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Coffee, Juice, and Food in Central America
Perhaps the best source of novel cooking ideas is dining outside of one's native country. That's what my husband and I discovered recently. Guess what country we visited by mulling over the following food clues:
- This country doesn't produce the most coffee in the world, but, some say, its coffee is the finest.
- Black beans, rice, fried plantains (or bananas), and avocado (or guacamole) appear at almost every meal, (including breakfast) served to tourists.
- Pepian de pollo (chicken stew) is one of this country's delicious traditional dishes.
Still don't know what country? Add these clues: Opinions differ, but conservative estimates say it has between 22 and 37 volcanoes, and, some experts claim the number is closer to 400 ones that have never erupted are included. In addition, this country has amazing ancient Mayan ruins and villages where Mayan descendants still wear traditional dress. Its currency bears the same name as the national bird (the quetzal). Still can't identify the place? Here's your final clue: it begins with G. Right! It's Guatemala.
Our visit to a coffee plantation (La Azotea) in Jocotenango (near Antigua and Lake Atitlan) has given me an excuse to expound upon coffee facts, including tips on storage and--believe it or not--coffee beans that come from an animal! While we're on the subject of coffee, I'll sneak in a few recent medical discoveries about that beverage. From there, we'll touch on other beverages and foods commonly served in Guatemala.
Why is coffee from Antigua, Guatemala so terrific?
The plantation's guidebook mentions these benefits of the area: a stable climate and rich volcanic soil. Furthermore, planting coffee beans at an altitude of 5,000 feet under a dense canopy of trees allows the beans to mature slowly, which concentrates the flavors and aroma typical of Antigua coffee. Antigua coffee is Arabica, the type produced in Ethiopia. Guatemala exports a lot of coffee and selects the best beans to export. Try it; you'll like it.
What advice does the plantation's guidebook give about selecting coffee?
Buy coffee grown above 4,000 feet that comes from a well-known coffee-growing region or farm. Also, select coffee packed in bags with a one-way valve (to release air).
What color are the best coffee beans?
Medium dark brown, the Antigua type, make the highest quality beverage. Light brown beans have high acidity and don't have fully developed quality. Very dark brown beans are bitter, which is sometimes mistaken for "strong." coffee. They're used to make expresso.
What advice about coffee storage were we given during the tour?
No surprises here. The advice reiterates what Shelf Life Advice has also told you. Coffee beans and ground coffee don't like temperature change. Don't store either in the fridge or freezer. The best place for coffee is in the package it came in. After opening the package, the coffee can also be kept in a cookie tin or other air-tight container and stored in a cool, dark pantry.
What interesting facts did we learn about coffee on our plantation tour?
- Contrary to common belief, lighter roasts are stronger and contain more caffeine, although the darker roasts have a fuller flavor.
- The scent of coffee is a neutralizer; therefore, when testing perfumes, it's common to smell roasted coffee beans between each sample.
- Coffee was first discovered in Ethiopia. Legend has it that it was detected by a goatherd who noticed that his goats became excited when they fed on its leaves.
- The most expensive coffee beans come from a Central African cat-like animal of the mongoose family, the civet. This animal likes to feed on ripe coffee beans. After the beans are processed in the animal's stomach, they are collected from its droppings and--thank heavens!--washed. This rare, exotic "treat," sells for as much as $100 a pound.
- The proper time to serve coffee in Guatemala is after dessert, not with it and certainly not with the entrée.
To reach the Shelf Life Advice product section on coffee, go to "What is the "proper" method and length of time to store coffee for best taste?" Links to other coffee Q/As are listed at the right margin.
What's the latest news about whether coffee is good or bad for one's health?
Coffee has been improperly blamed for a number of medical problems including atrial fibrillation (a type of arrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat). A new study described in the Tufts University Health and Nutrition Letter says it's unlikely that habitual caffeine intake from coffee and other sources increases the risk of the problem. The article goes on to say that the body gets habituated to caffeine; it's unwise to start from zero and drink a large amount.
The Mayo Clinic, in a recent mailing promoting its Health Letter, states that there is evidence that coffee may protect drinkers against Parkinson's, some cancers, diabetes, and Alzheimer's.
To read more about both the benefits and the risks of coffee-drinking, go to "Cheer Up! Have a Cup of Coffee."
Water: The general advice to tourists is to drink only bottled water, avoid ice cubes, and brush your teeth with bottled water. Some hotels say that their water is sanitized and safe. Still, most of the tourists we traveled with felt more comfortable using bottled water only. Cautious tourists carry a water bottle along with them wherever they go in Guatemala.
Juices: The array of exotic juice choices (especially at breakfast) was impressive. It included mango juice, tamirand juice, and a cold drink made from a boiled dried red flower. In Spanish, this last one is called Rosa de Jamaica; in English, it's hibiscus drink (or tea), even though it isn't really made from hibiscus.
Carbonated beverages: Tourists who get thirsty while visiting a Mayan village are commonly advised to stick with that water bottle or buy a can of Pepsi or Coca-Cola and down it straight from the can, refusing the restaurant's glass or ice cubes.
Guatemalan food and drink is influenced by both the country's Mayan and Spanish heritage. The food reminded us what we ate in Mexico, Costa Rica, and, to some extent, Cuba. We thought the meals were excellent at the hotels and restaurants our group was taken to. We were sometimes told that we were dining on traditional Guatemalan recipes. No doubt, what we were served was also influenced by what grows in Guatemala, which, in turn, is influenced by the mild climate. Guatemala has tropical fruits--for example, bananas, papaya, mango, and avocado--in abundance, and these are often part of the meal. Cups of cut-up fresh fruit are also sold on the street as a snack.
The Mayans are credited with introducing the Americas to these foods and seasonings: chocolate, vanilla, corn, chiles, tomatoes, black beans, avocados, sweet potatoes, squash, and papaya, all of which we sampled in Guatemala. We also consumed many foods familiar to all Americans who go to Mexican restaurants--such as tortillas, nachos, tamales, enchiladas, and, for dessert, flan (a caramel custard or tres leches cake (made with 3 kinds of milk).
Tomato soup was often served, once with avocado pieces floating in it, a tasty combination that I plan to serve at home. Avocado (or guacamole made from it) appeared even on breakfast buffets. Some of the guacamole had a stronger lemon taste than store-bought American types do, which made it even yummier. Tomatoes appeared quite often, sometimes cut in a fancy way, once served as an appetizer with a dab of tuna salad inside.
Corn tortillas accompanied many meals and were the exterior for some delicious fillings.
In case you're planning to visit Guatemala or a Guatemalan restaurant in the U.S., here are some items you may find on the menu or on your buffet:
chojin: radish salad with lemon and mint, scooped up with a tortilla
chile rellenos: chile peppers stuffed with rice, cheese, meat, and vegetables
chicken or beef pepian: chicken or beef cooked with pumpkin seed, several kinds of chiles, and other seasonings
chuchitos: The English translation is "small dogs." According to Wikipedia, these are typical Guatemalan tamales made using corn masa (dough), but they are smaller, have a firmer consistency, and are wrapped in dried corn husks instead of plantain leaves. They are often accompanied by tomato salsa and sprinkled with white cheese.
chilaquiles: Also a traditional Mexican dish, these fried corn tortillas that are usually cooked with red or green salsa. The mix is topped with cheese (queso fresco). Eggs or pulled chicken may also be part of the recipe.
As you can see, tourists visiting Guatemala are served a nice mixture of familiar food and drink and new taste sensations. Meals are an adventure but not a scary one.
Virginia De Fuentes, our very knowledgeable CARAVAN tour director in Guatemala
"Coffee from Plant to Cup" la Azotea, Antigua, Guatemala (booklet from lLa Azotea Coffee Plantation)
about.com "Guatemala Food and Drink"
wikipedia.org "Guatemalan Cuisine"
sfgate.com "10 Mayan foods that changed the world's eating habits"
Wikipedia.org "Chilaquiles" (See photo)
Tufts University Health and Nutrition Letter, "Habitual Caffeine Consumption Does Not Increase Risk of Atrial Fibrillation," April 2014.
about.com "Guatemala Volcanoes"