For almost 20 years, Amalia Moreno-Damgaard was an important executive in various banks in the Midwest. With a master’s degree in international business and culture, advising companies and recommending international financial strategies was her world. However, Amalia had a strong passion for cooking, which began when she was a little girl and lived with her maternal grandmother in Quezaltepeque, a town in the department of Chiquimula in eastern Guatemala. When her son Jens was born, Amalia felt a need to switch careers and, following her instinct and passion for cooking, graduated from Le Cordon Bleu. Today, Amalia is a talented chef and business woman who promotes Latino cuisine and culture, as well as more wholesome cooking in general with private, business and consulting events in the state of Minnesota, where she lives with her family.
We spoke with Chef Amalia about Guatemalan cuisine, her favorite dishes and the ingredients she misses most from her homeland. “Guatemalan cuisine has its roots in Mayan culture and civilization, but also has contributions from Spaniards, who in turn brought dishes and traditions from the Arabs, Italians, Greeks and others,” said the chef, who loves cooking. “On the other hand, we also have influences from the cuisine of the Garifuna, an Afro-Caribbean group who settled in the region.” The chef divides Guatemalan cuisine into five categories: native cuisine, which originated with the Mayas; traditional cuisine, a combination of native and Spanish cuisine; homemade cuisine, Spanish dishes with a Mayan touch; Garifuna cuisine; and street cuisine, with standouts like various types of tostadas, chuchitos (a type of tamale), tortillas filled with beef, rolled-up tacos, buñuelos (fritters), garnachas (fried corn dough with toppings), etc. “Street cuisine or chucherías (like we call them in Guatemala), is very important, because in addition to being delicious and plentiful, it’s associated with religious traditions and celebrations.” Chef Amalia mentioned that among her favorite Guatemalan cuisine dishes are Mayan stews, including jocón, a stew made with chicken, tomatillo and cilantro; and pepián negro, prepared with chicken and pork, in an almost black sauce of dried chilies, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, tortillas, potatoes, green beans and carrots, among others. “Mayan stews are full meals, very easy to prepare and can be served with white rice,” she said. “They have the advantage that you can cook them in advance and keep them in the freezer for those days when you’re very busy.” Although the variety of Latino products available in U.S. markets has increased, Chef Amalia thinks there are always ingredients that are impossible to find, for which she has identified appropriate substitutions. “One of them is frijoles piloyes, a very delicious variety of beans used to prepare piloyada antigüeña, a bean salad with pork, Spanish chorizo, queso fresco and a vinaigrette, among others.” The chef also mentioned among the ingredients she misses from her country a wild herb called zamat, which is used to prepare kaqik, a delicious turkey soup with chilies, annatto and more.
Cuisine During Lent
In Guatemala, since the majority of the population is Catholic, one of the country’s most important celebrations is Holy Week. During this season, throughout this Central American nation, there are various processions representing the Stations of the Cross (the path Jesus followed to the cross). “In Antigua, the Holy Week celebration is impressive,” said Chef Amalia. “They have solemn, dramatic processions where the neighbors make colorful carpets from painted sawdust to cover the streets. Those are days in which they prepare special meals and people eat a lot of chucherías in church porches.” Among traditional Lent dishes, Chef Amalia mentioned some that are very popular: Vizcaína-style cod, tuna or sardine empanadas, pickled vegetables and all kinds of seafood. There are also a large variety of desserts made from seasonal fruits, usually in syrup or brown sugar cane sauce.