Guatemalan cuisine with Mirciny Moliviatis
and her recipe for subanik

Guatemalan market

Guatemala

Guatemalan legend has it that if you were a king, you could eat up to seven types of meat. The traditional Mayan dish subanik has only three, but is delicious nonetheless. A vegetarian alternative with mushrooms is just as regal, as long as you make the salsa rich with a variety of chillies and tomatoes. It’s one of the favourite dishes of TV chef and local gastronomy ambassador Mirciny Moliviatis.

What food did you grow up eating?
"My dad’s Greek and my mother is Guatemalan, so I grew up with great food from both sides of the family. I don’t remember many specific dishes, but Guatemalans love their black beans with tortillas. We can eat beans every time of the day and that’s still one of my favourites, too.

"I also grew up eating a lot of fruit. We have fruit on every corner. One of my all-time favourite dishes is mango with lemon, salt and pepper. For breakfast, lunch or just as a snack. I love it."

What made you want to become a chef?
"I always loved to cook together with my grandmother. She wasn’t only a great cook, she also loved doing it. She was always singing and laughing while she did it. It didn’t matter if she had to cook for four or twenty people – she always enjoyed it. I think I just associated cooking with happiness.

"Then my father opened his first restaurant when I was twelve and I figured: maybe I can run the kitchen one day. We now have ten restaurants and the entire family is part of it. We all work in different areas. My brother works with the numbers, while I’m in charge of the menus and public relations, for example."

You have a TV show in which you explore Guatemalan cuisine. How did that come about?
"I went to culinary school in Spain and later worked with great chefs like Karlos Arguiñano (a Spanish TV chef) and Ferran Adrià (chef of the now closed restaurant El Bulli in Catalonia). I got to explore many of the most modern techniques, but soon realised I didn’t know much about my country’s cuisine. I started doing some research and found that we just didn’t have a lot of data. No books, no videos, no documentaries.

"A friend and I started a TV show that was called El Sabor de mi Tierra [The Taste of My Land] and started travelling around the country. We didn’t have a script or a plan; we just travelled. It was so much fun, because we learned all those new (old) techniques, all the flavours and all these dishes that we didn’t know. A lot of them were from Mayan times, before the Spanish came."

Subanik being served

"It was beautiful to see this elderly woman prepare the subanik in a traditional way."

Mirciny Moliviatis

What was your most surprising finding?
"Before I can tell you that, you have to know what tamal is. It’s an ancient dish, popular throughout Mesoamerica, with over 260 varieties in Guatemala alone. It’s a ‘wrap’ made of leaves (often corn husk or banana leaves), in which you cook masa [maize dough] or another type of dough, together with an endless variety of ingredients. It’s a staple here – you find it on all the markets."

Got it. So what did you find out?
"There’s this archaeological site called Holmul where there is this beautiful sculpted wall painting (frieze). It explains the history of the tamal. You see a figure offering the first tamal to the gods. The mural is 2500 years old. Imagine that! When you’re eating a tamal, you’re eating a part of our history. And I feel like every single dish, every single ingredient has an amazing history here."

A figure offering the first tamal to the gods

Instagram.com/elsombreroecolodge

Incredible indeed! About those ingredients – what are you favourite ones to work with?
"There are many, but if I had to pick one: vanilla. It’s the best gift that Mesoamerica gave to the world. I use it for a lot of dishes. A savoury corn soup, a beetroot soup, for pork roasts. It’s so versatile - I use it as salt almost!"

How would you describe the Guatemalan cuisine?
"We have a couple of cuisines actually. There’s the ancestral cuisine, which is the cuisine without mestizaje [a Mesoamerican term describing the mixing of European and Indigenous American influences], and the hybrid cuisine in which there are many Spanish influences. An interesting distinction is that all the sweet dishes are mestizaje. Marzipan for example came with the Spanish and then got localised. We don’t use almonds, but we use pepitorias [pumpkin seeds]. They just started making the dishes from back home with the ingredients they found here. Many other dishes are completely pre-Hispanic.

Women preparing tamales

Barna Tanko / Shutterstock.com

"Tamal is a staple here – you find it on all the markets."

Mirciny Moliviatis

"Another interesting one is the culture of the Garifuna people. They’re a mixed African and indigenous people and live around Livingstone in the Guatemalan Caribbean coast. Their most famous dish is tapado, a delicious seafood soup with coconut and plantain."

You spoke about Guatemala and its abundance of fruits. Would you get those year-round?
"That’s the beauty of our country – we have 160 microclimates. You can find beautiful strawberries throughout the year, for example. Very few ingredients are actually bound to a season.

"Mango is an exception, you’ll find those around March and April. And the loroco is another; it’s a flower that’s harvested when the rain starts, around May or June. We use it as a herb, but I cannot think of a way to describe the flavour of that flower to you. There’s nothing like it."

With so many microclimates, there must be plenty of places to visit, right?
"There are so many! If I had to pick three, I would pick Antigua with its beautiful architecture, the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal, and Alta Verapaz, a lush and mountainous region in the centre of the country. Alta Verapaz has both amazing sites and amazing food.

Tikal, Guatemala

"Guatemala is a secret well kept. Nobody expects anything from Guatemala, and when we reach the news, it’s often about bad things. But when you come to Guatemala, you’ll fall in love with my country. The food, the people and places to see are just amazing. You won’t regret travelling to Guatemala. If there’s anything I can do for anybody who comes to visit – my social media are open. Ask me and I’ll be more than happy to help and make your trip as pleasant as possible!"

Subanik

The Dish

Subanik doesn’t sound very Spanish. What does it mean?
"In the Mayan language Kaqchikel, suban means that it’s a dish packed in leaves, and -ik means it’s red or hot. The dish originated in San Martín Jilotepeque in central Guatemala, and is very rarely seen outside that region."

What makes this dish special?
"The sauce in which the three types of meat are cooked consists solely of a specific collection of chillies and tomatoes. That’s it. There are no other ingredients in the sauce but the flavour is absolutely amazing.

"I travelled to San Martín Jilotepeque once to eat it in the best local restaurant. It was beautiful to see this elderly woman prepare the subanik in a traditional way. Before she started cooking, she lit her censer to pray, and give thanks for the ingredients. When we prepare the dish in our restaurants, we follow the same procedure to keep the tradition alive."

Is there any way you could replace the three types of meat for something vegetarian?
"I love to use mushrooms instead of meat."

The Ingredients

400 g
chopped tomatoes
1
(red) bell pepper
1
guaque chilli (dried)
1
zambo chilli (dried)
2
cobanero chillies (dried)
1
chiltepe chilli (dried)
1
chocolate chilli (dried)
1
pasa chilli (dried)
2
tomatillos, diced
2
chicken thighs or legs, boneless, diced
225 g
stewing beef, diced
225 g
pork shoulder, chopped
salt
1.5 cups
chopped tomatoes
1
(red) bell pepper
1
guaque chilli (dried)
1
zambo chilli (dried)
2
cobanero chillies (dried)
1
chiltepe chilli (dried)
1
chocolate chilli (dried)
1
pasa chilli (dried)
2
tomatillos, diced
2
chicken thighs or legs, boneless, diced
0.5 lb
stewing beef, diced
0.5 lb
pork shoulder, chopped
salt

The Recipe

Total preparation time: 2.5 hours | Yield: 4 servings | Category: main

If you're not in Guatemala, it's unlikely you'll be able to find many of these chillies. Just use what you have available: pick chillies with different flavour profiles and adjust the spiciness to your liking. 

  1. Combine the chopped tomatoes, tomatillos and the different chillies.
  2. In a large saucepan, put two layers of large leaves (banana leaves for example).
  3. Add the tomato mixture, the chicken, the stewing beef and the pork with some salt. Close the leaves and tie it up. Put a small layer of water in the pan, put on a lid on and cook over medium heat for 1 to 1,5 hours (until the meat is cooked).
  4. Serve with white rice and masala tamales.
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