For me, it is not the better known stews such as pepian, jocón, kak’ik, etc. that are the gems of Guatemalan cuisine. These ancient recados are based on simple ingredients and often not all that exciting to me.
It is the soups that most people ignore … chicken, beef and seafood … which I consider the glory of Guatemala.
Chicken or beef soup? How exiting or Guatemalan is that?
Think New England boiled dinner, but with a rich, soulful, long-cooked soup. A bowl of broth is served with another plate piled with a massive mountain of meat, cabbage, potatoes, carrots, squash, chayote and corn on the cob. Rice, halved avocados, salsa verde and limes complete the dish.
Add all of the above to your soup as you eat it. Seriously, these are some of the most satisfying soups in the world.
The seafood soups are a similar idea, brimming with more fish that a tidal pool. Bowls are filled with whatever fish is fresh … various types of crab, whole fish, langostino, huge shrimp, mussels, etc, etc, etc.
It is served with tamales studded with chipilín, a popular green leafy herb in Guatemala.
The tiny country of Guatemala is flanked by two oceans. They got seafood and they know how to use it.
Antigua Daily Photo (ADP) did a nice write-up about the stews and soups.
“If the stews are watery we call them caldos and if the stews are thick we call them recados … Caldos are always stocks, while soups can be creamy or a little thick, like clam chowder, but soups can also be dry like rice, which is called sopa de arroz.”
It goes on to list many of them “ pepian, tapado, subanik, pulique, hilachas, jocón, kak’ik, caldo de gallina, caldo de res, gallo en chicha, tiras de panza, pollo en crema, pollo a la cerveza, carne guisada, revolcado, caldo de mariscos”
One reader response added estofado, stews that are thicker than guisados. I’d add sopa de frijoles negros – black bean soup, a classic dish. And don’t forget the amarillo which gets its name from the orange-red achiote in it.
The link to the photo above is for subanik. Over the years ADP has done quite the photo journalism essay on Guatemalan food.
Guatemala food is largely based on the open flame. The most common method of cooking is over a poyo or cinderblocks surrounding a wood fire.
That may explain why the food is usually either soups or grilled meats.
I’ve been curious why so many homes here have pressure cookers. I’ve been chalking it up to the 1950’s time machine in Guatemala. So much here, food, culture, etc, is very mid-20th century.
Copeland Marks in his cookbook “False Tongues and Sunday Bread” notes the pressure cooker replaces the long stewing time over an open fire of some of the leaner, tougher meat … due to it really being free range and developing muscles
IMO, an important element of Guatemalan food is missing without the smoke from the fire which is why the dishes like pepian often seem to lack character.
Marks offers the following definitions
“GUISADOS: A preparation of meats that use many seasonings. Usually the meats are first browned in oil and the spices, liquids and other ingredients are added later”
“PULIQUE: “Unlike a guisado, in which the meat is first browned, a pulique omits oil of any kind. The meats and the seasonings are cooked at the same time. It is a Mayan preparation”.
“RECADO: “This is the sauce in which … typical foods are prepared, bathed or mixed … It usually consists of standard items like onion, garlic, tomatoes, spices and the thickening medium … I find that bread crumbs, toasted rice and tortillas have a kind of magic that I am partial to”
Other thickeners include cornmeal, flour and cornstarch (rare).
Antigua Daily Photo has been an invaluable source for me in learning about all things Guatemalan In addition to the great pictures and commentary, the comments from readers are also a fount of info. Another ADP photo …
Guatemalan Cuisine: Revolcado, Pepian, Hilachas, Subanik, Longanizas
Some of my own photos follow in this post
Caldo de res (Las Canchas, Esquintla)
Pepian with chicken and black tortillas (Sabe Rico, Antigua)
Pepian with tres carnes (El Prado, San Felipe)
Sopa de frijoles blanco con costillas (home, white bean soup with ribs)
Chicken in crema (home)
Clockwise: Jocon (green), kak’ik, subanik, gallo in chicha (Arin Cunan, Guatemala City)
Stews at La Cuevita del La Urquivitas in Antigua
The next reply will have a description of these dishes, with links to ADP and other relevant sites.