Cooking in Guatemala

I’m planning a hypothetical restaurant where the menu is made up of dishes I’ve learned to cook during my travels. The menu features dishes from Thailand, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Guatemala so far.

Class was held on a rooftop balcony, surrounded by coffee fincas (plantations). At sunset. Perhaps the prettiest cooking class yet.

I don’t speak Spanish, except for a handful of things I’ve picked up in the last few months. The chef who was teaching us doesn’t speak English. While we had an interpreter, I actually understood a lot of what the chef was saying. The pointing helps. Obviously she wants me to cut the carrots (zanahoria) that she’s waving in my face. My brain has gotten pretty good at filling in holes in language with context clues.

Cooking class with a view

On the menu

Tortillas
Tostadas
Pepián
Rellenitos de plantanos
Chocolate caliente

On the menu part 2

Tortillas, which are not easier the second time
Dobladas
Jocón
Mole

As you walk down the street in Antigua you will often hear the sound of clapping. No, you’re not being congratulated for not tripping on the cobblestones. But go ahead and pat yourself on the back because it’s hard sometimes. That clapping is the sound of women making tortillas. Tortillas are made of corn flour instead of wheat here. The ladies make it look really easy. Flour and water are mixed together and made into small balls of dough. They slap the dough between the palm of one hand and the fingertips of the other, forming the dough into perfect discs. Then they put the tortillas on a grill. I’ve never seen anyone use a utensil to pick up and flip the tortillas. They use their bare hands! Do they not get burnt?! The tortillas are the perfect size and shape every time. Having tried it myself I can confirm that this is an art that has been finely honed over many, many years. You need to get the ratio of water to flour exactly right, as well as the right amount of water on your hands. Otherwise, the dough sticks to your hands and your tortillas are holey and ugly. But they still taste good. (Ugly but it tastes good is my culinary brand.)
You can get 4 tortillas for 1 Quetzal ($0.13) all over Antigua.

Ugly but they taste good

Tostadas are basically bigger, crispier tortillas. We toped them with guacamole, onions, radishes, tomato sauce, and a sort of dehydrated cheese (feta-esque). They’re a good appetizer.

Pepián is the unofficial national dish of Guatemala. Every family has their own, slightly different recipe. Pepián is a rich stew that is the result of the fusion of Mayan and Spanish cultures. The stew is made with beef, chicken, or pork. While the chicken was boiling we roasted sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds (pepitoria), and chili pepper. Each was roasted separately to ensure the full flavor came out. We combined the seeds with onion, cilantro, tomato, garlic, and tomatillo in a blender to create the sauce. Chicken, potatoes, carrots, squash, and güisquil, were all added to the sauce. Güisquil, pronounced “wee-skeel,” is a vegetable that sort of has the texture of a potato and is often used like a potato, but it has a juicier, nuttier flavor. The finished stew was served over rice with hot tortillas on the side.

Pepián, rice, tortillas, and rellenitos de platanos

For dessert the first time around we made rellenitos de platanos. They’re steamed, mashed sweet plantains that are rolled into a ball. We then made a hole in the plantain ball to be filled with a mixture of bean paste and chocolate. The hole is closed and fried in oil. You’ll see them being sold by street vendors covered in cinnamon sugar.

Guatemala is the birthplace of chocolate (so I’ve been told), so it’s on almost every menu. You can buy solid discs of chocolate everywhere, sometimes mixed with other flavors. Drop a disc or 2 into a pot of boiling water or milk for an excellent mug of chocolate caliente.

Chocolate

Doblada comes from the word doblar, which means to fold/bend. Fitting since it’s a tortilla folded over with some cheese in between. Then they are fried and covered with red sauce, cheese, etc. You can also find them with meat in the middle with the cheese.

Jocón (pronounced ho-CON), is also a traditional, Guatemalan stew with chicken. Jocón is green rather than the reddish brown of pepián . According to the recipe I was given by the cooking school, the word “jocón” comes from Mayan words, “jok om”, which mean green food or five greens. This is because the original ingredients were tomatillos, green tomatoes, green onion, cilantro, and green chili peppers. Like the pepián, we ate our Jocón over rice with warm tortillas on the side.

Jocón

For dessert the second time we made mole. In Guatemala mole is dessert, unlike the savory version found in Mexico. It’s basically chocolate stew with fried sweet plantains. But mole is more complex than just sweet and chocolate. Toasted sesame seeds and tomato seeds are added to a blender with ripe tomatoes and cinnamon. The blended sauce and chocolate are put in a pot together and the plantains are added at the end, and the whole thing is topped with more sesame seeds.

Cooking mole

There’s definitely a lot of things I haven’t tried yet, but these 2 cooking classes were a scrumptious introduction to Guatemalan food.

Delicious food, wine, friends, and sunset = 2 lovely evenings.

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