Friday, October 31, 2008

A visit to Guatemala

In August I spent almost a week in Antigua, Guatemala, where I aimed, among other things, to get to know about Guatemalan food. Antigua was an ideal destination in many ways. It's an historic city - one of Unesco's World Heritage Sites - and although you'll see fast food restaurants there, there's a deliberate (and, in fact, mandated) effort to preserve architectural integrity and the essential culture of the city. I really loved exploring the many ruins as well as the markets. ("Antigua" means ancient).

On my first day, I stumbled, somewhat by accident, on the Antigua Cooking School, which I should have already noted, because it was in my guidebook, but I'd missed it in my prerations. Fortunately, however, I was able to register on the spot for a class the next day. Combining that cooking experience with many hours wandering through the local market as well as the local supermarket gave me a good handle - at least an introduction - the Guatemalan food. Obviously, a week is barely enough to get a sense of a place, but at least I got the sense!

The class is taught by Militza De Leon, whose Seattle-based aunt founded the school about three years ago. Each class is four hours long and the fee is US$65 - cash only, please! (I paid $50, but just checked the Web site, and apparently the costs have gone up!) When you sign up, you can choose by the menus available on the days it's offered. I went on a Thursday, when the main dishes being taught were chiles rellenos and a Guatemalan dessert called Mole, which involves cooking sweet plantains in a sauce that includes chocolate, spices and tomatoes. We also made a simple salad, a rice dish and learned how to form and cook tortillas correctly. (Could I replicate this on my own? I'm not sure!) We were given utterly thorough instructions, well-written in English. It was definitely worthwhile. The Web site,, mentions a cooking class in Queretero, Mexico, and I'm definitely tempted to look into it!

I also spent hours in the local market, wandering through its seemingly endless aisles and paths of local produce.

The market was a constant temptation, combining food and dry goods and some surprises: a huge kiosk with bras amidst all the food, and, as in other urban markets that I've seen in Central and South America and, in particular, one in Ghana, it seemed just endless. I'm sure there was an order to it, but it eluded me.

Although I had access to a kitchen at Dos Loros Inn, where I was staying, I would have needed more time to actually tackle some of the dishes I'd learned to make, and I would have loved to try using some of the new ingredients I saw - the variations of peppers and a green called loroco, which I've tasted in pupusas in Salvadoran restaurants here in NYC. I finally had a chance to see loroco (see photo below), and I bought a half-pound of it, thinking I could sneak it back to the US, but thought better of it, and tossed it before boarding the plane. I did take a couple of loroco shoots (visually it resembles tiny scallion bulbs, but the aroma is totally different).
Unfortunately, I didn't take any photos of or at Bodegadon, the lone large supermarket in Antigua. It was fascinating to see Guatemalan versions of global products (I was able to get Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi; here, the Coke was cheaper than Pepsi.) I bought a box of frozen pupusas, which I'd never seen before, and saved the box to see if I could find this product in NYC. I'm pretty sure I'd find them in Washington, DC, or California, where the Salvadoran communities are much larger, but I'm going to snoop around in Jamaica, Queens, next time I'm there to see if I can find them.
On that note, I should mention that I had pupusas two times in Guatemala, at a restaurant, where each pupusa was 15 quetzales (about $2.25) and were served with a bland sauce and guacamole, and at a street stand near the market, where they were 6 quetzales and were served with the hot sauces and spicy slaw (curtido) that I'm most used to getting. I think the first pupusa targeted the ignorant gringo consumer; the market pupusas were so much better! (The second picture isn't very good - I later realized that instead of photographing the pupusas and the woman who made them, I mostly took pictures of the little boys hanging around there - her son and his friends.)

No comments: