Family Unity, an exceptional Maya trait
This February, I ventured into another culinary tour of the amazing Guatemalan Maya highlands, situated in the midwestern part of the country. I had been to this area many times before and now my purpose was to dig deeper into the nature and way of life of the precious pluri-cultural people living on this land.
This journey was meant to be. My fortune turned out for the best. I was wholeheartedly invited into the homes of many families and had the opportunity to exchange views to better understand daily routines, including agriculture and cooking, religion and herbal medicine practices, marriage culture, children, schooling and beyond. My adventure began at the villages around La Antigua Guatemala and Lake Atitlán, Chichicastenango, the Cuchumatanes Mountains, Nebaj and many of the smaller towns in between.
Under the Maya umbrella there are some 24 indigenous groups (about half of the country’s population) with their own inherent language and traditions and distinctive commonalities and nuances per community, mostly appreciated in language and cooking styles. Guatemala also is home to other non-Maya groups such as the Xinca and Garifuna, in addition to the mestizo (blend of Maya and Spanish) and other smaller populations of immigrants.
By design, our visits centered around the kitchen and started by gathering greens, herbs, vegetables and fruits right from their home gardens. While grinding corn manually or wrapping tamales in native leaves, we blended flavors and techniques with lively food discussions (at times through an interpreter). The usual cooking crew included grandma (the matriarch), her daughter and/or daughter-in-law, and her granddaughters, many of whom were also weavers. In two separate instances a dad and a husband assisted in the chores – this is rare and special treat, as men usually work in the fields most of the day.
Within the Maya languages there are dialect subsets in the order of dominance such as Quiché, Cakchiquel, Kekchi and Mam, plus others to a lesser extent. Even though each group does not necessarily speak the language of the other, communication with the Spanish-speaking Ladinos (Spanish-Maya people) and other people is possible through a combination of broken Spanish or broken English (in marketplaces), the magnificence around the culture of textiles and vegetable markets, and the universal language of food. There really is very little need to talk when the surroundings speak loudly for themselves.
While toasting cocoa beans on a comal (clay griddle) or roasting whole ripe plantains immersed in bright red coals, we often communicated by pointing, smelling and tasting. Fresh ingredients, a poyo (primitive wooden stove), combined with innate cooking savvy, were all we needed to establish common ground to produce simple yet delicious and nutritious food — in most instances naturally vegetarian and gluten free.
There is one single special trait that stood out during my wholesome experience with the Maya people: family unity. During our time together, I felt welcomed, appreciated and included in the strong family bond. They were proud to share their traditions and treated me with utmost respect, specially dressing the dinner table and spreading pine needles on the floor (a sign of special celebration). I came full circle. There were so many unique happenings and déjà vu that I traced back to my childhood and teen years living in Guatemala. My connection to my homeland is today stronger because of the humble, caring and giving spirit of its people.
From corn-based foods to soups and stews, one dish kept reappearing as I traveled from kitchen to kitchen, each time different yet uniquely delicious. Pulique is a basic vegetable Mayan stew that can be made with any meat or chicken and even using eggs as substitutes. The unifying element was corn masa, used to thicken and add authentic flavor and a smooth texture and finish to the dish.
Pulique also changed in ingredient content and style according to the socio-economic status of each family. The trail of pulique proved an interesting point. Recipes travel across cultures staying true in some way with basic unifying ingredients, yet they morph according to the customs, traditions and possibilities of each maker.
In celebration of the Maya people of Guatemala and Mesoamerica, this is my special rendition to pulique, which has come to occupy a special place in my heart because it has a remarkable story behind it, the story of family love and unity.
Chicken and Epazote Stew
Recipe by Chef Amalia Moreno-Damgaard
Pulique or pulik quite possibly started as a pre-Hispanic dish made mostly with few native ingredients. Today throughout the central Mayan highlands people make pulique using chicken, beef, turkey, pork or other ingredients. Pulique differs from other Mayan stews because the sauce starts out raw and then combines with cooked meats.
Serves 4 to 6 people
4 skinless chicken thighs, visible fat removed
1 small whole onion, peeled and t-scored
2 cups fat-free, low-sodium chicken stock
1 cup quartered Roma tomatoes (about 2 large tomatoes)
1/2 cup husked, quartered tomatillos (3 to 4 large tomatillos)
1 small cup yellow onion, cut into thick slices
2 large garlic cloves, peeled
2 to 3 tablespoons chopped epazote (or 1/2 cup chopped cilantro)
½ cup of corn masa dissolved in ½ cup of cold water OR
1-1/2 ounces (3 tablespoons) rice soaked in 1/2 cup hot water for 20 minutes
1 bay leaf
1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons ground achiote dissolved in a little water
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup güisquil (chayote squash) cut into 1-inch cubes, cooked al dente
1/2 cup carrots sliced on the diagonal, cooked al dente
1/2 cup peeled, sliced potatoes, cooked al dente
Epazote (or cilantro) sprigs
In a medium pot, cook the chicken and the onion in the stock until the chicken is tender (20 to 30 minutes). Remove and reserve the onion. Set aside the chicken and stock.
In a blender or food processor, purée the tomatoes, tomatillos, onions, garlic, epazote, masa mixture or soaked rice and liquid, and the reserved onion.
Add the purée, bay leaf, achiote, salt, pepper and al dente vegetables to the pot of chicken and stock. Simmer covered for 8 to10 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings, if needed. Serve the stew garnished with epazote.
To t-score an onion, make a 1/2-inch-deep cross-shaped cut at the narrowest end of the onion. The onion remains whole.
Epazote is available fresh at most Latin stores. It is an earthy herb with a strong, unique flavor. If you’re unfamiliar with it, use just a little at a time. Taste and add more, if you like.
Peel tomatillos under running water if you find the husks hard to remove.
AMALIA’S KITCHEN text & photos by chef and author Amalia Moreno-Damgaard. Her cookbook “Amalia’s Guatemalan Kitchen-Gourmet Cuisine With A Cultural Flair” has won 9 international awards. AmaliaLLC.com