It’s hard to fully explain how much I love food. An ex-girlfriend of mine had some idea when she accused me (I kid you not) of loving food more than her. Needless to say, she wasn’t too happy when I made no effort to deny the accusation, and we broke up a short time later. My love for food is not a superficial love, however. I don’t just love to consume it, I love the creative process that goes into making new dishes, as well as the cultural significance of traditional foods and the stories that go with them. That’s why I love taking cooking classes when I first arrive in a destination — it helps me get acquainted with the place through that most beloved of organs: my stomach.
Pull up a chair. Take a taste. Come join us. Life is so endlessly delicious.Ruth Reichl
Cooking Class in Antigua
When I arrived in Guatemala fresh off the plane from my adventures in southern Africa, I headed straight for the colonial capital of Antigua — a picturesque, easily walk-able city nestled in a valley surrounded by volcanoes. After a bit of research, I found two decent cooking school options: La Tortilla and El Frijol Feliz. La Tortilla seemed to have the best value of dishes in relation to price, so I messaged them and set up my cooking class in Antigua.
Many foreigners will think coffee is the most Guatemalan of drinks, but that’s only the one most commonly exported. No, the most Guatemalan drink out there is atol blanco, a thick concoction made from corn flour and served hot. There are many variations, two of which we made during our cooking class in Antigua: sweet and salty. While I almost always choose the sweet option, the salty version had just a hint of spice and was oh, so tasty. I highly recommend it!
|1½ cups corn flour||1 stick cinnamon||Bay leaf|
|4 cups water||Sugar||Salt|
|Powdered cinnamon||Lime juice|
|Roasted, ground pumpkin seeds|
|Ground chile cobanero|
Cook the cornflour with water for 30 minutes, stirring constantly. For the sweet version, add the cinnamon stick to the water. For the salty version, add the bay leaf. When the mixture has a thicker consistency and is very smooth without any lumps, the Atol Blanco is ready. Depending on which version you prefer, add the other ingredients to your taste.
Picado de Rabano
This healthy salad makes for a refreshing and light side in a cuisine that leans towards heavy main dishes. Simple, easy to prep, and with a nice balance of flavors, it is the dish I definitely feel most comfortable recreating!
|4 large radishes||½ onion|
Trim off the ends of the radishes and then cut them into quarters. Leave the skin on to keep the flavor and the color. Boil the radishes with plenty of water until soft (approx. 20 min). Take them out of the water and let them cool. When they are cool enough to handle, remove the skin and cut them into small cubes. Dice and add the onions, lime juice, thyme, and salt to your taste. Serve the salad as a cold side dish.
The base of our meal during our cooking class in Antigua came in the form of Guatemalan rice — rice cooked with onions and carrots. Another easy-to-recreate dish, this one can be modified as you like, substituting new vegetables and potentially even adding some spice. I would definitely add some extra flavors unless the main dish I was cooking had a flavorful sauce…
|1 large carrot||1 medium onion|
|450 grams rice||Vegetable oil|
Vegetables can be substituted as you prefer.
Peel the vegetables and cut them into small strips. Fry the vegetables in oil, stirring them until the onions are crystallized. Then, add the rice and keep stirring for 5 minutes more. Add enough water to cover the contents of the pot and cook thoroughly until done (approx. 20 min). Serve the rice as a side dish.
Few dishes are more emblematic of Guatemalan cuisine than pepían, a hearty stew that’s a blend of Spanish and Mayan influences. We made ours with chicken, though it can be made with pork or beef as well. Remember how I talked about the necessity for the main dish in this meal to have a flavorful sauce in order to spice up the rice? Pepían delivers on that, with a fragrant blend of chilies, cloves, allspice, cilantro, cinnamon, and sesame comprising the aromatic sauce.
|2 dried guaque (or guajillo) chilies||2 cloves allspice||1 pound potatoes|
|2 dried chilies pasa|
(if not available, hard squash or zucchini)
|1 pound chicken breast|
|7 plum tomatoes||6 tomatillos||4 ounces sesame seeds|
|4 ounces pumpkin seeds||1 white onion||Small piece cinnamon stick|
|2 cloves||1 bunch fresh cilantro||3 tablespoons cornflour|
Use a comal or a flat frying pan and roast the tomatoes without oil on a high flame until the skin is loose and a little black, and the tomatoes are soft. Once roasted, place the tomatoes in a bowl with 1 cup of water.
Peel the güisquil and potatoes and cut them into cubes. Boil the vegetables with approximately 1 liter of water. Cut the chicken into a few big pieces. When the vegetables have cooked for approximately 5 minutes, add the chicken with the bones included. Add a little bit of cilantro and a tablespoon of salt.
While the chicken and vegetables are boiling you can finely chop the rest of the cilantro and cut the onion into half slices. Roast the cilantro and onion and place them with the tomatoes in the bowl of water. Then roast the de-seeded and de-veined chilies, placing them in the water with the rest of the roasted vegetables once they are done. Now roast the sesame and pumpkin seeds, but make sure you put a cover on the pan when you do so. They have a tendency to pop up when heated. Finally, roast the allspice, cloves, and cinnamon until the cloves get grey. Add all of this to the bowl of water.
Put all of the roasted ingredients with the water in the blender. Blend until it is a smooth liquid and add to the stockpot with the chicken, stirring until incorporated. Continue letting it cook without stirring it. Blend the cornflour with a little bit of water and add it to the sauce as a thickener. When all the vegetables and the chicken are cooked thoroughly your pepían is ready. Usually, this dish is served with Guatemalan rice.
Rellenitos de Plátano
Rellenitos are a strange little dish, combining the sweetness of ripe plantains with the bitterness of chocolate and the earthy taste of black beans. The end result — rolled into balls and then fried in oil — is a strange blend of flavors that I think is pretty fantastic. We ate ours with some leftover sauce, though you can also sprinkle them with powdered sugar or drizzle them with honey.
|4 ripe (yellow) plantains||50 grams chocolate|
|1 cinnamon stick||2 teaspoons sugar|
|30 grams black refried beans||Vegetable oil|
Cut off the ends of the plantains and discard them. Cut the rest into 4 parts while leaving the skin on. Wash the plantains and cook them in a pot of water together with the cinnamon and sugar for about 10 minutes. When cooked, drain the water and save it. This water is really healthy, as it has a lot of potassium, and can be drunk. Peel the plantains and mash them into a smooth paste without any lumps. Let it cool.
In a pan, cook the chocolate with ¼ cup of water until completely melted. Add the black refried beans and mix well until they form a paste.
Heat sufficient oil in a large frying pan. Take a little bit of plantain paste and form a small bowl. Add one teaspoon of the chocolate/bean mixture and close the bowl so it forms an egg-shaped ball with the chocolate/bean mixture inside. Make sure there are no holes or gaps so the filling cannot leak out. Fry the stuffed plantains until they have a light golden brown color. You can serve them plain or with sugar.
Tortillas are essential to just about any Latin American meal, but making them is an art that takes some practice to master. That was abundantly clear during our cooking class when I struggled to make a tortilla that was as thin and uniform in shape as those of our teacher, Odilia. Mixing the dough is the easy part, as the only ingredients are corn flour and water. Then, the tricky part begins.
Wet your hands slightly with water, tear off a clump of dough, and roll it into a ball. Then, move the ball from hand to hand, using the top part of your palm and the fingertips of the other hand to flatten and smooth the dough. Don’t use the hollow of your palm, as this will cause the dough to tear.
|3 cups water||4 cups cornflour|
Mix the cornflour with water and knead until it becomes a smooth, thick dough, which always remains a little sticky. Put a little water on your hands and roll into a ball, clapping your hands to create the flat tortilla shape. Depending on your tortilla-making skills and preference you can make big or small tortillas.
Use a comal or a flat frying pan to fry the tortillas without any oil on a medium-low flame. Flip them from time to time. The tortillas are ready when they have little brown spots on them. This will normally take a few minutes.
Once we finished cooking our meal, Flor and I sat down with a glass of wine as Sully — the translator helping me follow along with the lesson — and Odilia set the table. It turns out, we’d made a LOT of food, and both of us were able to eat our fill. There were even enough leftovers for my lunch the next day!
Highlights were the atol blanco, the rellenitos, and the pepían, while the picado de rabano and Guatemalan rice were good, but nothing remarkable. Sully and Odilia were absolutely lovely to work with, and I learned a lot! If you’re looking for a cooking class in Antigua, La Tortilla gets my seal of approval! Did I mention that you get free wine?
You get free wine.
How about you? Have you ever done a cooking class in Antigua, or anywhere else? Which country’s cuisine did you learn about, and what did you think? Let me know in the comments below!
*All recipes are taken from La Tortilla’s cookbook and edited by me for spelling and grammar.