When planning our week at Lake Atitlan, the first thing I booked was a cooking class for Sam as a surprise! Since cooking such a huge part of our relationship, I figured a cooking class would be a great way to bond together and with the culture!
Food has quickly become one of the most integral parts of trip planning for me. While delicious, I really enjoy how food connects people around the world and helps instill a sense of the culture with every bite. And what better way to experience it than to get your hands dirty with some cooking!
Centrally located in the popular town of San Pedro, we were greeted by Lake Atitlan Cooking School‘s founder, Anita, and her very smiley face at the boat docks in town. Our class only 9 people, a perfectly intimate and friendly size. Anita started off the class with some brief introductions, and then led us up the hill to the farmer’s market.
The market is held every day and is a common daily stop for women in San Pedro. It is a fully functioning market, with fruits, veggies, meat, tortillas, spices, herbs — basically anything you might need for cooking. All of the ingredients we used that day came from the market, so we certainly knew they were fresh!
While shopping, Anita talked to us a little bit about how she learned to cook and how she got into this business. It’s a long story, so more on that tomorrow. Anita pointed out lots of different ingredients & herbs that I was not familiar with that are used frequently in this part of the world, making it a very interesting learning experience! Unfortunately, I don’t really remember any of the names, but suffice to say, the smells in the market were awesome.
While shopping, we also learned how to hand make tortillas from one of the female vendors at the market. Her entire booth is tortillas; that’s all she sells! Just shows you how much of a staple they are in the Central American diet. Guatemala is home to several different types & strains of corn, so we saw red, white, yellow and blue corn tortillas. The dough was made for us, but we were responsible for forming the patties which is not nearly as easy as it looks. The women just slap and toss them around non nonchalantly, but you have to use just the right pressure to get them right; otherwise, the tortillas stick to your hands!
After making those tortillas, we headed back to Anita’s kitchen to get started on our meal. Anita owns the building where she houses her classes, and she actually has a fair trade shop on the first floor! The kitchen is on the top floor, an open air space with a beautiful view of the lake. Couldn’t ask for a better location to spend an afternoon!
For lunch, we made 3 dishes– Pepian, tamalitos de chipilin and rellenos de platanos. Pepian is one of the oldest dishes in Guatemalan culinary history and is probably the most famous Guatemalan stew today. It fuses together Spanish and Mayan cultures, characterized by a thick broth of peppers & tomatoes.
We collected all the ingredients and got down to work! Anita started giving us various jobs, such as cutting vegetables, roasting tomatoes, boiling chicken and tearing herbs. It was hectic and fun, trying lots of different tasks in her outdoor kitchen. It took about 3 hours total to get everything prepped, assembled and cooked, all the while just soaking in the delicious smells of the kitchen. My favorite part (besides eating of course) was when we roasted all the spices. So fragrant!!
Anita is such a positive and cheerful spirit, so working with her was a breeze. And wow, what a cook! She has been making this meal since she was a girl, and similar to mole or soup, every family has their own little spin on Pepian.
Once all the components were ready to go, we sat at a big long table like a little family to enjoy our freshly cooked meal. The pepian was absolutely incredible! I had eaten one earlier in the week, and it was nothing compared to Anita’s. The sauce was so flavorful and balanced — spicy without being hot, acidic without being sharp, bitter without being over the top, rich without being heavy. I normally don’t love boiled chicken, but in this concoction, it was nice and well-cooked. All of the veggies were al dente, not mushy, and full of the flavor from all of the herbs.
This was my favorite experience in Guatemala, and I am so grateful to have spent the day with Anita. She made a big impact on my experience, and I’ll be sharing more about her tomorrow. After departing from her kitchen, Sam & I had full bellies and big smiles! And the next day, she even sent us the recipe so that we could reenact the experience in our own kitchen. In case you’re curious to make this dish yourself, I’ve copied the recipe below!
- 2 guaque (guajillo) chilies
- 2 pasa (poblano/mulato) chilies
- 9 roma/plumb tomatoes (approx 1 lb)
- 1 medium white onion
- 3 large cloves garlic
- 1 quisquil (mirliton/chayote) *you could substitute a hard squash if quisquil not available
- 3 big potatoes or other root veggies (potatoes are more traditional)
- 2 oz raw pumpkin seeds (pepitoria)
- 2 oz sesame seeds (ajonjoli)
- 1 small bunch cilantro
- 6 large black peppercorns
- 6 cloves
- ½ stick cinnamon (cannela)
- 2 pounds of chicken (can use chicken parts or breast fillets only if preferred)
Cut the chicken into 5 pieces. Can be cooked skin on or off to personal preference.The bones are included and add flavor to the dish. Boil chicken in a stock pot in roughly 3 liters/quarts of water. Water should cover the chicken by about 2 inches. Add 1 heaping tablespoon of salt while the chicken boils.
While the chicken is boiling, roast tomatoes. These take the longest to roast. They are likely to become black but should be roasted until soft. Roast the dried chilies over a medium low flame on a comal or flat pan until very dry and fragrant. Once roasted, crumble chilies into a mixing bowl. All roasted ingredients will be combined in this bowl.
Roast raw pumpkin seeds until toasted. Add to mixing bowl. Roast sesame seeds until lightly toasted. Add to mixing bowl. Roast one whole onion cut into sections with 6-8 black whole peppercorns and 6 cloves plus 3 large cloves of garlic. Add to mixing bowl. Roast/toast fresh cilantro the same as the other ingredients. This will become very fragrant. Add to mixing bowl. Roast ½ stick cinnamon until dry and fragrant. Add to mixing bowl.
In a separate bowl cut peeled potatoes into large chunks. Cut quisquil into thick slices and peel. Cut remaining onion into chunks. These will be added to the chicken pot once chicken is mostly cooked.
Combine all roasted ingredients and add water until Blend liquid and roasted ingredients in a blender to combine fully. Add the mixture to the chicken pot. Continue cooking at a rolling boil until the sauce reduces some and all ingredients are cooked through. The sauce is typically thin like a soup. This dish can be served in a bowl as a standalone meal or with rice.