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Travelers can begin to understand Maya culture through trips to museums and ancient ruins, but hands-on cooking demonstrations made me a true appreciator. On a recent trip to the Guatemala Highlands, I helped local families prepare traditional dishes in their own homes.
A little history was served before we put on our chef’s hats. First and foremost, I learned that corn is at the heart of Maya culture. According to Popol Vuh, a holy book treasured in the region, the human race itself was made from corn, and their cooking practices revolve around it, from tamales and tortillas to thick stews made with masa, or wet ground corn paste.
Also central to Maya cooking are soups such as the everyday caldo de pollo criollo, a chicken soup dressed up with home- or locally-grown produce, and pepian, a dish with a thick sauce made of pepitas and sesame seeds.
My first cooking experience took place in San Juan La Laguna, a municipality on the shores of Lake Atitlan. We were welcomed into the home of the Vasquez Perez family, who put us to work prepping ingredients for caldo de pollo criollo in their outdoor kitchen. Onions, carrots and potatoes were in the mix, as well as a native squash-like vegetable. The dish also required a chicken, which was taken from the family coop and slaughtered just before our arrival, bringing new meaning to “farm-to-table” cuisine. The soup cooked in a pot atop a wood-burning oven called a comal.
Once ready, we enjoyed the soup with tortillas that we had pressed by hand earlier. Though our novice touch produced tortillas of odd shapes and sizes, they were tasty and almost meaty in texture. We laughed at our oblong creations as we dipped them into the broth.
Our hosts provided a spicy green chili salsa for those who wanted a bit more heat, and rosa jamaica, a sweet hibiscus tea drink, also complemented the meal. Sitting there with our host family, I felt like I was a part of a long-tested community, rich in love and tradition.
A second cooking experience brought us outside of Antigua to the town of San Antonio Aguas Calientes, where local Lidia De Lopez taught our group how to make pepian. We assisted in making the sauce, chopping cilantro and grilling vegetables. We also ground roasted squash seeds and vegetables on her metate, a flat grinding stone made from volcanic rock. The tool had been passed down from Lopez’s mother — both women believe the stone makes food taste better than if it was made with some other appliance.
Who could argue? After all, the resulting pepian was as tasty as it gets.