La Comida

Posted from Solola, Guatemala.

Since we’ve been in Guatemala for almost seven weeks and living with a local family, we thought it might be interesting to describe some of our gastronomical experiences and relate some observations about the food here.  As most of you probably know, food is muy importante to both of us.  Part of the reason we chose to live with a family while enrolled in Spanish immersion school was that they would cook/provide our meals for us, three meals a days for six days each week.  What does a typical Guatemala household eat normally?

A mountain of limones at the mercado

In the States, we have the luxury (if we can afford it) of pretty much eating whatever we want whenever we want it.  Foodstuffs are flown in from all corners of the Earth for our enjoyment.  In the Lake Atitlan region, that’s not quite the case.  There are no supermarkets nearby so most of the food comes from the mercados, which are the big markets in the town center, or from the tiendas, which are little shops that can be found anywhere and which usually all sell the same things.  In this area, the tiendas do not usually carry produce; more frequently they are stocked with nonperishables, including a mind-boggling array of snack items (chips and the like), some canned goods, boxed milk, plenty of sodas (did you know that 3-liters exist?!) and some household products.

Fun stuff at the mercado

Produce is important here and because of circumstances is usually very fresh.  Every mercado is teeming with venders selling such staples as tomatoes, onions, potatoes, cucumbers, bananas, watermelon, papaya, pineapple, plantains, herbs, etc.  (Mangos are coming into season now!)  There is also an assortment of beans, rice, small dried fishes and shrimp, some spices, as well as some nuts and seeds.  The mercado is the place to buy anything – including toothpaste, blue jeans, toys, hair gel, shoes, etc. – if you can, because the tiendas usually tend to be more expensive.

Even the blue ice cream is less than $1!

Stores selling only clothes, household items, or textiles are more expensive yet, because they have an eye out for the tourists, who can usually afford those prices.  And by “those prices,” I mean prices in line with (or even slightly lower than) prices we pay in the States.  But because the basic goods in this area are so much cheaper, Erik and I have been conditioned to scoff when asked to pay $1 for a Snickers bar.  You can’t get an American candy bar for less than $1 here, but when there is ice cream (13¢ – 75¢), a piece of cake (63¢ – $1.25), or a frozen chocolate-covered banana/strawberries/pineapple (13¢) available, why would you shell out a buck for something that clearly has been sitting around awhile waiting for a gringo needing a chocolate fix?  When we relayed the story of paying $1 for a Snickers bar (our second week here and never since) to our teacher and our host mother, they both had to ask, ¿Qué es Snickers?” (“What is Snickers?”)  The defense rests, Your Honor.

Masa, freshly pulverized

If I had to boil down the Guatemalan diet to its basic components, it would include fruits, vegetables, masa (the pulverized corn used to make tortillas and other things), black beans, sugar, and maybe salt.  Eggs frequently make an appearance as well, but meats and fishes aren’t always important and are almost never the featured component of a meal.  Sugar seems to be used very frequently and especially in beverages, including coffee, tea, and blended fruit drinks, and often in surprisingly copious amounts.

I should also mention that street vendors are extremely popular here.  You can buy ice cream (the Super Helado sellers are constantly ringing little bells), tacos, fried chicken and french fries, tostados, atol (more on that later), or fruits from a street vendor for pretty cheap – and one of the charming things is that virtually everyone does buy a snack from them.  Grandparents will sit on their front step eating ice cream cones; ladies carrying baskets on their heads will stop for a tostada and glass of atol de arroz con leche (atol of rice and milk); or some teenage couple will share a paper basket of chicken and fries while walking down the street.  Why not?  You gotta love that.

Our host mother, Rosario, likes to cook and is very good at it, despite her lack of resources.  (For cryin’ out loud – Erik and I have searched and searched but have never seen a single rubber scraper in any kitchen, any tienda, any mercado, or any store within a 20-mile radius of here!)  She does not have an oven, and her indoor “stove” is a cooktop unit with three gas burners that sits on a table in the kitchen.  She does use the cooktop regularly, but most of the intensive stuff is done outside on the wood-burning stove, which she has down to a science.  That is where the all-day-long things are prepared (like beans) and also where she makes the corn tortillas that accompany virtually every lunch and supper.  You can cook things on the plancha over the fire or set things directly into the fire.  But she’s not one to experiment.  There are certain ways to cook things, and certain things go with other things, and that’s that.  (That is what tradition is, after all.)  Once, upon discovering that she was using basil for something in our meal and that there was a tomato sauce to accompany another part of it, I carefully offered as a point of interest (so as not to intrude) that basil in tomato sauce was very popular in other parts of the world; her response was a rather blank look and slightly ambivalent but completely unperturbed, “Oh.”

(If you missed our post about our home life and all the work our host mother does every day, you can catch it here.)

Our breakfasts are the least typical (by Guatemalan standards).  A few times we’ve had Corn Flakes with boxed milk, which itself has a creepily long shelf life and doesn’t require refrigeration until after it is finally opened.  A few times everyone receives four pieces of white toast upon which to spread an unnaturally red strawberry jam.  Occasionally we get pancakes or French toast.  But often we are served a mix of fruit: some days it is the mixture of pineapple, papaya, watermelon, and cantaloupe (no substitutions, please) or other days a bowl of sliced bananas and strawberries.  We are always offered maple syrup (the fake stuff) with the bananas and strawberries, never with the other fruit mix.

Lunches are the biggest meals of the day, and since we have class until noon it is always a surprise when we get home.  Some days lunch is a plate of raw vegetables (cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, and radishes) with limón wedges and guacamole; some days it’s a plate of boiled vegetables (chayote, carrots, potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower are all contenders).  But often it’s something more involved.  Highlights include a cauliflower dish in which the cauliflower is enveloped in whipped eggs and then browned in a saute pan; a feast that includes a hearty soup with rice and another plate with a hunk of meat and an assortment of boiled vegetables; a white bean and pork fat dish that smacks as a not-too-distant cousin of France’s cassoulet; and an out-of-this-world-fantastic thing she called Potato Risotto that was incredibly flavorful and curiously similar to standard risotto but made with potatoes instead of rice.  (When I explained to Rosario what Italian risotto was – made with rice – she thought that it was interesting but not necessarily worth pursuing.)  Boiled beets, carne asada, spaghetti, pasta salad, and red beans have also found their way to the lunch table.  And it doesn’t matter what starches are already on the plate, tortillas will also be served.  Tortillas are served with a huge plate of spaghetti; tortillas are served with a plate of French fries; tortillas are served with a plate of food that already includes both potatoes and rice.  Are you getting the picture?  Long live the tortilla!

A plate of tostadas

Dinners tend to be a little more consistent.  Black beans, whole or refried, are frequent stars, usually accompanied by either scrambled eggs or a slice of white, tangy, fresh cheese.  Sometimes basted eggs will sit atop a scoop of freshly-made salsa ranchera.  Other times Rosario will work overtime and make something more labor-intensive, such tamales (corn masa or rice), tamalitos (mini versions of tamales), or doblados, which are kind of like tortillas folded once over, stuffed with potatoes and cheese, and fried in oil.  A plate of fries (hand-peeled, cut, and fried) can also suffice for dinner (topped with ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, and green chili sauce and wrapped in a tortilla is wickedly good – IF you can get past the carb guilt).  But our absolute favorite nights are when we have fried plantains.  That’s it.  A plate of two-and-a-half plantains per person, slowly fried in oil until browned and topped with fresh crema.  By American standards, most of the suppers are far from well-balanced, but, frankly, who cares?

Erik washes the leaves in which the tamales will be wrapped

Rosario assembles the tamales while Pepe carefully ties them

On occasion we have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to sample foods that are more “special occasion” foods: they might take more time and effort to prepare or may have special meaning.  (It’s similar In the U.S.: it’s not every day we go through the day-long process of making lasagna, or the expense of grilling a porterhouse, and we usually save turkey for special occasions and holidays.)  Tamales are labor intensive, whether made from corn masa, rice that has been cooked – and stirred (I had the blisters to prove it) – for 90 minutes until it resembles a pot of glue, or mashed potatoes that have been so overworked that they don’t come entirely off your hands for a couple of washes.  When Rosario made tamales recently,

Covering the tamales with a leaf and a piece of plastic for their two-hour sauna

Rosario adds water to the pot of tamales while Erik blocks her light

it was one of the only times she actually requested help from us, and obviously we were happy to pitch in.  Tostadas also require a lot of prep work; almost no one make their own tostada tortillas because it’s a difficult process that requires a special machine, but all the toppings (refried beans, guacamole, sauteed veg, tomato sauce, sliced onions, etc.) need to be prepared by someone.

Atol can be another special occasion food, depending on the type.  Atol is a beverage that comes in several varieties.  In town we have sampled atol made from milk and containing cooked rice, and there is also a chocolate version that also contains rice.  (Drinking rice is a… uh… different… experience for us.)  We have also had atol made from mosh, or oatmeal; it is pretty much like drinking oatmeal (quick oats, water, cinnamon, and plenty of sugar) that would be too soupy in a bowl so it is served in a cup.  There is also atol made from wheat that is served in a cup but also plenty chewable.  And finally, the one that has alluded us thus far, is an atol made from cooked (not fried) plantains.  But we will find it before we leave the area.  Atol blanco, or white atol, is simply liquified masa in a bowl that is eaten with a spoon and to which is added various traditional condiments, including black beans, limón juice, pumpkin seeds, some type of chile, and at times a cheap snack food (think Frito’s or something like that).  Atol blanco itself has very little flavor, so it serves as a blank canvas for whatever condiments you add.

Watermelon? Nope!

With the help of a machete, it's open!

Another unique food we have enjoyed is called chile cayote (or it could be something else like “chile ayote,” we’re really not sure…), and it looks pretty much like a watermelon on the outside, but inside is white and full of huge black seeds.  After extracting the seeds, you cut up the melon, put it in a pot (rind and all) with some water, sugar, and cinnamon, and after a couple of hours serve it in bowls for dessert.  It was pretty tasty.  Our host said that our sampling of chile ayote was probably the first and last time, since it is very rare in other parts of the world and not available regularly here either.  (Also, this was the only time we were ever served dessert in the house.  It’s just not a usual thing here.  Hence the ice cream man.)

Pepe whips egg whites in Rosario's kitchen

We have had so much fun – and are always very flattered – when Rosario allows us to help her in the – her – kitchen.  We always do things her way.  For example, I had previously made guacamole countless times, and now I am the chief guacamolist here but only after being schooled in how to correctly and gradually scrape the avocado to remove the flesh.  And so that’s how I do it in her kitchen.  She has also taught me how to make Envuelto de Coliflor (the cauliflower dish mentioned earlier), basted eggs with salsa ranchera, and I was the head sous chef last week when we all pitched in to make tamales; that pretty much means that I got to alternate stirring the pot of starchy rice with her (did I mention the blusters?  I wasn’t kidding.) over the wood-burning stove in the smoke and heat, and later tie up the packages as she sat on the floor of the kitchen (there is no counter) assembling them.  But she does confer with me – or at least pretends to – on the doneness and seasoning of several foods, which is fun.  This week on Thursday night, she had a church meeting at 5:00 and was afraid she wouldn’t be back in time to have dinner ready by 7:00, and she asked ME to prepare dinner.  For seven eaters.  Salsa Ranchera with Huevos Estrellados.  And I did it with flying colors – and I did it strictly her way.  Although she returned about 6:30, I was happy to give her a break in the kitchen for one night while she supervised.

(Cute story: while making the rice for the tamales, after more than an hour of cooking and stirring the rice, she ran a large scoop of the rice over to her mother-in-law, who lives three houses away, for her opinion.  Apparently our host father is rather selective about tamales and doesn’t enjoy them at other people’s houses.  Thus, his wife makes her tamales the way his mother does to keep him happy.  Anyway, after a minute or two she returned with the verdict: more time and more salt.  After several more minutes the mother-in-law (suegra) stopped by to check the progress.  She took a healthy scoop of the rice in her hand and not only tasted it but rubbed it between her fingers to probe it’s done-ness.  An impressively tactile approach, no?)

Chile Cayote (or Ayote?) on the plancha

There is only one more week left for us here in this location, and our departure certainly will be bittersweet.  Rosario even expressed sadness that our days here are numbered.  And as she knows that we liked to cook and especially make desserts back in the States, we were really touched this week when she actually requested that we teach her how to make a dessert!  We’ve decided to teach her how to make one of Erik’s specialties, rice pudding, because 1) the ingredients are very easy to come by, and 2) she does not have an oven.  Surprisingly, we just found out this week that she does not own any measuring cups either – not too mention the whole rubber scraper thing.  And she will allow us to assist her on another labor-intensive dish next week, somehow containing chocolate and fried plantains.  How could that be bad?  I am way excited!

Coming up: final thoughts on our time around Lake Atitlan, our new-found friends – both American and Guatemalan, an extremely unwelcome visitor near my bed one evening, a hike to the top of a volcano, and more marimba music!

¡Buen provecho!

Tamales, like carefully wrapped presents, await their water bath

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2 Responses to La Comida

  1. Scott McKenzie says:

    OMG—How absolutly fabulous!!! I am so envious. What I wouldn’t give to have an experience like that. And way to go not pushing the “well this is how we do it” thing.

    Keep writing, it is always a great joy to follow along.

  2. Alice Williams says:

    Hi Joe & Erik,
    I’ve decided that I enjoy reading about Guatemala more than I would enjoy living there, so thanks for letting your experience become mine. I think I’m too old to “rough it.”
    I wouldn’t worry about the carbs either. ( For his entire life, my uncle has eaten 2 pieces of buttered white bread with every dinner- in addition to the potatoes or rice served- and finished it all off with soda crackers. Every dinner! He’s in his 80s now and still as thin as ever – so go figure.) I would miss the occasional dessert though.
    Great to hear from you, as always.

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