Every country has a few traditional dishes that they are known for and pulique, a delicious chicken stew bursting with the flavors of fresh market vegetables and herbs, is one of those traditional dishes that is commonly known in the Guatemalan highlands.
Today we are going to explore one of Guatemala’s most beloved dishes, pulique, which is a ceremonial dish popular among the Mayan people in the Midwestern highlands in Guatemala. It is also a Guatemalan food enjoyed throughout the country on special occasions.
The history of Guatemalan cuisine
The history of Guatemala is often recognized in three stages: the Mayan Empire, the Spanish rule, and the modern republic (which is in existence today). All three have had an influence on Guatemalan cuisine. The ancient Mayan civilization lasted for about six hundred years before collapsing around 900 A.D. These ancient natives lived throughout Central America and grew maize (corn) as their staple crop. In addition, the Mayans ate amaranth, a breakfast cereal similar to modern day cereals.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, an empanada (meat turnover) could be purchased for about twenty-five cents, chicken tortillas for fifty cents each, and a hot beef sandwich for about seventy-five cents. Other countries and their cultures have also affected the Guatemalan diet, including the Chinese.
Chicken, turkey, and beef (roasted, grilled, or fried) are the country’s most popular meats and are normally accompanied by beans and rice (frijoles con arroz). Meats are often served in stews (caldos) or cooked in a spicy chili sauce, though whole chickens may occasionally be served with the feet still attached.
What is pulique?
Pulique, a thick meat and vegetable stew, is a common dish, which can be made with chicken, beef or pork, but most commonly made with yellow chicken. Seafood is most common along the coasts, and is usually prepared with various spices.
Pulique is commonly made with a criollo (yellow skinned) chicken which is more expensive than white chickens, but more flavorful. The chicken is cooked in a sauce made of tomatillos, tomatoes and various spices and vegetables like the branch of epazote and chayote squash. Americans refer to tomatillos as a Mexican green tomato, but they actually taste nothing like regular tomatoes. In fact, the tomatillo is not a tomato at all. The plant is grown mostly in the Mexican states of Hidalgo and Morelos, and in the highlands of Guatemala where it is known as miltomate.
A little tidbit I picked up along the way of growing my own tomatillos in my vegetable garden, is that there are actually male and female tomatillo bushes. So if you happen to plant only 1 and it happens to be a male, guess what? It will not produce!
The tomatillo has a tart, lemony flavor that is enhanced when cooked (especially roasted) and is an excellent base for salsas. While salsa verde is the most popular way to enjoy tomatillo, they can be used in other ways. It gives a balanced tangy tartness to the pulique stew.
Unlike a guisado, which is a preparation of meats that use many seasonings and are usually browned in oil first, a pulique omits oil of any kind. The meats and the seasonings are cooked at the same time. It is a Mayan preparation. The chicken is cooked in a sauce that is referred to as a recado, which consists of standard ingredients like onion, garlic, tomatoes, spices and the thickening medium such as tortillas or rice.
The unique flavor of this dish is provided by the apazote (Chenopodium ambrosioides), also known as epazote, vomiqueira herb, pazoli, huacatay, among others.
Guatemala does not have a national dish, but there are many foods that have become a part of the everyday diet. Just like during the time of the Mayans, corn continues to be a staple food. It is most often eaten in the form of a tortilla (a thin corn pancake). These are usually served warm and wrapped in cloth. Black beans (frijoles), another Mayan staple, are eaten at almost every meal. They are usually refried (volteados), mashed, or simply eaten whole (parados). Rice, eggs, and cheese are also widely consumed. Other popular dishes are bistec (grilled or fried beef), guacamole (mashed avocado with onions and spices), mosh (porridge), churrasco (charcoal-grilled steak), and chiles rellenos (chiles stuffed with meat and vegetables). Fresh fruits and vegetables, such as yuca, carrots, plantains, celery, cucumbers, and radishes, help to keep the Guatemalan diet healthy. However, snacks, such as doughnuts (donas), are also widely popular.
You already know that recado is the shared name for any thick sauce used in the traditional cuisine. There is a wide variety of recados and depending on the main ingredients and preparation methods, some can be brownish like the pepian, others are green or red, and the pulique recado is of an intense yellow.
The key to success for pulique de pollo is in the stirring. It’s important to simmer the sauce until it’s the color of a mandarin orange. If you’re making pulique for 50 people, it’s typically done outdoors over an open fire with a huge paddle. Your arms are usually sore and singed with fire by the time you’re finished. Luckily today we are only making it for 6 people, so no singed hands here.
Pulique is cooked and eaten at special occasions like cultural rituals, festivals and celebrations. This beloved Guatemalan main course, also called chicken in sauce is best served over rice with corn tortillas on the side for soaking up the rich and tangy tomatillo and tomato sauce!
- 10 cups salted water
- 1 chicken , cut into pieces
- 1 lb tomatoes , peeled
- 4 oz. tomatillos , peeled
- 1 guajillo chili , grilled and peeled
- 2 teaspoons masa harina (nixtamalized maize flour)
- 1 branch epazote
- 1 onion , chopped
- 3 cloves garlic , chopped
- 2 small red bell peppers , chopped
- ½ bunch cilantro , chopped
- ⅓ cup rice
- ¼ teaspoon annatto powder
- 1 chayote , diced
- 3 oz. green beans
- 2 potatoes
- Black pepper
- Cove the rice with water and set aside for 1 hour.
- Cook the chicken over medium heat in the 10 cups of salted water for 45 minutes after boiling point is reached.
- Drain the rice.
- Grind the tomatoes, tomatillos, onion, garlic, bell peppers and rice.
- Add this mixture to the broth and the chicken and mix well.
- Add the branch of epazote, cilantro and chayote. Mix well.
- Add the green beans, the potatoes, the annatto.
- Add the masa harina, season with black pepper, and mix well.
- Cover and boil over low heat for 10 minutes, stirring regularly.
- Adjust the seasoning.
- Remove the epazote branch and serve immediately.