Thursday, April 1, 2010

Holy Week in Guatemala: Flavors and Aromas

As you have appreciated along this week, between spiritual issues and earthy manifestations, Guatemalans spare no effort in their task to commemorate the Holy Week.
Traditions and folklore are in the air and families and friends gather together to celebrate, to participate, to watch, to share, to cook, to eat.
The gastronomical culture during this time of the year, just as the colorful carpets we enjoyed yesterday, is related to two different sources:
1. From pre-Hispanic traditions, where the seasons were divided by periods of fasting and penitences related with the rainy, dry, scarcity, and abundance cycles.
2. The fasting as was practiced by the first Christians in Century III to be clean and ready for the Resurrection Day, today Easter Sunday.
As time went by, the fasting rule was relaxed by the Catholic church, and as of today, the only forbidden food is red meat.
Every celebration around the world is somehow related with food and the Holy Week in Guatemala is not an exception. The food during this time, however, is more of a colonial heritage.
I cannot share with you all the aromas that come to me right now, but I can certainly share with you some recipes of the food my mother used to cook for the season. If you decide to try them, then you are going to smell some of the aromas and savior some of the flavors of a Guatemalan Holy Week.

Biscayne-style Cod (Bacalao a la Vizcaina)
Put 2 pounds of cod to soak for 24 or 36 hours (covered and in the fridge), changing the water every 8 hours. Once this time has elapsed, remove the scales and bones and clean well with a cloth. Cut the cod into chunks.
For the sauce, in a casserole with 1 cup of water, bring to a quick boil 4-6 Roma tomatoes and 4 red bell peppers, just enough time to soften and peel them. Remove the seeds and stems from the peppers. Do not discard the water, it will be used in the sauce.
In a pan with 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil, cook until lightly brown, 1 cup of diced red onions and 4-6 cloves of garlic.
Blend together the tomatoes, peppers, onions and garlic with the reserved water, until everything is smooth. If necessary, add some bread or bread crumbs to thicken the sauce.
Put the sauce into a casserole, add 2 tablespoons of capers, 4 tablespoons of olives, 1 bay leaf, and 1 teaspoon of dried thyme. Simmer for about 15 minutes, add the cod chunks, and continue simmering for another 5 minutes.
Optional: Some people like to add thick slices or big chunks of potatoes.
To serve, garnish with fresh chopped parsley.

Guatemalan-style dried-cod-like Fish
This is the economic variation for the Biscayne-style Cod, and consists in replacing the cod with a local variety of salty sun-dried fish.
This local fish is softer than the cod, so it is not cut in chunks but in individual portion-size fillets, then battered and deep fried before going into the sauce.

Torrejas (the local variation for the Madrid Torrijas)
8 "molletes" (heavy sweet egg-based bread), battered and lightly fried. Set aside over paper towels to drain the grease, while making the sugar syrup.
For the sugar syrup, in a deep pot bring to a boil 1 quart of water with 2 cups of sugar, 1 large cinnamon stick, and 1 cup of sweet wine (cherry, vermouth, muscatel, or similar), add the bread and let it simmer at a very low temperature for about 20-30 minutes. The bread will remain in one piece while absorbing the liquid. This desert can be served warm or at room temperature.

Molletes (the luxurious variation for the Guatemalan Torrejas)
The only difference in this version is that the molletes emptied (very carefully to keep them intact in the outside) and filled with Manjar Blanco (blancmange) and raisins previously soaked in liquor.

Manjar Blanco (the easiest version)
In a medium pot bring to a boil 1 quart of milk, 1 cup of sugar, 1 pinch of salt, 1 cinnamon stick, 1 large lime peel (without the white biter part). When start to boil, reduce the heat, remove the cinnamon stick and the lime peel, and add 3 tablespoons of corn starch previously dissolved in 1/2 cup of water or milk, stirring constantly until thickens. 
Other specialties and delicacies during this season are sweet empanadas filled with a different version of manjar blanco, salty empanadas filled with salmon, sweet chickpeas in a light homemade syrup, battered pacayas (palm fruits/flowers), curtido (pickled vegetables salad, the same we use in Guatemalan enchiladas), and from my mother's homeland, Jutiapa, women's bread, for which by the way, there is a tradition to bake large batches to exchange with friends and neighbors.


  1. Excelente! It brings back all the memories of the Holy Week-aroma included-as I remember it. Thank you.

  2. You are welcome! For me, it has been a joyful experience.


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