Saturday, October 9, 2010

Cooking Adjustments in Guatemala Part 1

With a few exceptions, you can cook anything in Guatemala that you would cook in the U.S. However, sometimes there are little things that can throw you off track if you don't know where to look.

For the first year here, I couldn't find baking powder, here called "polvo para hornear" or "Royal" after the brand. This had an impact on biscuit making and other breads.

I also had a less difficult time finding baking soda, or "bicarbonato." Sometimes this is only found in pharmacies, but I have also found it in Paiz. What was confusing for me was that this was not located next to the baking powder.

Corn starch was also a challenge since I didn't know the word for it. I have since then learned that it is Maizena or "fécula o almidón de maíz." This was not only a lack in vocabulary on my part, but it also had a little bit to do with culture. In the U.S., from what I could remember, corn starch is usually found near spices or on the baking aisle with flour, sugar and cornmeal. Here it was found near the cereals and oatmeals. Blanca told me that many people use it as meals, perhaps to make some sort of thickened breakfast soup or drink? If you have more information, please let me know. I am curious to find out how it would be used differently here than in the U.S.

Another adjustment on my part came about when we bought a gas oven here in Guatemala. I have never owned a gas oven before, and wasn't sure what to expect. I have learned that I prefer a gas oven here where power outages usually happen around supper time. We have to be a bit more vigilant for safety reasons (such as when our daughter wants to "help cook") but overall it has been a positive thing. Except for the oven. I couldn't figure out why an oven would only go up to 250 degrees, but I attributed that to gas being harder to regulate... Of course, when I figured out that the oven was in Celsius instead of Fahrenheit, that made me laugh at myself quite a bit! It also explained why things were burning on the bottom and not done on the top! I have found this conversion website helpful since most of my recipes are in Fahrenheit.

A spice that seems to be a Guatemalan staple, different from the seasoning salt at my house in the U.S., is some sort of chicken bouillon, or "consomé" this version at our house in Guatemala:

Something I found surprising was how difficult it is to find cardamom or "cardamomo" in the ground spice form, especially since cardamom is one of Guatemala's exports. I have heard that it is easy to find in markets, but I haven't had any luck with that yet. Cardamom comes from the Cardamom flower. The seeds look like this before they are ground. I believe they can be used green or roasted, if you have information on this, I would love to learn more about the process!
I especially like the unique flavor cardamom gives to fruit breads or challah. We like this recipe for the braided "challah" bread.

The things you just can not get seem to be things that are not grown in this region. For example, in Texas we had a yam-like sweet potato that I loved. They looked like this:
They have a smoother texture and creamy flavor that I find addicting. Something regular potatoes can not compare to! In fact, I used them exclusively- leaving the Irish white potatoes out of our diet while we were in Texas. We loved them mashed with butter and salt like regular mashed potatoes or baked... pretty much any way to cook them was great! The problem is that in Guatemala there is a completely different version of sweet potato that looks like this: These sweet potatoes have a grainier texture. They literally taste like sweet Irish white potatoes instead of the smooth buttery texture of the yam-like sweet potatoes of Texas. If you find out how to get the first version while in Guatemala, please let me know!

I'm sure there are many other things people have experienced that are different in the Guatemalan realm of cooking. I would love to hear about your experiences! What is something you had trouble finding or were excited to discover about cooking in Guatemala? Any recipes using the things I have mentioned? I am always looking for new things to do in the kitchen that have a Guatemalan influence.