International Meals – Guatemala

I have to admit, I’m not very good at Central American geography.  I can pick out Panama on a map, and Belize, for some reason, but the rest I have to check.  The irony is that having typed that first sentence, and on looking at a map, I discovered that that Guatemala actually claims ownership OF Belize. Interesting.

But for today we’re talking about Guatemalan food, which is an interesting combination of indigenous food traditions and colonial influences.  There’s no officially designated national dish, but we’re going to be making a likely candidate – a chicken stew called pepián.

So to start, we need chicken.


Look! Chicken!

Moving on.

What differentiates this stew is the thick, red sauce, the preparation of which is ninety percent of the effort in making this dish.

First we toast a bunch of stuff.  In separate batches, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, and a cinnamon stick:

Toasted seed

Then a bunch of veg – onions, tomatoes, and two different kinds of dried chilis:

Charred vegetables

Then a couple of corn tortillas:

Corn tortillas toasting

Finally, EVERYTHING goes in the food processor, along with some cilantro. (The chicken does not go in the food processor.)

Pepian sauce

While we aren’t pureeing a bird, the sauce IS supposed to get some stock at this point, and the recipe calls for mixing it in the food processor, but we had definitely reached capacity, so instead we mixed everything in the cooking pot and tossed in the chicken to continue cooking.

The recipe also calls for the helpfully unspecific “vegetables.”  There are many possibilities, but we decided to go with our old central American friend, the chayote.


That get cooked separately so it doesn’t go mushy in the stew.

Cooking chayote

And finally, everything gets put together and served with corn tortillas:

Pepian de pollo

This was delicious. The sauce was very thick and textured, and had a great flavor from the seeds and the charred vegetables.  It’s somewhat reminiscent of a molé sauce without the dark ingredients like chocolate.  In theory, it would have been typical to serve it over rice but… well, we forgot to make rice.  It was still excellent, and we ate the leftovers with nice crusty bread.

We did make a dessert as well, a sesame seed cookie called Champaduras. For this, we got to buy one new-to-us ingredient, Piloncillo sugar.

Piloncillo sugar

It turns out to be somewhat difficult to work with, and I don’t think we got it crushed down as fine as we were supposed to.

In terms of method, it’s a pretty standard cookie.  Mix dry ingredients.

Dry cookie ingredients

Decide sugar bits are too big, remove to mortar and pestle to mangle for  a bit.  Return to bowl.  (This definitely was NOT in the recipe.) Cream in butter and sugar to make a dough.  After resting, roll out dough and cut cookies.

Cookies being cut out

Bake in the oven and top with sesame seeds, and you have a delicious, not terribly sweet cookie.

Champurradas cookies

They were a nice crispy/chewy shortbread.  I took them into work the next day, and my coworkers claimed to like them too.

And that’s Guatemala!  A tasty Mayan influenced stew and some cookies – what’s not to like?  Next up, we travel back to west Africa to explore Guinean cuisine.

Pepián de Pollo

International Meals – Grenada

“The pig tails are in the bucket on the trolley.”

I have to be honest, that is NOT the response we were expecting.  “Sorry, we don’t have that,” was probably at the top of the list, followed by, “Oh, they’re in the freezer.”

What we were NOT expecting was to be informed that the, you know, MEAT, was in a ten gallon bucket of room-temperature liquid in an extremely rusty old shopping cart at the back of the store.  But there it was.

To be fair, said meat was salted within an inch of its little piggy life, so there was probably not any more to worry about than a ham sitting on a stand at a deli.  Let’s hope, anyway.

We were at the Caribbean market (store name: “Caribbean Market”) to purchase ingredients to make the national dish of Grenada, a country most Americans know (if they know it at all) as the target of an invasion by Ronald Reagan in 1983.  Grenada now has their version of the Thanksgiving holiday on October 25th to celebrate that occasion.  Coincidentally enough, we were planning to make our Grenadian meal a few weeks early on CANADIAN Thanksgiving, despite the fact that Canada publicly condemned the invasion.

It’s all very complicated.

In addition to the pigtails, pictured later, we also bought a breadfruit and some other veg:

Veg with googly eyes.

The breadfruit is the one on the upper left.  Carrot, lemon, and banana (BANANA!) are hopefully obvious.  The small pumpkin-looking object is actually a Kuri squash, standing in for actual pumpkin because a full sized pumpkin produces WAY more pumpkin than we were prepared to commit to.

Many recipes we’ve made from both Africa and the Caribbean thus far have called for amaranth or calalou, a leaf which is similar to, but not quite the same as, spinach.  At the Caribbean Market, we finally found some! Canned, but authentic nonetheless. We also got bottle of a green seasoning called (checks notes) Green Seasoning.

OK, so, fully stocked now, what are we making?  A stew! Because we’re stocked up!

Stocked up! Get it?

Never mind.

The national dish of Grenada is something called an “Oil Down”.  I got distracted doing the research for this by just how much of the Wikipedia article for the dish was unsourced copyright violations and went on a bit of a deletion spree there.  That’s an important part of cooking, right?

The gist is that “Oil Down” is a stew that can contain a wide variety of ingredients, but the items which are generally common to most iterations are: some kind of salted meat or fish, breadfruit, and coconut milk seasoned with “saffron.”  The scare quotes are there to point out that what Grenadians refer to as saffron, the rest of the world calls turmeric.

Past those basics, you can put almost anything in an oil down.  Oil Down can also refer to the neighborhood party where the stew is assembled, simmered and consumed.  It appears to be a dish where the history of the gender roles is similar to that in the US around barbeque – women have historically primarily been expected to do the cooking, but for a weekend Oil Down, the men take over the pot.  Sigh.

At any rate, lets get cooking.  First, we boil the living daylights out of the pigtails to make them marginally  less scary, and also to try to extract some of the salt.

Boiling pigtails

While that’s going, we marinate chicken thighs in the green “Green Seasoning” seasoning.

Chicken with green sauce

We also chop up a LOT of veg.  Most of them are pretty straightforward, but here’s what a breadfruit looks like on the inside:

Halved breadfruit

You carve out the middle bit and throw it away, then peel the skin and discard that, which still leaves you with a LOT of breadfruit.  It’s got a pleasantly citrus-y smell, and  tastes like a very, very slightly acidic sweet potato.

With all the mise en placed, the actual assembly is just a question of layering. And with that, we give you the first animated .gif in the history of this blog:

Stew layering

In order, those layers are:

  • Chicken with green sauce
  • Pig Tails
  • Breadfruit
  • Banana
  • Carrot
  • Pumpkin
  • Okra
  • Calalou
  • Dumplings (these were actually added about half an hour into the cooking time)

The entire pot is then filled with turmeric laced coconut milk, and left to simmer for a very long time, interrupted by the addition of the simple flour-and-water dumplings part way through.

The reason the dish is called “Oil Down” in the first place is that by the end of the cooking, most of the coconut milk and oil has been absorbed into the rest of the ingredients, resulting in a rich, tasty stew dyed yellow by the turmeric.

The verdict was that this was pretty darn good!  All the flavors had blended together to produce something with the smoothness of the coconut milk, the salt and umami from the pigtails, and the diversity of textures from the various vegetables. Interestingly, there was basically no trace of the pumpkin left – it had more or less completely dissolved. We salute its sacrifice to the hearty texture of the broth!

It was a great meal to celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving.  Don’t ask us why.  At least we’re not celebrating Reagan sending in the Marine Corps.

Next time, we stay in the western hemisphere for Guatemala!

Oil Down

International Meals – Greece

Greece is the first country on this list since France that we’ve both actually visited.  In fact, writing up our trip to Greece was the reason we started this blog in the first place.  You can read all about our adventures there starting from this post. It’s a fun ride – we go lots of interesting places and eat lots of stuff.

But speaking of eating stuff, what’s on tap for THIS meal?  When you look up “National Dish of Greece,” you get a number of possibilities, but one which scores surprisingly high is Fasolatha, which is a white bean stew.  (Another one is Moussaka, but neither of us are huge fans of eggplant, and there were plenty of other options.)  We decided to make that, grill some souvlaki, and make a dish of braised green beans, Fasolakia, as another vegetable.

Our original plan was to follow this with custard filled pastries for dessert, but those turned out to be too much to squeeze in after we returned from a grueling hike in the morning, so we made a pie called melopita instead, which we will talk about in due course.

This meal did require a bit of forward planning, as both the beans and chicken for the souvlaki had to soak overnight.  The beans just in plain water, but the chicken was in a yogurt based marinade that also included olive oil, oregano, lemon, garlic, and paprika.  Welcome to Greece!

Marinade ingredientsSouvlaki marinating

The day of, we had two different bean dishes to cook, both of which had rather long cooking times, but fortunately, the schedules overlapped such that we could get one cooking before we started the second.  So for our first trick, the white bean stew.

After soaking the beans overnight, they get a 30 minute or so boil in water to soften ’em up a bit.  Wouldn’t want those beans getting too complacent.  Um.

That accomplished, the stew starts with onion, carrot, and celery, your classic mirepoix, although probably not diced finely enough to really warrant that term, cooked in a whole lot of olive oil.



Next up, beans, tomato sauce, salt, and pepper.  We found GREEK tomato sauce, so we were proud of ourselves!

Tomato sauce

Yeah, about that.  A) that’s not sauce, as it turns out – it’s paste. B) It’s also Turkish, not Greek.  Oh well – into the pot it went, with a bit more water to balance the fact that it’s paste and not sauce.  And this then just cooks for a long time while we move on to the green beans.

Sadly, we didn’t get a bunch of pictures of this one cooking, but that’s because it was so little WORK there was almost nothing to photograph. Cook more onions in more olive oil (seriously, we used like half a bottle of olive oil for this meal) Add garlic, green beans, a large can of crushed tomatoes, and some red pepper flakes and dill.  Cook until tender.

With those both going, and timed to be ready at roughly the same time, it was time to fire up the grill for the souvlaki.  Sadly, it was pretty gloomy outside, so we didn’t take any pictures.  In fact, we have no more “in process” pictures at all.

But we put meet on sticks and grilled it.  It smelled like grilling meat on sticks, i.e. AMAZING. Finally, we fried up some grilling cheese (apparently setting it on fire is more of a Greek-American thing), and put everything on plates, topping the souvlaki with a lemon juice / olive oil dressing.  They looked like this:

Greek Meal

Doesn’t that look delicious?  It really, really was.  The real star of the show, to my surprise was the green bean dish: fasolakia.  Everything was good, but that to me was the dish that stood out the most – the dill and the garlic just did something magic to the tomato sauce.  The souvlaki was tasty grilled meat, and the soup was hearty and filling. We would make any of these again in a heartbeat.

For dessert, since we decided the pastries would take too long to sort, we made a honey pie, which may be the easiest desert we have ever made.  Here’s the method:

Mix five ingredients in a bowl.  Put the batter in a pan.  Bake it.

That’s it.  The ingredients are nothing more than ricotta cheese (this would be a different, but similar cheese in Greece itself), honey, sugar, eggs, and vanilla. Mix, pour, bake, done.


The edges are a little rough because we ran out of cornstarch, so the sides stuck to the pan.  But it was heavenly, and it set up nicely.

We have not yet shared the very best part of this meal yet, however.  The very best part of this meal was that we SHARED IT WITH OTHER PEOPLE!  For the first time since BULGARIA, we actually cooked for more than just the two of us, and it was fantastic to finally have friends over for a meal and a board game. They brought cocktails, too!


Pandemics are stupid, and you should get vaccinated if you aren’t already.

As a postscript, we DID make those pastries a few nights later when we had time. Bougatsa are custard filled phyllo pastries, giving us the chance to remind ourselves once again that phyllo is a harsh mistress.

They start with a custard made from butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla, and semolina flour, which you are supposed to add a LOT earlier in the process than we remembered to.

Custard cooking

If you add the semolina too fast or too late (we did both) it gets lumpy.  On the other hand, if you just leave it out, it never thickens at all.  So we had a slightly lumpy custard to spread on our phyllo sheets.

Custard on phyllo sheets

These get wrapped up into perfectly, 100% regular packets, covered with a completely uniform brushing of butter.  No differences or irregularities whatsoever.

Unbaked pastries

Nailed it.

Still, as long as you considered them individually, and don’t think about the second one from the bottom on the left, they turned out fine – crispy and sweet, and what’s not to like about a custard pastry?

Baked pastry

And that’s Greece!  It was tasty, took us back to our blogging roots, and let us HAVE DINNER WITH ACTUAL OTHER PEOPLE! YAY!

Next up, we take a culinary adventure to Grenada, hopefully unaccompanied by Marines.