Guatemalan Pepian: Please Try This at Home

A Guatemalan cooking class? Aren’t you supposed to be learning Spanish?

Pepian and Rice - Xela, Guatemala
Guatemalan pepian and rice. What we learned to cook.

Learning a new language is great, but doing so through the lens of food and markets strikes us as ideal. So when the topic of Guatemalan cuisine came up during our Spanish lessons (day two, as we steered each of our instructors there fairly quickly), we seized the opportunity and asked if one of our sessions could double as a cooking class. You’ll see the results in the video and recipe below.

So instead of a typical early morning Spanish lesson grinding through verb conjugations and placement of indefinite articles, we set off for a local market in Xela (Quetzaltenango) to buy ingredients with our Spanish teachers, Karla and Maria-Luisa. Then we returned to the school kitchen for some hands-on instruction on how to make a fabulous Guatemalan national dish known as pepian.

Ingredients for Pepian at Market - Xela, Guatemala
Picking up ingredients for pepian at the market in Xela.

Roughly speaking, pepian is chicken (boiled then lightly fried) served in a recado – a rich, blended sauce composed of various roasted ingredients. At first look, the recado resembles mole, a sauce known well in Guatemala’s northern neighbor, Mexico. Its flavor, however, is remarkably distinct due to roasted sesame and squash seeds.

No wonder Guatemalans often reserve this dish for special occasions (e.g., weddings, birthdays, holidays). In their words, it’s muy rico (very rich)!

Please give the pepian recipe below a try and let us know how it goes. As you’ll see in the video, it’s fairly easy to make, so long as you can find the ingredients. Hint: look for the nearest Latin American grocery store – or Whole Foods – near you. Enjoy!

Video Recipe: How to Cook Pepian

Note: This all happened on day #8 of our Spanish lessons. Bear that in mind as you withstand our butchered Spanish.

Pepian Recipe

Ingredients:
2 oz. green squash seeds (pepitoria)
2 oz. sesame seeds
1.5 inch piece of cinnamon, broken into several pieces
4-5 roma tomatoes (whole, unpeeled)
2 oz. tomatillos
1/2 dried guaque chili
1/2 dried pasa chili
10 peppercorns
salt
2 lbs chicken, cut into pieces
1 1/2 liters water
2-3 hot dog buns (in Guatemala, they use about 3 pieces of pan frances, which look more like blunt hot dog buns than baguettes)

Place the chicken parts in a large pot with about 1.5 liters of water. Cover and simmer for about 20 minutes until chicken is done and a golden broth emerges.

Dry roast the sesame seeds until they are slightly brown. Place them on a paper towel to cool. Do the same with the squash seeds.

Place the tomatoes, cinnamon fragments, tomatillos and chilies on a flat, non-teflon metal roasting plate (called a comal in Guatemala) atop a burner (preferably gas) and allow everything to roast and blacken slightly. Turn occasionally to allow all ingredients to roast evenly.

Pepian Ingredients - Tomatoes, Tomatillos and Chili Peppers - Xela, Guatemala
Blackening tomatoes, tomatillos and chilies on the comal.

Pour the roasted sesame and squash seeds into a blender and blend until finely ground, or about 30 seconds. Add the roasted cinnamon stick fragments and pepper corns and grind for another 30 seconds. Then add the wet ingredients – tomatoes, tomatillos, chilies – and top with the broken pan frances and about 1 cup of chicken broth. Blend until everything is smooth; add more chicken broth or pan frances fragments until you achieve the desired consistency. The sauce should drip slowly from the spoon (see the video).

Heat a pan with a bit of oil. Remove the chicken pieces from the remaining broth and fry for about 5 minutes, until golden. Then add the chicken pieces to a large pot and pour in the recado from the blender. Simmer for about ten minutes; the sauce will darken. Add a couple of pinches of salt to taste. If your sauce is thinner than you’d like, cook a bit longer; if it’s too thick, add some of the remaining broth.

Serve chicken pieces topped with recado. Sprinkle remaining sesame seeds on top for garnish. Serve with rice pilaf (see recipe below).

Rice preparation:
Brown the rice kernels, diced onion and garlic in a bit of butter or oil. Add water (ratio of 2:1 to rice) and chopped vegetables. Add a couple of pinches of salt. Simmer until water is absorbed.

¡Buen Provecho!

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Comments

  1. says

    Spanish school through food!? Wow, are we jealous! We’ve been learning Spanish through food, you could say, but it’s pretty cromagnon and comical in use.

    In the end, we took Guatemala off our itinerary, because we only had time for Tikal and we figured Guatemala deserves it’s due time. Next time around the world!

  2. says

    This all reminds me of the cooking scenes in Like Water for Chocolate, a book I used to teach.

    And.. since we just found a place of our own WITH a kitchen, I am going to give this pepian a try. It sounds and looks amazing. I’m curious to know how many of the ingredients are available here in Salta.

  3. says

    @Dave: We shall see. Bookshelves sag with cookbooks, so something clever is in order.

    @Jeremy and Eva: Sorry to hear Guatemala is off your list. By the way, our new motto is “everything through food”…not just Spanish school.

    @marina: Funny, we are seeing pepian everywhere. I suppose that has much to do with the fact that we’re in Semana Santa season. Having tried four versions of it, I can say the recipe above is the best so far. Just enough roasted sesame seeds.

    @Leigh: Like Water for Chocolate…a film after our own hearts. After you give the recipe a try, let us know how it goes. Be sure not to skimp on any of the ingredients (if you can avoid it) and be sure to roast it all enough.

    @Agne: Exactly!

  4. says

    I knew you (Dan) would have this defeatist attitude to the cookbook. That’s why I searched on Amazon to see if anyone has done a good ‘Travel Cookbook.’ There are very few examples of any type of cookbooks like this. In fact, an Uncornered Market cookbook would be unique (and popular within a segment) given the scope of your journey, your coverage of markets and your photos…

    On another front, I think Obama gave me a cold when I shook his hand last week. Do you think I could sell on ebay? Any other ideas what I can do with it?

  5. says

    @Dave: Sorry the President gave you a cold. Regarding your hand, you might consider chopping it off and hawking it on eBay – that is, if you haven’t yet washed it.

    Please don’t take my previous comment regarding the cookbook (as off-hand as it was) as defeatist or dismissive. We’ve received quite a few book and project ideas, particularly over the last six months. We are just trying to process it all – seeking ways to determine what works for us and which ideas might have legs.

    Although an Amazon search may not have specifically yielded much for travel cookbooks, they are out there as friends and family continue to pass them along for inspiration. For example, this couple – Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid – came up in conversation frequently late last year when they were profiled in the New Yorker. They are up to six cookbooks from their travels and their style combines photography, recipes and story-telling. An ideal – but familiar – combination.

    That said, just because there are travel cookbooks or travel food books out there doesn’t mean we don’t have new and fresh content to offer. The popularity of our food posts, photography and videos can attest to that.

    So, please keep sending ideas our way. Even if it seems we may not respond immediately – or perhaps with the ideal level of enthusiasm – we are grateful for all of them and we take them all very seriously.

  6. says

    @Jenn: Drink?

    On a more serious note, we find that food and eating are great levelers. When it comes to eating, we all need to do it. Our most “real” experiences traveling also often begin or end with a meal.

    A good meal — and the conversation, company, and sensual pleasures (visual, smell, taste, etc.) that come along with it — is one of the best things in life.

  7. Blaz says

    Puffff! With this photos u really make me hungry …

    And then ur comment, Dan, “A good meal — and the conversation, company, and sensual pleasures (visual, smell, taste, etc.) that come along with it — is one of the best things in life.”, you remind me of sth I’ve almost forgotten these busy days …

    Wihs you all the best guys!

    Blaz

  8. says

    @Blaz: Hope your schedule slows down a bit so that you can enjoy time with new friends over meals in Mississippi…or perhaps in Guam? Maybe over a large breakfast :)

    @Javier: In Guatemala the dish is called pepian, but in Mexico there is dish called pipian. I believe the two dishes are very similar.

    @Superviajera23: Thanks! We’re doing much better now with our Spanish than what you heard in the video, but still have a long ways to go!

  9. says

    Brilliant immersion technique. The pipian sounds deelish. I made my own mole once, roasting the ‘10,000 ingredients,’ and it was amazing. Are the hot dog buns to thicken the sauce?

  10. says

    @Tom: The hot dog buns (pan frances, if you’d prefer to sound Central American and mildly exotic) are to thicken the sauce. However, they too were toasted (slightly burnt, really) and added to the overall flavor of the dish. This is best of five versions we have tried so far in Xela, Antigua and Guatamala City.

  11. Lori says

    Just wanted you to know that I used your recipe to make Pepian for about 25 people the other night—and it turned out great!

  12. says

    @Lori: Awesome! We’re psyched to hear that you were able to find all the ingredients in the States and cook up an authentic batch of pepian. Glad all your guests liked it too!

  13. Celeste says

    Umm … what do you do with the hotdog buns? They’re in the list, but make no further appearance and I can’t recall EVER having hotdog buns with pepian.

    Also, in many parts of Guatemala, pepian is made with chicken, beef, and pork and every serving has one small piece of each. Pumpkin seeds are often used in place of the other two types and the sauce may be thinned a bit with leftover coffee. Yum!

    Everywhere I’ve had it, it is also served with plenty of hot tortillas and their ever-present aguacate accompaniment.

    Geez, I have to go make some now that I’m thinking about it!

  14. says

    @Celeste: Thanks for your comment. The toasted hot dog buns are used as a thickener and featured in the video. We’ve corrected the recipe to indicate that about half of the toasted hot dog buns should be broken up and placed in the top of the blender (above the other dry and roasted ingredients). Blend. Then, depending on the thickness desired, you can balance the sauce/recado with more toatsted buns or chicken stock.

    Pepian would be interesting with pork, I would guess. But beef, that’s difficult to imagine. Each of the five times we tried pepian in Guatemala, it was served with chicken.

    By the way, aguacate (avocodo) goes well with just about anything in my book.

    I hope you had a chance to make the recipe. And sorry for the delayed reply.

  15. claudia says

    It looks so delicious my mom makes this all the time and i feel like having some of it right now :), here in the US is hard to find the same ingredients but it tastes almost the same :)
    Jocon is also a well known Guatemalan dish, very delicious as well…

  16. says

    @claudia: Your mom makes this all the time? Lucky you. We were just talking the other day about how nice it would be to get our hands on some pepian. If you have some time, please let us know which pepian ingredients in the U.S. can be substituted for the ingredients you would find in Guatemala. We have some idea on which ones would work, but it would be nice to get your ideas.
    Thanks for the tip on jocon. We had it a couple of times. Very, very good. In fact, it’s a bit of an oversight on our part that we did not include it in our Central American food roundup (though Guatemala is already well-represented!):
    http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/2009/09/best-central-america-food/

  17. says

    I’m crawling through your Guatemala posts for ideas – I may just have to borrow this when I go through Spanish class in a few weeks! (also planning on Xela :-) What a creative way to learn some pretty useful market skills in Spanish!

  18. pachanga323 says

    My grandmother makes this all the time except instead of chicken we use beef tongue. The recipe is similar — you boil the tongue whole, and, once cooked, you chop it into approx. one-inch cubes. The recado remains the same. It is absolutely delicious! You should try it sometime…

  19. Paula says

    Help me pleas!! :) I want to make this recipe but live in USA,what can I use instead of chile guaque and chile pasa!!
    I have tried looking for substitutes in the internet but can’t find anything, both chiles seem to be originally from Guatemala so they are not known well in other countries.

    Thanks so much!!
    Paula

  20. says

    @pachanga323: Thanks for the recommendation. Sounds like a very traditional recipe. We’ll look forward to trying it when we can get our hands on the ingredients.

    @Paula: For chile guaque, I’m told you can use (if you can find them) guajillo chiles. As for a chile pasa (chili pasa) substitute, I really don’t know. You might try dried/sundried red bell pepper. Good luck! And please let us know how it goes.

  21. Yoly H says

    Hi,
    I am guatemalan and I was delighted to find this recipe online. I have to say that the pepian can be done with beef ribs (costilla), and it is amazing. For the chillies, you can use Ancho chilli instead of Chile Pasa, which I am sure you can find in the US as I have found in the Caribbean and in UK.
    If you are still in GUatemala, try Kak’ik which is made with turkey!
    Good luck in your culinary journeys…

  22. says

    @Yoly: Thank you for the recommendation to do pepian with beef ribs. It sounds like pepian can go with just about any meat: chicken, beef or pork. An even bigger thank you for suggesting alternatives for the chili pasa.

    We have tried Kak’ik. After one of our photo shoots in the hills outside of Guatemala City, the people we were with took us for a huge serving of it!

  23. Roberto M. says

    Guatemala is a wonderful country. On December 21st, 2012 Guatemala will be celebrating the new era of the Maya. You should be there!

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