Cooking class in Guatemala: Ceremonial chicken

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Waterfall by the highway near Panajachel

As far as grocery runs go, the  trip from Panajachel to Sololá, Guatemala is a stunner. With views of a cascading waterfall  out one window and a 2-mile high volcano out the other, it sure beat my usual trek to No Frills in Toronto. It was 9:00 am and I was riding in a Blue Bird “chicken bus” on a mission to scout out ingredients for pulique, a ceremonial dish popular among the Maya people in the midwestern highlands in Guatemala.

View of Lake Atitlan from the bus

Look left! View of Lake Atitlan from the bus

Olga, my Spanish  teacher at Jardin de America Spanish School, who is Kaqchikel  indigenous Maya, had offered to substitute a cooking class for our desk-bound studies. So, all we had to do was get to the town of Sololá, a 20 minute bus ride into the mountains and buy the fixings.

Chicken bus in Solola Guatemala

Our “chicken bus” zooms away in Solola

Upon arrival in Sololá, we hiked the six uphill blocks from the main square to the market.  Market day is Mondays and Fridays  so the streets were bursting with vendors, shoppers and pick-up trucks.  

Market in Solola

Where’s the entrance to the market?

“Follow me” said Olga, as she disappeared in the crowd and then materialized  magically in front of a stack of tomatoes. I dodged a vendor who was balancing 15 cartons of eggs on her head, but my hesitation earned me a giant-sized push from a tiny woman who looked like Grandma Moses but whose biceps rivalled Vin Diesel’s in strength.

Young girls in Solola Guatemala

Young girls in Solola Guatemala

The market was a whirlwind of colour, people and new ingredients. From maxan leaves large enough to use as yoga mats to blue crabs skewered live on thin reeds, there was plenty to gawk at. If you weren’t sure what to buy, you could just drift on the momentum of the crowd until you arrived at a food stall that looked promising. We stocked up on criollo ( yellow skinned) chicken which is more expensive than white chicken ( 12 Q vs 8 Q a pound) butmore flavourful. The rest of the ingredients for pulique in hand we headed back to the bus. One perfect watermelon also made the leap into my bulging grocery bag.

Achiote and spices in Solola Market

Achiote and spices in Solola Market Guatemala

Back in my mini-apartment kitchen in Panajachel (read more about it in Why I’m Volunteering in Guatemala ) we got to work. My job was peeling the vegetables–carrots the size of rolling pins, potatoes and huisquil,vegetable pear also known as chayote. We’d chosen the prickly huisquil (for better flavour) so my job wasn’t as easy as it sounds.  After disinfecting  the cilantro, green onions and hierba buena with Microdyne solution, Olga began cooking.   

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Pulique: Mayan Ceremonial Chicken
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
A delicious chicken stew bursting with the flavours of fresh market vegetables and herbs.
Recipe type: Main
Cuisine: Mayan
Serves: 4
Ingredients
  • 1 pound beef bones (optional)
  • 1 pound chicken, organic or yellow skin
  • 4 potatoes, peeled and halved
  • 1½ huisquil ( rinse to remove stickiness)
  • 2 cups masa corn flour (wet)
  • 6 small tomatoes
  • 1/ 2 tsp achiote paste
  • One bunch each of fresh cilantro, hierba buena (fresh mint) and green onion
Instructions
  1. Simmer the beef bones (in water to cover) with 3 leaves of hierba buena, cilantro and a green onion for one hour;
  2. Simmer chicken (in enough water to cover) with 3 leaves of hierba buena, cilantro and a green onion for 30 minutes. Remove chicken and reserve;
  3. Add the vegetables to the chicken broth and simmer until tender but not mushy;
  4. Strain the beef and vegetables reserving the liquid;
  5. Shape the masa into 6 small balls of dough;
  6. Liquify the achiote with 3 tomatoes, 3 balls of masa and the liquid from the beef and chicken. Add more balls of masa if it looks watery;
  7. Strain the tomato mixture into a pot on the stove;
  8. Simmer, stirring continuously for 15 minutes. Add more liquid if it gets too thick.
  9. The key to success seemed to be in the stirring. According to Olga, it was important to simmer the sauce until it was the colour of a mandarin orange. She was vigilant in this task, not removing the spoon from the pot for even a minute.

pulique, a traditional Maya dish in Guatemala

Simmer the pulique until it begins to look a bit like Campbell’s tomato soup

“If you’re making pulique for 50 people, it’s typically done outdoors over an open fire with an huge paddle,”  she explained. “Your arms are usually sore and  singed with fire by the time you’re finished.”

Fortunately, there was just the two of us so no burnt  arms were needed and the sauce thickened up nicely. She served it  in a bowl with the vegetables and meat on the side.  I lifted a spoonful into my mouth and was surprised to discover it was mild but packed with the flavours of fresh-picked market vegetables and accented by  the nutty taste of maize corn. I love spicy food so I crushed chiltepe hot peppers over top. Delicious!   

Unlike some of the other traditional dishes in Guatemala, pulique isn't spicy

Unlike other traditional dishes in Guatemala, pulique isn’t spicy

 If You Go 

Jardin de America Spanish School: To enroll in 4 hours of classes per day with one student and one teacher, the cost of lessons is $110 USD a week. If you’re planning to study for longer than a week, you can ask for a discount like I did. Excursions to market towns, cultural activities or dancing lessons are free but you’ll need to pay your own bus fare and costs for entrance fees or materials if applicable.

Bus from Panajachel to Solola: Fare is 3Q each way. Tip: Sit near the back so you can get off the bus faster.

Where to catch the chicken bus: In Panajachel, catch the bus to Solola on Calle Principal  between Avenida Santander and Calle del Embarcadero. The bus will be parked on the north side of the street.  Check with the driver to be sure of the destination before boarding. In Solola, catch the bus to Panajachel between the church  and Central Park. Here’s a map of Panajachel.

 

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Showing 18 comments
  • Marilyn Jones
    Reply

    I am so impressed with your narrative and your gorgeous photos. This is an excellent article. Thank you for sharing your adventure!

    • Michele Peterson
      Reply

      Thanks Marilyn…it was a fun day!

  • Doreen Pendgracs
    Reply

    Loved your post, Michele. It reminded me how beautiful the Guatemalan people are. And how colourful the country is! I am very sure that I ate pulique during our brief visit there, as your final pic looks highly familiar, but it was long ago. Time for a return visit!

    • Michele Peterson
      Reply

      Thanks Doreen! Yes it’s definitely time for you to make a return visit there’s a revitalization of quality cacao production and many new artisanal chocolate shops and producers to explore.

  • Nancy Thompson
    Reply

    What a wonderful adventure. There is truly no better way to learn the language or meet the most interesting people than to ride the local bus.

  • sarah
    Reply

    I miss Guatemala already having been back in Mexico for 10 days now. I loved the country, the people, the food…it really exceeded my expectations. I was so impressed with the markets, such quality and variety of produce made me regret not getting a place with a kitchen for a month or two so that I could learn to cook some of their delicious dishes. I’ll be following your posts somewhat enviously!

    • Michele Peterson
      Reply

      Yes, the markets in Guatemala are definitely a source of inspiration (and some puzzlement at least to me as there is always something new to discover). I’ll bet you had fun exploring all the exotic fruit even without a kitchen.

  • Patti Morrow
    Reply

    Your photos really reminded me of how much I love Central America — the stunning scenery, the warm people, the delicious food…..

  • esperanza
    Reply

    Shopping for pollo and vegetables in Guatemala is sure a lot more exciting than hiking to the local supermarket and the result looks so delicious! What wonderful views of waterfalls and mountains along the way!!

  • Viv
    Reply

    Great post and excellent photos. Can’t wait to try making the recipes.

  • Wandering Carol
    Reply

    I want to take the chicken bus and I want to know why yellow-skinned chickens are more expensive than white-skinned ones. Great post, Michele.

    • Katherine
      Reply

      Hello, my family is Guatemalan and we eat pulique often. It’s so delicious and healthy. I asked my sister, who grew up in Guatemala, why the yellow chicken is more expensive; she said because it’s hen! Hen in Guatemala is used in many dishes and tastes fantastic.

      • Michele Peterson
        Reply

        You’re right! Pulique is super healthy as unlike many other chicken dishes it’s not fried so that makes it low in fat. Yum!

  • Lesley Peterson
    Reply

    It’s incredible what you passed on a 20-minute bus ride! From yellow chicken to blue crabs, Guatemalan food sounds colorful as well as tasty.

  • Irene S. Levine
    Reply

    Sounds like your trip to Guatemala was such a rich experience in so many ways. Can’t wait to catch up and hear more about it.

  • Neva @ Retire for the Fun of it
    Reply

    Your beautiful photos gave an in-depth view of living in the area. I would’ve loved to ride a local bus and hunt down ingredients with you. So fun.

  • Suzanne Fluhr
    Reply

    Pulique sounds like the perfect Central American dish for me because I don’t like/can’t eat spicy (picante) food. Your trip to the market reminds me of the markets in San Miguel de Allende when I lived there for a year as a child (9-10) with my family in 19630.

  • Mike (Nomadic Texan)
    Reply

    Michele,
    I loved this post. I try to take cooking classes in every country I visit. It is always fascinating to see how various cultures prepare their food and what different spices and ingredients they rely on. I had two classes last fall in Ecuador and was enthralled with their techniques. Thank you for sharing the recipe so we can all experiment! Safe Travels.
    Mike

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