I learned two things from our Guatemalan cooking class: number one is that making tortillas isn’t as easy as it looks and I suck at it, and number two is that the traditional Guatemalan dish of Pepian can be made vegetarian even though not everyone says it can.
We headed to a small town just down the road from where we were house sitting to meet an old Guatemalan farmer whose wife and daughters were going to teach us to cook. We went through the gate into their courtyard area where a long row of women were sorting coffee beans and dogs were sleeping in the sun.
On the menu was tortillas, a Guatemalan staple, and pepian, a traditional dish which is made on special occasions.
Is Making Tortillas Easy?
The short answer to this is no. The long answer is that with years of perfecting the art of tortilla making it sure can look easy. Guatemala was the first country where I’ve seen tortillas being made by hand without the use of any machines or presses. The tortillas are smaller than the packaged ones we’re used to in the UK, but beautifully formed into very neat little circles nonetheless.
The wife and mum of the house who taught us to cook told us that she gets up at 4am to start making tortillas from scratch each day for the men of the family to take to work. That means grinding the corn into flour, making the dough, shaping the tortillas and dry frying them on a large hot plate on an open fire. She makes hundreds of tortillas each day and the family eat them at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
To get tortillas into shape by hand you have to pat them by passing them between your hands. When done properly this makes a funny slapping sound. If you haven’t got the right tempo or your hands aren’t positioned well then the dough sticks and tears. When you’re walking around Antigua you can often hear the slapping sound of tortilla dough hitting against women’s palms coming from the tortillerias.
Can Pepian Be Vegetarian?
Pepian is a traditional Guatemalan stew made with chicken. Determined to find a vegetarian version, I’d been looking out for one in all of the eateries we visited but to no avail. Although the sauce of pepian is vegetarian – made with pumpkin seeds, chillies and these tiny, tiny tomatoes – meat is nearly always added into the dish.
We’ve been lucky enough to find vegetarian and vegan cooking classes in Vietnam and in Costa Rica, and were excited once again when we got to Guatemala to hear that a local family would be able to adapt their cooking class to be veg-friendly, missing off the meat and to omitting the chicken stock!
Instead of meat, we just added extra veggies and potatoes into the stew when it was simmering. It was a really long cooking process which involved grinding tomatoes and spices on a large stone pestle and mortar that the family had carved. The end result was a rich, flavoursome and dark stew which was served with rice and our messily shaped corn tortillas.
Cook Pepian with De La Gente
We arranged our Guatemalan cooking class with De La Gente, a community tourism organisation based in Antigua. De La Gente provides opportunities for local families to learn skills and build businesses, and at the same time connects travellers with local people and local experiences. More information about cooking pepian with De La Gente can be found here.
Have you ever tried your hand at making tortillas before? How do you think you’d fare?