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This traditional Guatemalan kak’ik soup features dark turkey meat in a delicious, lightly-spiced red broth. One of the most famous Mayan dishes in Guatemala, it’s perfect for a hearty meal when it’s chilly outside.
For a global twist during the holiday season, enjoy kak’ik as a spicy, savoury alternative to plain roast turkey.
The key ingredients of Guatemalan kak’ik turkey soup include dark turkey meat, aromatic cinnamon and cloves, fresh red tomatoes and peppers, tomatillos and the smoky Cobánero chile,
Its characteristic red colour comes from the dusky annatto seeds of the achiote tree.
History of Kak-ik
This traditional Q’eqchi Mayan dish, which dates to pre-Hispanic times, is one of the most famous Guatemalan foods. A cross between a soup and a stew, it’s so special it was even deemed a cultural icon by Guatemala’s Ministry of Culture and Sport!
Although similar to other famous Guatemalan dishes such as pulique and pepian de pollo (chicken stew), kakik is reserved for special occasions because turkey meat is much more expensive than chicken or gallina (hen).
The dish originates in the Alta Verapaz region of the country. Its capital city of Cobán, founded by Dominican friars in 1538, serves as the social and commercial hub for surrounding Q’eqchi Mayan community.
Set at an altitude of 4,000 feet in mist-shrouded rainforest, Cobán is often chilly. So the spiciness of the steaming hot caldo (soup) and richness of the dark turkey meat is especially welcome.
I first tried kakik at Posada Montaña del Quetzal, a humble roadside inn set near Guatemala’s Mario Dary Rivera reserve. This protected cloud forest biosphere is home to the resplendent quetzal, the country’s national bird.
A popular stop for travellers enroute to Coban on CA14 highway, the restaurant’s menu features kakik along with other traditional Guatemalan foods.
Because it’s usually prepared with chunto criollo, a wild turkey that’s more flavourful and leaner than the plump ones available in supermarkets in North America, menus sometimes list it as chunto rather than pavo in Spanish.
If you’re headed to Lanquin or Semuc Champey another good stop for kakik before Cobán is San Rafael Restaurant.
What is the Meaning of Kak-ik?
Whether it’s spelled as Kaq-ik, kak’ik, kackik or kaquik, the pronunciation is kak-EEK with the emphasis on the second syllable.
The meaning of kakik in English is “red and spicy” but it has a deeper meaning.
In ancient Mayan times, turkeys were highly prized as symbols of wealth and abundance. The red colour of this dish evokes the blood spilled in sacrificial rituals and is symbolic of rebirth.
While in Coban, I saw several ritualistic sacrifices of chickens on the grounds of El Calvario Church.
And although some original recipes for kakik call for turkey blood to be incorporated into the broth, it’s not part of my recipe for kakik. So, don’t worry that you’ll need to go looking for some!
Cobánero Chile – Chile de Cobán
While it’s an easy to make recipe, one of the key ingredients to an authentic Guatemalan kak-ik is the small, round, dry-smoked chile Cobánero or chile de Cobán.
Due to the wood drying process a Cobánero chile has an intense, smoky flavour that provides an incredible depth of flavour to the dish.
While it’s most often seen in kak’k, the Cobanero chile is one of my favourite chiles. It’s so versatile, I use it as an everyday chile much like red pepper flakes!
It’s available throughout Guatemala in dried pods, powder and crushed forms as well as online via Amazon. If you can’t find it, the best substitute for chile cobánero is chipotle pepper in crushed or powdered form.
How to Prepare Kak-ik de Pavo
1. Cut turkey into serving size pieces. In Guatemala, the recipe is almost always made with turkey drumsticks. Dark meat provides a wonderful rich, flavour but you can substitute white meat. Or, if you purchase a large turkey, roast only part of it and reserve the remainder for this recipe.
2. Add enough stock to cover the turkey, the garlic, cilantro and ½ teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil and simmer for 45 minutes until tender. Remove and reserve the garlic and cilantro.
3. Meanwhile, char the tomato, tomatillos (husks removed), onion and sweet pepper. Remove and set aside. In Guatemala, pan roasting is most often done in a comal (a clay or metal griddle) but a dry skillet is a good substitute.
4. Char the dried chile pasa and chile guaque in the same pan until fragrant but not burned. Remove the seeds and stems. Soak the roasted chiles in ½ cup warm broth until softened.
I’d originally had my doubts, but now I’m a convert to cooking with peels. Just don’t ever eat the husk of a tomatillo as they’re poisonous!
When it comes to onion skins, they also deepen the colour of the sauce. According to the Farmers’ Almanac, they also provide vitamins A, C, E, and numerous antioxidants. Use organic veggies and give it a try!
5. Trim the pan-roasted vegetables of stems and combine with soaked chile pasa and chile guaque in a food processor. Add one cup of turkey stock, the reserved cilantro and 1/2 of the reserved garlic. Discard the rest of the garlic unless you’re a fan of loads of garlicky goodness. If you’re a garlic lover, toss them all in.
6. Process until smooth and velvety. Add achiote, cinnamon, dried cloves, salt and powdered Cobánero chile and process once more.
6. Add the puree to turkey broth and simmer until the soup is thickened to almost a stew. Add salt and pepper to taste.
7. Sprinkle with chopped mint and/or cilantro.
Tips and Serving Suggestions for Kak’ik Guatemalan turkey soup
- In Guatemala, kakik is most often served with a turkey drumstick sticking out of the top of the bowl. Typical sides are plain white steamed rice and small masa tamales (tamalitos).
- If you don’t have masa (corn flour) for tortillas you can serve kak’ik with thick slices of French bread. Add some slices of avocado for colour.
- Serve kakik like the locals do with a small bowl of crushed chiltepin peppers or Cobánero chile so people can customize their own spice level. I also like Marie Sharp’s 100% natural original Hot Habanero Pepper Sauce. It’s made in Belize but is also popular in the Peten region of Guatemala and goes well with everything.
- Another option is to serve kak’ik with Arroz Verde, a light spinach pilaf that complements the heartiness of the soup.
- To drink, try an atole de plátano (hot plantain beverage) or hot chocolate.
- Kakik can be prepared up to two days in advance and stored in the refrigerator. Reheat it on the stove at a low-medium heat. Sprinkle with cilantro or mint before serving.
If you make this recipe, please rate it and tag us on Pinterest @atastefortravel and #atastefortravel. I’d love to see your food photos!
Kak'ik - Guatemalan Turkey Soup
- large pot
- blender or food processor
- 4 turkey drumsticks or thighs excess fat and loose skin removed
- 6 Roma tomatoes
- 2 onions
- 2 red peppers
- 1 cup tomatillos husks removed
- 4 cups turkey stock or chicken broth
- 1 dried chile guaque
- 1 dried chile pasa
- 1 teaspoon cobanero chile powder or chipotle to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon ground
- 1/4 teaspoon cloves ground
- 2 heads garlic
- 1/2 cup cilantro fresh
- 1/4 cup mint fresh
- ½ teaspoon achiote dissolved in a little water
- Cut the turkey into serving size pieces. Add enough chicken or turkey stock to cover the turkey pieces, the garlic, cilantro and 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil and simmer for 45 minutes until tender. Remove and reserve the garlic and cilantro.
- Meanwhile, char the tomato, tomatillos, onion and sweet pepper in a dry skillet or over a gas flame or grill. Remove and set aside
- Remove the seeds from the dried chiles and char in the same skillet until fragrant but not burned. Soak the charred roasted dried chile peppers in one cup of the warm turkey broth until softened.
- Combine pan roasted vegetables with the soaked chile pasa and chile guaque in a food processor, with one cup of turkey stock and reserved garlic. Process until smooth and velvety.
- Add achiote, cinnamon, cloves and powdered chile de coban (if not using dried in previous step) and process once more. Add more turkey broth as needed to make a smooth puree.
- Add the puree to the turkey and simmer until the soup is thickened to almost a stew. Around 15 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste
- Sprinkle with chopped mint and cilantro just before serving.
- Serve with white rice, small masa (corn flour) tamales or crusty bread and slices of avocado. Place a bottle of hot sauce or crushed chiltepin or cobanero pepper in a small bowl on the side so people can customize their own spice level.
- Kakik can be prepared up to two days in advance, stored in the refrigerator and reheated on the stove at a low-medium heat. Sprinkle with cilantro or mint before serving.
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Dividing her time between Canada, Guatemala and Mexico (or the nearest tropical beach), Michele Peterson is the founder of A Taste for Travel. Her award-winning travel and food writing has appeared in Lonely Planet’s cookbook Mexico: From the Source, National Geographic Traveler, Fodor’s and 100+ other publications.
Read more about Michele Peterson.