or wontons.
Tip: Buy fresh, in small quantities as the oils they contain make them go rancid rather quickly.
Fresh Herb and Pumpkin Seed Pesto
(Recipe by Victoria Challancin)
Note: You can use toasted or raw pumpkin seeds in this recipe. To toast, place seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat, stirring until they begin to pop. Be careful not to burn.
1 cup fresh cilantro leaves
1/2 cup fresh parsley leaves
1 tablespoon fresh mint
1 green onion, finely sliced or 1 shallot, minced
2 garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 cup hulled green pumpkin seeds
2 oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes
1/2 to 1 serrano chile, minced
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt, to taste
Water, as needed for blending
Place all ingredients in a food processor and coarsely chop. Add water as necessary to facilitate blending. Check and adjust seasoning. Serve at room temperature.
Pumpkin Seed Tea
1 tablespoon hulled pumpkin seeds, crushed with a rolling pin
8 oz/1 cup boiling water
Infuse the crushed pumpkin seeds in one cup boiling water for 10 minutes. Strain. This can be drunk 2 to 3 times a day as a male tonic, particularly for prostate health.