Subanik is a ceremonial stew dish that originated from the Maya people of Guatemala. It is also called “God’s meal” and it is indeed heavenly!
Most traditional Guatemalan recipes are based on Mayan cuisine and prominently feature corn, chilies and beans as key ingredients.
How to make subanik
Subanik is a stew that uses a variety of chili peppers as well as a combination of meats (chicken, beef and pork), which make the flavors of this dish so characteristic. This Guatemalan stew is usually served on a dish lined with banana leaves, accompanied by rice and tamalitos blancos (white tamales).
Traditionally, subanik is cooked in a nest composed of several mashan leaves tied down with a rope of cibaque thread. The stew is steamed in the leaves. As mashan leaves are mostly unavailable outside of Guatemala, you an use a dutch oven lined with banana leaves as a substitute.
In the old days, the stew wrapped in mashan leaves would be placed over an outside fire or buried in a fire pit in the earth to steam for hours. In the modern version, Guatemalans steam the mixture on the stove top.
Guatemalan gastronomy is very rich in stew dishes. If the stew is watery, it is called caldo and if the stew is thick, it is called recado like for the subanik. In Guatemala, there are plenty of caldos and recados and it is sometimes difficult to figure out whether a stew is a caldo or a recado.
Other popular Guatemalan stews include pepian (similar to subanik, but with vegetables too), tapado (seafood stew), pulique (again similar to subanik, but with green beans and potatoes), hilachas (shredded beef similar to ropa vieja), jocón (tomatillo chicken stew), kak’ik (turkey soup stew), caldo de gallina (chicken soup), caldo de res (beef soup), gallo en chicha (hen stew cooked in chicha), tiras de panza (tripe stew), pollo en crema (chicken with cream and loroco flower), pollo a la cerveza (beer chicken stew), carne guisada (beef stew with potatoes and carrots), revolcado (pork and offal stew), caldo de mariscos (seafood soup).
Origin of subanik
Subanik originates from the region of San Martin Jilotepeque, a municipality in the Chimaltenango department, which is also home to the capital Guatemala City. San Martin Jilotepeque is also close to Antigua, which used to be the capital of the country before it was moved to Guatemala City after devastating earthquakes in the late 18th century.
This stew, which already existed in 1770, is characterized by its meticulous elaboration and its variety of meats. It is a very popular national dish that was considered the dish of the kings.
This dish can be traced to the Kaqchikel Maya of Guatemala. Though the original dish has evolved over time, the concept, as its name suggests, is still the same. Indeed, the suffix “-ik” in the Kaqchikel language refers to a dish that includes chili peppers. You can find the suffix ik at the end of many Guatemalan dishes such as kak’ik and subanik.
I prepared this subanik with a variety of chile peppers, both dried and fresh (roasted). There was definitely a kick to it, but the spiciness was not overpowering. Using a variety of chilies brings a complexity of flavors to this hearty stew. The method of cooking in the leaves also delivers a natural earthy flavor that beautifully complements the rich meaty stew.
Adjust the amount of chili peppers to your own liking and you have a definite winner!
- 2 lb beef ribs , beef tenderloin, and/or pork ribs
- 2 chicken breasts (boneless)
- 1 Mexican onion (mature scallion)
- 8 tomatoes (ripe)
- 3 tomatillos
- 1 onion , quartered
- 3 cloves garlic (unpeeled)
- 2 pasilla chiles (dried)
- 3 chiltepe chiles (dried)
- 2 zambo chiles (dried)
- 2 Cobanero chilies (dried)
- 2 guaque chiles (or Guajillo chiles), dried
- 2 oz. masa harina (nixtamalized corn flour), to thicken
- 1 sprig thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- Calathea leaves (maxán or mashán leaves or banana leaves)
- Cibaque thread (or raffia strings)
- Salt (to taste)
- Black pepper (to taste)
Cut the meat into pieces. Season with salt and pepper.
Add a little oil to a large skillet. Fry the ribs and then the chicken over medium-high heat for a few minutes. Add the Mexican onion, cover with water and cook covered for 30 minutes. Set aside.
Stem and seed the dried chiles.
Add the dried chiles to a bowl and pour hot water over to rehydrate them. Set aside for 20 minutes.
In the meantime, roast the tomatoes, onion, garlic and tomatillo on the grill (or broil in the oven) for about 10 minutes. If using some fresh chiles, roast them at the same time.
Peel the tomatoes, tomatillos and garlic.
In a blender, mix the roasted tomatoes, tomatillos, onion, garlic, the rehydrated chiles and the masa until obtaining a smooth purée. Add ½ to 1 cup of meat broth to liquefy. Season with salt and pepper.
Wash the leaves and pass them over a flame for a few seconds to make them souple.
Prepare a shallow wide pot by lining the bottom with the mashán leaves (or banana leaves).
Add the meats then the sauce. Season with the bay leaves and thyme.
Fold the leaves toward the center over the stew so that it is covered and the steam does not escape. You can also use natural raffia string (or cibaque threads from the mashán leaves) to tie the leaves.
Then cover the pot and let the preparation cook over medium heat for at least an hour. Add a little water at the bottom of the pot if it becomes too dry.
Serve directly from the pot or on plates lined with leaves, accompanied by white rice or tamalitos blancos (white tamales).