While Jason is taking Spanish classes, I signed up for a five day cooking course where we get to cook a different Mayan dish everyday. Today we learned how to make Pepian, a traditional Mayan chicken stew. I had met Angela, the owner and Ines, my teacher, earlier last week when I signed up for the class. When I got there, they were preparing a fire in the outdoor kitchen set in a beautiful garden space. It is typical for Mayans to cook over an open fire.
Can you believe Ines is only 19 years old? She is very sweet and very patient for her age. She only speaks Spanish so Angela who is from Spain, is there to help translate what I don’t understand. I do find cooking to be a universal language just like music and most things you can understand by pointing and through demonstration. I appreciated the fact that the class was taught in Spanish so I could familiarize myself with the language.
The three of us started by going over the ingredients of tomatoes, potatoes, tomatillos, 2 kinds of dried chile, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds and a type of squash they call guisquil pronounced wee-skill. They had already butchered the chicken and had it boiling over the fire. Thank god! We peeled and chopped the potatoes and guisquil and added it to the pot. Next we charred the chiles, tomatillos and tomatoes on a skillet over the open fire.
The fire was strong and it made us teary eyed. Ines and I joked that we were sad. Muy Triste. We also joked how cutting onions make us sad too. See, I know some Spanish!
We then toasted the sesame seeds and pumpkin seeds in a dry pan and blended them together with the charred veggies in a blender for about a minute. Angela told me that Mayan ladies think that is cheating but we used one for the purpose of saving time in the class. They still believe in using a mortar and pestle and they all cherish their stone. We added this paste to the soup and prepared the rice and lemonade while it simmered.
I was really glad to learn that it was common for Guatemalans to add onions and carrots to the rice because the rice here is long and super dry and frankly very bland compared to Japanese rice that I am used to eating. The rice turned out fluffy and sweet so I made the rice the same way tonight for dinner and really liked it.
I was impressed with the rich flavor of Pepian and that it only took an hour to make. The secret comes from roasting the tomatoes and chiles as well as toasting the seeds. The texture is thick like chili or curry more than a soup. I think I ‘ll add this secret to my stews in the future!
On Day 2, we started the day by going to the market. Angela stayed behind so it was great to test my broken Spanish on my teacher, Ines. I gathered that she was the oldest of four siblings and that her mom was also a cooking teacher. It was good to see which vendors she favored and what she paid for the produce.
We stopped by a local mill on the way back to mill some corn. She had cooked some corn the previous night so it was soft and ready to pass through the mill. She told me this was a service many people use to make tortillas and tayuyos.
Tayuyos is just as common as tortillas here in Guatemala and dates back to pre colonial times. It is similar to tamales using corn and black beans, wrapping it in a big leaf( I tried to get the name but they just call it ojas,leaf and it’s different than a banana leaf.) and steaming it. Most Mayans eat this almost everyday since it is very affordable, easy to make and very filling.
When we got back we ground some cooked black beans and got to work assembling the tayuyos. It is traditional for many families to cook on the floor using a small stone table. First we spread the milled corn on the stone and did the same with the black beans. Then we cut them into segments and rolled each one into oblong shapes before wrapping them in the ojas. Then the tayuyos were placed in a clay pot with a little bit of water and we steamed them over a fire for about 20 minutes. We made a salad and cold lemongrass tea to go with it! Bon prevecho!
-written by Haruka Oatis