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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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.