What’s cookin’: Delicious Deceit: the legend behind Pato Yemayá

Guest post by Amanda Moreno, CHC Processing Assistant

The flavors of Africa have played an integral role in the execution of Cuban cuisine since the arrival of West African slaves en masse to the island in the 1700s. Whether its ñame, quimbombó or fufú, African influence is prevalent in both the food and culture of Cuba. Certain foods retain particular significance for practitioners of Cuba’s syncretic religions, as in the orisha offerings of santería. The legend of one such offering and a complementary recipe can be found below.

Yemayá and the duck [1]

Yemayá, a santería orisha associated with the ocean and motherhood, is closely connected to the duck Kuekueye, whom she took as a confidant and entrusted with many secrets. Facing a difficult situation, the orisha asked Kuekueye to present her problem to Olofi, the supreme god in the Yoruba pantheon, and seek a solution. But the duck Kuekueye secretly envied Yemayá, so he purposefully misinterpreted her message to Olofi and the advice the latter gave was not helpful; Yemayá recognized Kuekueye’s betrayal but she forgave him.

Despite Yemayá’s graciousness, Kuekueye did not learn his lesson, alternately exalting and vilifying Yemayá to anyone who would listen and gossiping about her vast riches hidden  on the ocean floor to the point that people conspired to steal them. Elegguá, the orisha guardian, found out and told Olofi, who convened a meeting of the orishas to inform Yemayá of Kuekueye’s treason. The hunting orishas Oggún and Ochosi shook the duck by its wings so hard in an attempt to get him to confess that Kuekueye swallowed his tongue and never spoke again. Olofi sentenced Kuekueye to live with Yemayá until she decided to sacrifice him, eating him and drinking his blood.

And so when Yemayá asks her followers for a duck sacrifice, her children blindfold the bird with a blue kerchief and make sure to pluck out all of its feathers in absolute silence as additional punishment for Kuekueye’s duplicity.

Pato Yemayá [2]

Beverly Cox and Martin Jacobs adapted the version of Pato Yemayá described by Natalia Bolívar in her book, Mitos y leyendas de la comida afrocubana (1993). To prepare this dish, you will need the following ingredients:

1 large (6-pound) duck; ½ cup bitter orange juice, or ¼ cup regular orange juice and ¼ cup fresh lime juice; ⅓ cup thinly sliced onion; 2 cloves garlic, crushed in garlic press; 1 tbs minced fresh basil, or ¾ tsp dried basil; 1 tbs minced fresh ginger, or ¾ tsp dried ginger; ½ tsp ground cumin; ½ tsp marjoram; ¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper (optional); 1 tbs olive oil; ¼ tsp salt; about 2 (11.8 ounce) cans guarapo, or 1 cup sugar dissolved in 2 cups water.

Remove the giblets and fully rinse the duck with cold water.  Cut into quarters and place pieces into a single layer, combining the orange juice, onion, garlic, basil, ginger, cumin, marjoram, pepper, oil and salt and coating the duck and its giblets thoroughly with the marinade. Refrigerate for two to three hours and pat dry, grilling the duck at medium to hot heat while turning it frequently for 20 to 30 minutes until it’s crisp and browned. After pre-heating the oven to 350°F, place the duck, giblets and marinade in a baking dish filled with guarapo; cover loosely in foil and bake for an hour until tender. Remove the duck and fat from pan juices. Boil the juice until most of the liquid evaporates and use the remainder as a glaze.

  • For more on food in santería rituals, see Series 3.1 of the Lydia Cabrera Collection, Manuscripts on Afro-Cuban culture, and listen to Hector Lavoe’s song, “Para Ochun.”


[1] Natalia Bolívar Aróstegui, Mitos y leyendas de la comida afrocubana (Havana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1993), 38-39.

[2] Beverly Cox and Martin Jacobs, Eating Cuban (New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2006), 25.