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Adventure and Epicure

Local Dishes
Kekchi Indians and Mopan Mayan specialties

by Luke Shullenberger

Valentina Cho's Caldo Kash (Mayan Chicken Soup)

View photos: Links at the bottom of the page

The gastronomy of Blue Creek and of Mayan communities in general is fresh, hearty, flavorful and satisfying, if not very diverse. A myriad of jungle fruits, edible plants and seasonal produce aside, corn or flour tortillas, rice, beans, legumes, chicken, tomatoes, onions and eggs make up the staples and they are seasoned with chiles, achiote paste*, garlic, oregano, basil, salt, pepper or occasionally wild cilantro. All regional cuisine has its superlatives and this cooking will impress you with its robust freshness. Ultimately cuisine is defined by the quality of its ingredients and this recipe began in the family’s subsistence garden, progressed through the chicken coop, took shape at the grinding stone and chopping block, and came to fruition at the hearth.

The best ingredients are one thing, but don’t disregard the human factor, preparation is crucial and Valentina wields considerable culinary skills in her rustic kitchen. The pride she takes in her culture, cooking and independence is reflected in her hand embroidered dress, hand-sculpted stove, and self-produced farm.

Watching her in action is initially inspiring and eventually downright tiring. Her warm eyes, lovely features and deep belly laugh belie an energetic and fiery spirit. She’ll out haul you, out hustle you and out cook you and barely break a sweat. Did I mention that she’s 64?

Her soup was made from her prized rooster and herbs from her garden. She served it with tortillas hot off the comal (mayan flat griddle for cooking tortillas), and we dined around a little wooden table set in the middle of her packed dirt floor. Excellent!

This recipe comes from her kitchen to yours so thank her not me.

Ingredients: (serves 5-8, cut in half for smaller group)

  • Whole chicken cut up into parts
  • 3 small to medium sized yellow onions sliced
  • 3 or 4 cloves of garlic minced
  • 1 tsp. achiote paste (made from red achiote berry, salt and spices, found all over Central Am., Mex.)
  • 1 mixed handful of fresh oregano, basil, chives (substitute ˝ cup of dry herbs)
  • 1 tsp. dried oregano
  • Salt, pepper and chile to taste

Preparation:

When we arrived, the kernels of corn had already been taken off the cob, lightly par-boiled with lime (to soften the outer skin) and were ready to be ground and made into masa dough for the tortillas. The soup however was to be made from scratch and she hadn’t started yet.

Reaching into the pen, she grabbed the el patron rooster, yanked him out by his wings, inverted him and placed the ball of her foot on his neck and pulled. The rooster was soon motionless and she dunked the entire bird in boiling water to kill bacteria and loosen feathers for plucking. She plucked all the feathers in less than 5 minutes and singed off the final downy fuzz covering the skin in the open flame of the hearth. She then washed the entire bird with soap, rinsed it and quickly butchered and chopped it up into parts and set it to boil. Once at full boil. she added the minced garlic and took one log out of the fire to reduce the flame.

Meanwhile she set to grinding the corn and forming the masa with water. Once the soup had boiled for 10 minutes, she added the achiote and salt and continued making tortillas. 10 minutes later she sliced the onions, ripped the fresh herbs by hand and stirred them all in. While waiting for the meat to cook thoroughly the masa dough was completed. The soup was taken off the flame and replaced by the comal griddle and the women sat down to shape and flatten the tortillas, grill them and put them into a basket covered by a tea towel.

Five minutes later we dined.


The Original Mayan Corn Tortilla

All of you reading this I’m sure have eaten a taco or two, many of you have gone to the store and bought tortillas to make your own. Flour tortillas out of the bag are edible, corn less so. There is no substitute for the real thing. Masa dough is ground from parboiled corn kernels, flattened and shaped and grilled on the comal griddle in front of your eyes. When one side is cooked, the women peel up an edge with their fingers—miraculously burns rarely happen—and flip them. The final test to see if they are done is to pat them in the center a couple times with your finger tips. If they puff up (and then deflate) they’re ready.

For centuries the Maya have made them exactly this way. Only one ingredient and the simplest of tools are used. The only concession to technology they make these days is a hand cranked metal grinder instead of the flat stone mortar and cylindrical pestle.

Comfort food is a hot tortilla. Slightly crispy on the outside, and chewy on the inside, perfectly pliable despite the lack of oil or lard, they are healthy, savory perfection.

Ingredients:

  • dried corn kernels (substitute corn meal or dry masa flour found in many supermarkets)
  • lime powder (not citrus mind you)

Preparation:

Bags of dried corn kernels can be bought at some stores if you want the authentic experience of hand grinding from scratch. A way to cheat and still get the same result is to buy the masa flour and mix in water.

The kernels are par-boiled with lime to soften the skin on the kernel. While still al dente, the wet kernels are ground in a hand cranked processor*. The resulting course ground meal is formed into a ball with a little extra water and put through the grinder again on a finer setting*. The process is repeated again until the masa dough is a fine smooth consistency.

While the griddle is heating up, the dough is gathered into a large mass and placed in the center of a table. The next step is to form the tortillas. Towards this end, the Blue Creek ladies have developed an ingenious technique of using a circle cut from a thick plastic sheet*. It’s thin and pliable and smooth and the dough peels easily off it. They put a ball of masa in the center and with the finger tips of one hand pat it down flat working out from the center. The edge of other hand is used to keep the outside edge of the tortilla smooth and keep the overall shape circular (see photos).

The grilling* is the easy part, light brown on each side, and the eating is the ultimate reward.


Escabeche Hot and Sour Chicken Soup

This recipe is another traditional Mayan dish that you’ll find wherever you go. The varieties are endless depending on the cook and the region but basically, they’ll all tickle the same tastebuds with a wonderful combination of savory, hot and sour flavors. It reminded me of some southeast Asian cuisine I have had in the past.

While simmering on the stove, the vinegar and oregano fill the kitchen with mouthwatering scents and fill you with anticipation. The salty sourness of the broth is complemented by the subtle sweetness of sliced onions and carrots, and the stewed chicken melts in your mouth. Serve it with a steaming plate of rice or a stack of warm corn tortillas.

Ingredients:

  • 1 whole chicken cut up into parts
  • 1 ˝ quarts of water
  • 3 medium sized yellow onions sliced
  • 2 carrots sliced
  • 1 bell pepper sliced
  • 5 tblsp. vinegar (or more, adjust to taste)
  • 3 jalapeno chiles diced
  • 3 cloves garlic minced
  • small handful dried oregano leaves or 2 ˝ tsp. oregano flakes
  • salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:

Put the water in large pot to boil. Salt and pepper the chicken pieces and brown in large fry pan. Pour off rendered fat and add chicken to boiling water for 10-15 minutes. Add chiles, oregano, garlic, salt and pepper and turn down heat. Simmer for five to ten minutes and add vegetables. Simmer for ten minutes and serve.


Heart of Palm Burritos

This tender and slightly sweet delicacy treasured by the Mayans for centuries comes from the massive cohune palm and is the class of the field of edible jungle plants. We spent a week in a small Mayan community in southern Belize called Blue Creek, staying in the beautiful Blue Creek Rainforest Lodge, learning jungle survival skills, edible plants and traditional agriculture from manager/guide/community leader Ignacio Coc and fellow townsfolk. It was an amazing week with a wide array of jungle fruits and nuts, water vines, cacau (cocoa), tubers and legumes that crossed our plates (check the survival page "edible plants" section for more). All will keep you alive if you lose your way in the jungle. A few will delightfully surprise you. The following recipe will go down in the annals of fine Latin dining.

For those of you who unabashedly finish off the entire bowl of artichoke hearts at the hors d’oeuvre table, this one is for you. The texture and flavor of cooked heart of palm is remarkably similar. It’s a perfect substitute for meat, and will send your vegetarian friends into fits of incredulity.

Ignacio’s mother boiled the diced palm heart, mixed it with sauteed onions, peppers and tomato, achiote* seasoning, salt and pepper. We spooned it into warm flour tortillas fresh off the comal* and washed it down with an infusion tea made from fresh leaves of the all-spice tree.

Ingredients: (serves 4-5)

  • 4 cups diced heart of palm (substitute artichoke hearts or finely diced young asparagus)
  • 3/4 cup diced onion
  • 1/2 cup diced peppers
  • 1/2 cup chopped tomatoes
  • 3 large cloves garlic
  • achiote paste to taste
  • salt, pepper and habanero salsa to taste

Preparation:

You will have to visit the survival skills page to see how to harvest the palm, it’s a bit difficult. Substitute artichoke hearts or minced asparagus and follow the rest.

The heart of palm is quite tender and sweet when raw, excellent as a crudite. To cook it takes little time. You dice it and boil it for a few minutes and drain in a strainer. Sauté chopped onions and minced garlic in oil for a couple minutes, add chopped peppers and diced tomatoes. Stir in achiote seasoning paste and salt, and mix in cooked heart of palm. Thick handmade tortillas* and cold beer complete a simple but decadent meal.

Roast Garlic and Cilantro Heart of Palm Spread

The day we went into the bush with our Mayan guide Ignacio to search out this jewel (actually the edible portion is about 2 feet long and weighs 20 lbs.) of edible plants, I shared the kitchen with the two cooks who were making the heart of palm burritos to try a little experiment. It was a great success and would be perfect on crackers or corn chips as an appetizer at your next exotic foods party (or just make it with artichoke hearts instead).

The sweetness of the palm and the fresh bite of cilantro stimulate your palate first and the smoky tang of the roasted garlic, and heat of habanero linger. Eat on melba toasts, drink with a cool dry white wine, and listen to marimba music and the sound of crickets on a warm Summer night.

Ingredients:

  • 1 ˝-2 cups diced heart of palm (sub. artichoke hearts or minced young asparagus)
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • 1 tblsp. chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1-3/4 tsp. habanero salsa
  • dash of balsamic vinegar and olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:

Pan roast the garlic cloves in their skins in a dry, thick bottomed fry pan over low-mid heat for 10-15 minutes until golden brown. Meanwhile, boil the diced palm for 5 minutes or until tender. Peel the garlic and mash in mortar and pestle, or alternatively chop on a cutting board and mash in bowl with back of wooden spoon. Mash the palm the same way and mix with garlic. Add rest of ingredients and serve at room temperature or chilled.


View the Photos

Other Interesting Pages: Harvesting Cacao  ;  Harvesting Sugar Cane   ;  Edible Plants from the Rainforest


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