Learning How to Cook Guatemalan Food | Mayan Kitchen - San Pedro + Recipes!
Updated: Jun 16
Cooking classes are one of my favourite ways to immerse myself in a new culture - a hands-on opportunity to learn the techniques, tastes and smells that make up the heart of a nation. Recently, I took a cooking class in San Pedro, Guatemala that turned out to be one of my most inspiring travel encounters.
Prior to visiting Guatemala, I wasn't quite sure what defined Guatemalan food. While travelling through Guatemala, I found it hard to find restaurants that served traditional Guatemalan cuisine. The massive Mexican/US/Israeli influences in the country made it difficult to differentiate - I figured there had to be more to Guatemalan food than beans and guacamole! While in San Pedro on Lake Atitlan, I signed up to a cooking class with the intention of learning more about Guatemalan cuisine. Little did I know, this cooking class would be one of my most memorable experiences in Guatemala.
Our class met our instructor Antia down at the San Pedro docks - the owner of Mayan Kitchen and a San Pedro local. We then walked to the local market to purchase ingredients for our dishes. Antia explained that all the produce - including the bits of raw chicken sitting on display on a table - is super fresh, the locals only bring a small selection of what they produce to market. She also explained that many of these locals are indigenous Mayan people, many of which, don't speak Spanish and are underprivileged in their community.
Buying fresh chicken at the local market
Buying Chipilin (similar to spinach) to make Tamalitos
Buying tortilla dough from a local merchant
The Mayan women are always dressed so beautifully
Local market vendor
We bought chicken, avocados (for less than $1 for 2!), beans, herbs, vegetables and homemade tortilla dough. I liked that the local government has banned the use of single use plastic bags in an effort to protect the health of the lake - we placed all our purchases in reusable bags and containers and headed to Anita's house to begin our cooking class.
Buying fresh tomatoes
Antia has an incredibly beautiful open kitchen overlooking the lake. We began by peeling, washing and chopping the vegetables. We would be making guacamole for a starter and Jocón con Pollo (but vegetarian for me) as a main to be served with Tamalitos de Chipilin and homemade Black Corn Tortillas. We would also cook Mole de Plátanos for dessert and make cold Hibiscus Tea.
View of Lake Atitlan from Anita's kitchen
This guacamole was some of the most delicious I've ever tried - and I've eaten a lot of guacamole in my life...! What made it unique was the combination of coriander and mint along with the addition of finely chopped pineapple for sweetness - SO yum!
1 large/2 medium avocados
1/4 small white onion diced finely
1 heaped teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon mint
1 teaspoon lime juice
A handful of finely chopped pineapple
Mix all ingredients together and serve fresh.
Jocón is a thick Guatemalan spicy green stew. Normally this dish would be made with chicken, but I cooked a vegetarian alternative. This dish uses Tomatillos, also known as a Mexican husk tomatoes/miltomate/jamberry/ground cherries.
1 whole chicken (but replace with extra root vegetables for a vegetarian version)
1.5 cups tomatillos cut in half
1 bunch of green onions
1 bunch coriander
4 large green tomatoes
1 green capsicum
1 tablespoon salt
2 guaque chillies
2 pasa chillies
1 medium sized squash, cubed
3 potatoes, cubed
2 tablespoons raw pumpkin seeds
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
6 large black peppercorns
3 cloves of garlic
1/2 stick of cinnamon
Add 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil to a large pot and add in the tomatillos, green tomatoes, capsicum, quaque chillies, pasa chillies, squash and potato cover with 1-2 cups of water. Simmer on a medium heat for 20-30 minutes.
Roast raw pumpkin seeds, coriander, the cinnamon stick and sesame seeds until toasted. Roast one whole onion cut into sections with the black peppercorns, cloves and garlic combine with the vegetable mix.
Take around 3 cups of the vegetable mix and add to a blender with 1-2 cups of water. Puree until smooth.
Pour the puree mix back into the pot with the vegetables and cook through. Season if necessary.
Serve with rice.
Tamalitos de Chipilin
A tamal is a traditional Guatemalan dish made of corn dough wrapped in corn husks or plantain leaves. This variation is made with chipilin - a native Central American plant similar to spinach.
Tamalito mix (bottom left)
2 cups of corn dough
1 cup of chipilin (can substitute with spinach)
1/2 cup of vegetable oil
1 tablespoon of salt
Mix all ingredients together.
Mould dough into small sausage-like shapes then roll inside corn leaves.
Boil for 20 minutes.
Black Corn Tortillas
To make the black corn tortillas, we used dough that we purchased from the local market. Anita taught us how to form the dough into circular shapes with a kind of clapping motion. She made it look easy but it was actually quite tricky, mine kept falling apart! Once they were the correct thickness and shape, we fried the tortillas on a hot plate until they were golden brown.
Mole de Plátanos
Mole de Platanos is a traditional Guatemalan dessert made with chocolate-based sauce. It uses plantains (cooking bananas).
1 guaque chilli, dried, de-seeded and de-veined
1 pasa chilli, dried, de-seeded and de-veined
3 roma tomatoes
2 tablespoons raw pumpkin seeds
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
1 stick of cinnamon
100g of chocolate (closest to 100% is best!)
4 plantains (sliced)
Roast the chilies, tomatoes, peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon, pumpkin seeds and
sesame seeds together in a pan.
Place the entire spice mix into a blender with 3 cups of water and blend until smooth.
Place the liquid into a sauce pan. Add the chocolate and cinnamon and boil the mixture on medium heat for 15 minutes. Mix frequently.
Place the sliced plantains in a frying pan with vegetable oil. Fry for 3-4 minutes until both sides are golden brown.
Combine the plantains and mole sauce together in the sauce pan for 10 minutes.
This delicious Guatemalan drink can be served hot or cold.
1 cup of Hibiscus flowers
2 litres of of water
1/2 tablespoon of cloves
1 stick of cinnamon
1 cup of sugar
Boil the hibiscus flowers with the cinnamon and cloves.
Strain the hibiscus mixture into a jug with water and add the sugar. Mix well.
After a couple of hours of cooking under Anita's instruction, our meal was ready to be served - the final product was delicious!
While we were eating Anita shared her incredible story with us. She explained that she started off as a child selling bananas to tourists at the very docks where we met her this morning. A chance meeting led her to get the opportunity to learn english from an expat in San Pedro. A few years later, her English skills were picked up by an American company developing a tour agency in San Pedro in her local area and she was employed as a tour guide and translator. She was good at her job, and worked her way up in the business. However, she was bullied by fellow male coworkers for the fact that she was a working woman.
Meanwhile, in her personal life, she made the decision to divorce her husband who didn't support her choice to be in the workforce. Machoism is still alive and well in Guatemala, particularly in small, rural villages. Once married, women are expected to be child-bearers and stay at home to cook and clean. Men are also often dominating, assertive and violent toward their wives as women are considered second-class citizens. She explained that her husband didn't approve of her entrepreneurship or the fact that she was earning a good wage. She was now a single mother with two children, a label which brings a female severe dishonour in Guatemalan society - her own family even practically disowned her.
In an attempt to escape the bullying of her male coworkers, Anita began working in the office of the tour company and giving private cooking lessons to guests in her small kitchen on the side. Quickly, her cooking lessons become so popular that she began running them full time as her own business. Eventually, she was able to build her business to the point where she was able to purchase her own house. On the top floor she runs her cooking class in her beautiful open kitchen, the middle floor is where she lives with her two children and she donates the bottom floor, rent free to a co-operative she founded. The co-operative sells goods handmade by local single mothers who receive the profits to help support their families.
She explained how difficult it was for her to purchase her house. Neighbours opposed the sale, reasoning that a single woman like Anita would only be buying a property to house her 'male company'. It's hard to fathom how challenging it must have been for Anita to be a single mother in her society.
Anita's story was so incredibly inspiring. Starting from very little and overcoming major hurdles, Anita has managed to build a cooking school that is regarded as the number one thing to do in San Pedro on Tripadvisor but also a co-operative that supports over twenty single mothers and their families. If you're even in San Pedro, make sure you visit Anita's Mayan Kitchen Cooking School!
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