Muchá! Hey, everyone! This weekend finds us in the Central American country of Guatemala, Mexico’s southern neighbor. The country also shares borders with two countries we’ve already globetrotted to, Belize and El Salvador, plus a country we’ll likely get to before too long, Honduras.
Like in Belize, the Maya civilization once flourished in Guatemala, and there are numerous well-known Maya ruins that tourists can visit today. Many Guatemalans are of Maya ancestry. Although Spanish is the official language, twenty-one Mayan languages are spoken in the country. So while the Maya Empire may have fallen, as many people learned in school, the Maya people and their culture are still very much alive.
Hearty Latin American breakfasts have become some of my favorite globetrotting breakfasts, so I was looking forward to our first Guatemalan meal of the weekend: desayuno chapín. (Chapín is a slang term used for people from Guatemala.) This breakfast consists of multiple items: frijoles volteados (mashed and fried black beans), eggs, tortillas, a tomato salsa, fried plantains or bananas, sour cream and queso fresco. I boiled and pureed the beans in advance, made the salsa the night before, and just used store-bought tortillas (and sour cream and queso). But there was still quite a bit of work to do Saturday morning: frying the bean puree and the plantains (separately), scrambling the eggs, warming the tortillas, and assembling the plates. For a complete meal, we should have had coffee as well, but we didn’t have any on hand–which I realize some households would consider a disaster, but neither Derek nor I are habitual coffee drinkers. I also forgot to buy fresh papaya, but our plates were already full.
They were worth the work that went into them, but I haven’t quite figured out how to keep all the different foods warm while I’m still cooking.
After breakfast, we watched the Guatemala episode of Geography Now!
For lunch, Derek made a vegetarian-friendly version of pepían, a spicy stew. Typically, the stew contains meat, but the recipe Derek used skipped that, and used an assortment of root vegetables. We also listened to some Guatemalan music played on the marimba.
The stew was nice and flavorful, and we ate it with rice and tortillas.
After lunch, I started work on dinner, banana leaf tamales. I’d never made tamales before, but everything I read beforehand warned me that the process would take several hours, so I knew I should get to work. I used to think that tamales were always wrapped in corn husks for steaming, but apparently Guatemalan tamales tend to use banana leaves instead. I had banana leaves leftover from a previous globetrot, so this was perfect. For the masa, the corn flour dough, I used a recipe from Vegetarian Times, substituting butter for the vegetable shortening, though a traditional tamale recipe would use lard. For the chili sauce and filling, I referred to another recipe, though I also added sliced green olives to the filling, since I had noticed that other Guatemalan tamale recipes called for them, and I happened to have an open jar of them in the fridge. I skipped the raisins and meat that are in traditional Guatemalan tamales–the meat for obvious reasons, and the raisins because I didn’t have any.
I was nervous about making the tamales, because I find banana leaves tricky to work with. But the assembled banana leaf packets didn’t look too shabby, and my new metal steamer insert seemed to work well. Below you can see the banana leaf packets before they were steamed, and an unwrapped tamale, after an hour of steaming.
The tamales were good, but they are definitely a special occasion dish, rather than an everyday dish, given the amount of time it takes to prepare them.
We watched two short videos about the Maya after dinner: the first was the Maya creation story, and the second detailed how the Maya people were persecuted by the Guatemalan government and military in the 1980s and 1990s.
For dessert, Derek made chancletas. Chancleta is a slang term for slipper, and I suppose these desserts somewhat resembled slippers. They are made from chayote squash (the pear-shaped items you can see front and center in our cover photo). The chayote is boiled and halved, and like other stuffed squashes, the flesh gets scooped out, and mixed with other ingredients, before it’s spooned back into the squash shells and baked. Since we didn’t have the raisins the recipe prescribed, we used some dried cranberries instead.
We ate some of the chancletas while watching the 2016 Guatemalan film Ixcanul. The story focuses on Maria, a young indigenous woman in rural Guatemala, who is discontent with her life and her impending arranged marriage. The film shows the disadvantages and discrimination that indigenous people face in modern Guatemalan society. The film is also notable because the main language used is a Mayan language, Kaqchikel, rather than Spanish.
The next morning we had some more desayuno chapín, which helped energize us for our morning tasks: weekday lunch prep and a freelance editing project for me, and grading and apartment cleaning for Derek.
After lunching on leftover pepian stew, we watched a documentary about people from the village of Chocolá. The documentary consists of numerous shorter pieces. Some of the pieces seem to connect better than others, like the profile pieces about notable individuals in the community, like a community doctor, and several entrepreneurs.
When dinnertime rolled around, we reheated some of the leftover tamales in the steamer. Luckily, steaming already cooked tamales takes less time than the initial steaming, just 20 minutes.
Since our focus had been on rural Guatemala for most of the weekend, we watched a Vice profile piece about a doctor in Guatemala City who is also a member of the volunteer fire department. The video follows Dr. Jorge Chiu around as he responds to calls, which aren’t limited to just fires, but also entail shootings, bus accidents, and a visit to the Guatemala City Dump, where people, including young children, live in deplorable conditions.
While poverty and violence in Guatemala can’t be dismissed, there are nice places, including the city of Antigua, known for its Spanish architecture and for being a popular tourist destination. The New York Times even has a guide on how to spend 36 hours in Antigua.
Like many weekends, this one went by quickly, and it was time to say adios to Guatemala, with the help of some leftover chancletas. (We definitely ate well this weekend.) Next time, you’ll find us in the Western African nation of Guinea, not to be confused with Equatorial Guinea (which we’ve already been to), Guinea-Bissau, or Papua New Guinea. Hasta la próxima–until next time!