Flower Power: Mari Gold on Marigolds

Mexico City-based restaurateurs Norma Listman and Saqib Keval discuss the lively cross-cultural traditions surrounding the flor de muerto

The marigold is a vibrant flower, most commonly found in hues of deep yellow and dynamic orange, that have come to symbolize power, strength, and light. Though the flower is meaningful to several cultures, from the Ancient Greeks to modern China, the significance and prevalence of the marigold in South Asian and Mexican cultures is unparalleled. The widespread embrace of the flower is all the more noteworthy given that the Aztec Marigold, also called the cemapsúchil in Nahuatl or flor de muerto in Mexican Spanish, is a relative newcomer to the subcontinent, having been imported from Mexico through trade in the early modern period. I recently sat down with Saqib Keval and Norma Listman, the brilliant couple behind some of Mexico City’s most thoughtful restaurants — Masala y Maiz and Mari Gold (which yes, is named after the flower) — to discuss why the marigold is celebrated across both of their cultures, the best way to use and consume (!) the flower, and why you have to be careful when sourcing them.

Khushbu Shah: Marigolds are very prominent in Mexican culture. Why are the flowers significant to you Norma?

Norma Listman: To me as a Mexican, I grew up celebrating Day of the Dead, and ever since I can remember, this is my favorite holiday, more so than Christmas or anything else. I always entered all the contests in elementary school for the best ofrenda and won them. A lot of my research during university was around Dia de los Muertos and tradition. I love it, I feel very connected to it, and I also love this Mexican Precolumbian ritual that has been able to resist colonization, and even though it has some Catholic connotations today, it remains precolonial. That is amazing to me and something that inspires me in a lot of the work that we do.

The aroma of the marigold is so strong and intoxicating, we use them to make a path from the outside to the food to guide the spirits. That’s how they know to come, they follow the scent and the color of the marigolds to their offering. We make this beautiful pathway [for Dia de los Muertos.]

KS: Why is Dia de los Muertos your favorite?

NL: What other day are you connected to death? The living we have all the time, but the mysticism that happens around this day — the ceremonial cooking for the people that you love that passed away, and the hope that comes with knowing they’ll be with you for one day for a year. Those people who you love so much but aren’t in the same physical plane as you today. There is this day where the veil is completely blurred and we push the ideas of reason aside to embrace mysticism of being connected with other dimensions. I always found that beautiful and fascinating, this idea of not being afraid of death, and that it can be festive.

Saqib Keval: I thought you were going to say because it’s my birthday. Your response is better though. [Laughs]

KS: What about you Saqib, why is the marigold significant to you, and in South Asian culture?

SK: I didn’t grow up celebrating diwali, but I love flowers, and I grew up in a culture that puts garlands of flowers [especially marigolds] over everything. Kids in my family would get together before my cousin’s wedding or before Eid or just big parties — important moments were celebrated with garlands of flowers. The marigold feels so present and ubiquitous in South Asian culture that it’s hard to imagine that it’s not Indian. From the color, from its presence in Indian celebrations, the feeling of it being everywhere in the subcontinent has such a massive presence in culture.

But for me the marigold symbolizes this link between South Asia and Mexico. It's something that came from Mexico, and arrived in India in the 1600s. I love those types of ingredients, those types of cultural iconographies, things that link these seemingly different cultures and civilizations but reminds us how complex of a shared history we have.

I think marigolds are a beautiful way of looking at our cultures because they are used in a similar form in both cultures and show up around the same type of year and have the same kind of aesthetic in how they’re used. When I first came to Mexico I remember when Norma took me to the flower market for the first time, and just seeing these massive garlands of marigolds, I was like, I can never leave here. This is it.

KS: It immediately made Mexico feel like home.

SK: Recently in India seeing the marigolds everywhere, as people were preparing the garlands for diwali, it was just a reminder that we have multiple homes — at least for me, I have multiple homes, I have this feeling of being between these worlds that are more similar than they are different.

KS: Absolutely, and in south Asian cultures too not only are the garlands used at weddings and celebrations of life, but also in celebrations of death. I feel like the global West, and European and American culture in particular, death is not celebrated - it’s feared. There’s something so beautiful about spending time to honor these people’s memory. They don’t leave you when they leave this planet. That connection to me is also really beautiful.

SK: Exactly.

Marigolds (cempasúchil) in the Mercado de Jamaica

Why did you decide to name your second restaurant Mari Gold?

NL: Because of that exact reason — It is the connection that exists between the top two cultures that is so obviously shared, it’s festive and beautiful and we love what it evokes.

SK: Like Norma said, it’s much more obvious. With Masala y Maiz, we get really nerdy with it, and we talk a lot about colonialism and food history and the migration of ingredients and political history and all of these things. At it’s pretty straight forward — the things that connect us, there are so many things that connect our respective cultures and marigolds are a really easy example. There’s so much of South Asian food and South Asian culture that wouldn’t exist in the way that we know it today without Mexico - the ingredients that come out of Mexican foodways [like chile peppers and corn], cultural practices that originate from Mexico, and then the same can be said about certain Mexican dishes, that wouldn’t be the same without the influence of the subcontinent.

NL: And all the spices — today’s world, and Mexican food, wouldn’t be the same without cumin, pepper, you know.

KS: That’s so interesting, when I think of linking Mexico and India I always think of marigolds and cumin, those are the two things that really bond us.

SK: Cilantro, too. That’s part of like every bite here.

KS: I know there are some South Asian dishes where people actually eat marigolds, do you ever eat them or cook with marigolds?

NL: Oh yes! There’s many uses for them in Mexican cuisine. You can make atoles, which is a corn beverage, you can make sauces like salsas molcajeteadas (with the mortar and pestle), you can make moles. We make a marigold mole that is just deep, beautiful, it carries that acidity and layers of flavor. Traditionally in pre colonial Mexico it had some edible uses but it was mainly used for medicinal purposes. And right now, in contemporary Mexico, aside from all those sauces, people are really using the flower now just to decorate with the petals, but they are making ice creams, cocktail. A long time ago I did marigold bitters. Marigold have delicious flavor, and they are aromatic - it’s intoxicating, really. Also, the color.

KS: How would you describe the aroma and flavor of a marigold?

SK: Peppery

NL: But also lemony

SK: Citrusy. Lemony and peppery but like green pepper.

NL: But also incense. It has those deep, super... like fresh leather notes. Not old but fresh leather, and at the same time floral and peppery.

KS: If someone is cooking with marigolds for the first time, what are the best uses? Is it something they can scatter on a salad?

NL: Fresh ones on a salad are delicious, and I would do them in a sauce. If you’re doing a tomatillo or tomato sauce, once you put it in the blender, add a bunch of marigolds. It adds a depth of flavor that is so nice.

SK: You can also use them as a food dye, so in making a biryani, instead of using food coloring or saffron, you could use marigolds.

NL: A funny fact, in Mexico they feed them to chickens to make their yolks more yellow.

SK: They do that in India as well. Marigolds are so rich in vitamins and antibiotic properties, so they help the chickens in that way but also make the yolk super yellow, which is more pleasing to your consumers.

Marigolds (Cempasúchil) in the Mercado de Jamaica

KS: Another cultural connection! That super orange yolk is so prized, especially these days in the era of instagram. Where are your favorite places to get marigolds? Do you source them year round or do you like to buy them during certain times?

NL: In Mexico they are seasonal. They start coming out in September and they die out at the end of November. It’s this idea that the land is used for different crops. If you go towards my parents’ house in the countryside, the road to their house was filled first with corn. Once the corn season was done, it was marigolds, and now it's just packed and orange.

SK: The whole drive up to the house is just marigold fields. One of our farmers grows beautiful organic marigolds for our kitchen. And for decoration, we get them from the giant flower market. But we try to be careful about the type of marigolds we buy.

NL: The Chinese marigolds are becoming very popular.

SK: The types of marigolds that are being imported to Mexico now that don’t have the aroma, that don’t have the same properties. They’re a different type of flower, they're not the Aztec marigolds.

KS: Why is that happening? Is it because they're cheaper?

NL & SK: Yes

KS: I didn’t know that was happening. The marigolds in India, those are from the Aztec marigolds?

NL & SK: Yes

SK: Now the Chinese marigolds are also creeping in

NL: And they’re so easy to see, they’re super round, like pom poms, and they don’t have the same robust smell or layers of petals.

KS: Are there any other uses for marigolds that you love?

NL: To me, a cleanse — a marigold cleanse — is one of the most beautiful and magical things. To have a baton made of marigolds touch your head, a big bouquet hit you in the back gently, it’s just so beautiful.

SK: It's like these types of cultural practices that exist here and also in South Asia that are so unique to the place, but also cultural practices that are in constant risk of being commodified by the cultural North, the west in general. Disney trying to trademark Day of the Dead is a great example, trying to market Dia de los Muertos as Mexican Halloween is another example of just the lack of knowledge around it in general. But I can see how these really important cultural things then get turned into superfoods or used in yoga or whatever in a way that gets marketed in the west, and why people make money off of it.

Marigolds are one of those things that haven’t been commodified in the same way, and for that reason still feel really special. It hasn’t been colonized, it hasn’t changed since pre colonial times, and is used so similarly between our respective cultures, and white people haven’t figured out how to steal it yet.

KS: Yet. They’re gonna read this and be like “oh it’s actually gonna be spiritual celebration flowers.” (Laughs)

NL: Exactly. Cleansing. Put it in your ice bath.

KS: Put it in your turmeric “moonmilk.” Get it into Erewhon. 

SK: It’s a slippery slope Khushbu. Careful what you write. [Laughs]