Published by: Gourmet Sleuth
Last Updated: 03/01/2020
In the U.S., the term "pepita" refers to the green kernel inside a pumpkin seed, or, depending on the type of pumpkin, it may be a hull-less seed. Most of the pepitas produced in China (and the U.S.) today are of the hull-less variety.
A 1 ounce serving is about 3 1/4 tablespoons (28 grams)and packs a whopping 7 grams of protein, 5 grams of carbohydrate, and 1 gram of fiber as well as 278 mg of potassium and 16 grams of healthy fat. Further, the seeds are rich in manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, and zinc.
Keeping in mind moderation (they are high in calories), they are beneficial in both the Keto and the Paleo eating plans.
Like most foods in the New World, every part of the pumpkin (calabaza) was used by the natives. The blossoms were fried and used in soups, the flesh cooked and eaten, and the seeds (pepitas) were eaten raw or dried and ground then used in sauces. Even the pumpkin/squash shell was dried and made into drinking vessels. There were several varieties of calazbaza grown and were used for their flesh, and others for seed.
The Spaniards were not interested in blossoms or the flesh of the calabaza (these they considered to be peasant food), but they became very interested in the pumpkin seeds. They realized that the hulled squash seeds could replace their beloved almonds to make marzipan, which was known as a prestigious dish in Europe. Soon the pepitas (squash seeds) were taken back to Europe, where they were eventually embraced by the Old World.
Other Old World uses for the squash seeds included making a sweet confection. The pepitas were bound together with either honey or black agave syrup which was boiled down and thickened. Today a similar food like a praline is made buy pouring a thickened syrup over the toasted seeds.
The toasted seeds were ground and mixed into a drink called atole (atoli). The ground seeds were also combined with black beans then wrapped in chaya leaves to make a type of tamale.
Corn tortillas were dipped in a sauce made with toasted, ground pepitas mixed with fresh epazote.
Even a special sauce was made with ground seeds, achiote, and salt that was used with fish or venison.
Many of these sauces and preparations evolved into foods that are still eaten in Mexico today.
Today, most of the pepitas you purchase in health food stores and markets in the U.S. are grown in China from a special variety of pumpkin which produces a hull-less pepita. The hull-less seed was first developed from the Curcubita pepo popular in Mexico. This special cultivar was developed in Austria and named Curcubita pepo var. 'styriaca'. These special seeds are used to produce a dark color, flavorful oil which Styria Austria is famous for. This variety has evolved into several other cultivars that have been perfect for production of the hull-less seeds.
Mexico still produces their own whole pumpkin seeds and pepita kernels from traditional calabaza varieties. Most of these are grown in Yucatan. Diana Kennedy states that as of 1991 Yucatan still produced 73% of all the commercial pumpkin seeds. While they do sell some of their pepitas to Japan, you don't usually find them in the U.S. However there are some growers in the U.S. that produce pepitas. Both of these are from the hull-less variety. See sources below for U.S. growers.
Squash seeds are still important in Mexico. According to Yucatán Recipes from a Culinary Expedition written by David Sterling, the pepita plays an important nutritional and culinary roll in the local cuisine. He describes three different types of squash seeds you find in the local markets:
Pepitas (pumpkin seeds) are harvested from a variety of pumpkin types and are available in several common forms.
Whole shell-on (or un-hulled) pepitas - available salted or unsalted. Can be toasted whole and salted or flavored with chile and lime. Eat as a snack.
Shelled (or hulled) pepitas - can be found raw or toasted, salted or unsalted. As a snack the seeds are usually toasted and flavored with salt, chile, and lime. Use in salads, salad dressings, or in pipian, a type of mole.
Ground pepita kernels - use in mole, cookies, breads. Although you may find ground seeds in the markets it is best to grind your own right before use.
Pepitas can be found in most Mexican markets or local health food stores. If possible purchase the Mexican varieties and help support an ancient industry.
Store: As with most seeds and nuts, pepitas have a high oil content so they will go rancid quickly. Purchase in amounts you will use within a week or so. Store in a tightly sealed plastic bag. Pepitas can be placed in freezer proof bags and frozen for up to 6 months or more.