Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Mayan Pepian

The creation of this incredible dish was observed one morning last week, as Marie - my host's housekeeper and cook set about making what is one of Guatemala's favourite dishes. I was told that the roots of this dish come from the Mayan people of Guatemala, who reside in the volcanic regions that cut a swathe across the country. This is one of those dishes that has been made with love for years, by women, each family recipe and way of cooking passing from generation to generation.

What makes this dish so exciting is not just the ingredients and the combinations of such, but treatment these are then given to create such a rich and deeply flavoursome meal. The key piece of cooking kit is the Comale, an iron pan or skillet used for cooking tortillas - in a similar fashion to how chapattis or pancakes are cooked. This is used to toast, burnish and blacken each of the ingredients in stages. First a whole bunch of fresh coriander, resplendent with roots and pretty green leaves is left
to crisp to a golden hue. It felt slightly uncomfortable seeing luscious herbs frazzling on hot iron, but the smells had me fixed, trance like as Marie added more ingredients. Next came sticks of cinnamon, and in a small frying pan pumpkin and sesame seeds were also toasted until they popped excitedly. Then there were dried chilli peppers of all sorts; the black, raisin-like Chille Passa, the hot and spicy Chille Guaque and sweet red peppers. The charring ingredients filled the house with an intoxicating smoke, the kind that smelt of ancient cooking fires and had with it a faint whiff of alchemy.

Next were the tomatoes (both large red ones and small green ones), onions, garlic and flour that once toasted would thicken the luscious sauce. All of the toasted ingredients would then be blitzed in a food processor with a small cup of hot water, and would end up resembling what I can only describe as a Mayan Curry sauce, full of aromatic richness and an almost cloying piquancy. The sauce is added to chicken pieces that had been poached, along with onions, carrots and a Guatemalan squash-like vegetable called guisquil. The flavour of the finished dish was unbelievable; layers upon layers of sweet smokiness that gave way to nuttiness and bitter spiciness. This was definitely a meal I will always remember and my first real taste of true Guatemala.

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