Sunday, October 17, 2010

Guatemalan Cuisine Casting Call

My first meal in Guatemala was a tostada and a cup of atol.  There were tostadas with either a black bean spread or guacamole and queso fresco (fresh cheese, with a tasty mild flavor and the texture of feta) sprinkled on top.  I was elated.  Avocado always makes me happy, and the atol drink was essentially hot rice pudding with plenty of cinnamon. 

Later I realized that this meal contained the three of the four ingredients that would be both the stars and supporting players in the vast majority of the meals that followed: Corn, Beans, Eggs, and Rice. 

To oversimplify, meals in Guatemala always involve corn, accompanied by one or two of the other three options.  Guatemalans love their salt and sugar and put generous helpings of each in soups and drinks, respectively.  The food is not spicy, for the most part.  For example, salsas in my house are mostly tomato, bell pepper, and (sometimes) onion.  Oil and margarine are popular cooking ingredients, and boiling or frying (or boiling and then frying) are far more common than steaming or baking.  In my house fruits aren’t very common, but we have veggies one meal more days than not.  Meat makes an appearance a few times a week, and cheese or milk shows up once or twice a week.  Unfortunately, avocado hasn’t been all that common, but they are coming into season soon so hopefully they’ll be a frequent guest star when the prices come down. 

This is only my view from my host family, of course.  Some other trainees have commented that they have pan dulce (sweet bread… although not all that sweet) with meals every day, although that hasn’t been the case for me.  In my house the sweet bread is available a couple of nights a week with our hot drinks after dinner. 

Stay tuned for a closer look at the leading characters, guest stars, and extras in the cast of Guatemalan Cuisine.  

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Road Less Maintained

One of the first things that struck me when I first arrived to Sumpango was an erosion issue. Maybe it was because weeks before heading to Guatemala my dad and I went backpacking and found ourselves critiquing the trail maintenance every half mile or so (occasionally stopping to play Army Corps of Engineers). Maybe it was the fact that when I got dropped off at my host family’s house we got the rear wheel drive Peace Corps minivan stuck in the mud ruts in the road on the way to my house. We eventually needed assistance from the men driving the 20 ton trucks on either side of us to get out enough to retreat to the last paved corner, leaving me to hoof it the final few blocks. In any case, there is a huge amount of neglect and erosion in the roads on the outskirts of town (where I live) that seemed so unnecessary to my outsider’s eyes. Just an adjustment here to divert the ever present run off from the rain, and voile, problem contained (not solved of course, just hugely improved).

Rains really do a number on this road

Why isn’t this being addressed? When I first arrived in Guatemala I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the highways. Admittedly there are only two paved roads I’ve found in Sumpango, but the majority of streets are made of either adoquines (interlocking paving stones) or cobblestones.

This road leads down from my neighborhood

Is it the tragedy of the commons? Almost certainly. If you check out the litter getting turned up by the erosion it’s clear that this isn’t the only area where that’s the case. But why isn’t the local government maintaining the roads? After all, one of the roles of government is to take care of the tragedy of the commons. Guatemala does have a relatively low tax burden, so maybe there aren’t the funds to get them paved or even to dig a drainage ditch. On the other hand, maybe the people living in this neighborhood just don’t have enough cuello (pull or influence) to make it up the priority list. On a third hand, perhaps the people in the neighborhood don’t even see it as a problem, because their priorities and standards of living go in a different direction. Maybe they worry more about the water getting turned off frequently. Maybe they are more concerned about getting mail service more regularly, or would prefer improved security after dark. It may even be that the culture here deemphasizes expectations of progress and improvement to the point that my asking about it would bring on more confusion than explanations (although in the case of my host family, I doubt it).
There is some construction work to add more adoquines to one road near my home.

This is just one more detail that sticks out to me like a sore thumb, probably because I am still learning to see the full picture. I feel like the proverbial blind man with only one part of an elephant within reach.
This road is a little further out of town than my place, and has eroded until the water pipe leading to the neighborhood is exposed.  Four wheel drive is definitely required to make it through this beauty.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Recipe: Naomi’s Chicken Empanadas

When I returned back to Sumpango after Field Based Training, my 12 year old host sister had volunteered to make dinner based on a recipe she had learned at school earlier that week.  Since my parents were heading out on an errand, I jumped in to help in the assembly line of making them.  Although a labor and time intensive process, we got our reward when the younger brothers nominated us to continue cooking the rest of the meals this week. 

The basic pattern of this meal matches that of a lot of meals I’ve had here; make a dough (usually corn based), make a filling, tortillar (verb meaning to make into tortillas), combine, fry.  Here’s the step by step with a little more detail:

Chicken breasts on the bone (boil, then disminusar by picking meat off bones and shredding)
Bell pepper (chopped finely)
Onion (shredded or chopped finely)
Mayonese (just enough to moisten the other ingredients)

Masa or Dough:
White flour (one cup)
Milk (one cup)
Margarine (one stick)
Salt (just a pinch)
Baking Powder (one teaspoon)

Directions:  Combine ingredients for dough and knead.  When it has achieved a good consistency, pull out balls of dough and roll with a rolling pin into a thin tortilla a little bigger than your palm.  Fill the tortilla with a tablespoon full of filling.  Fold over the dough, pinch it shut and seal it with the tines of a fork.  Fry the empanada on both sides in vegetable oil until golden brown.  Serve hot, with tomatillo sauce (optional).