Citizens! It is early January and it is now 22 months (March 6, 2020) since I, the Munificent One, have been forced into quarantine due to the scourge that is COVID-19! While Omicron is now raging across the entire world, we can all take some small comfort that as long as you are vaccinated with a booster, Omicron should NOT put anyone in the hospital or kill – but it will make for several days of misery that are best helped by a spicy, meaty broth. This delicious turkey soup from Guatemala fits the bill of fare perfectly and I am honored to share its history and recipe (with My own spin, of course!) with all of TFD Nation!
Kak’ik is a Guatemalan soup/stew made with turkey leg as the star ingredient. It also contains tomatoes, tomatillos, onions, bell peppers, and variety of spices such as achiote, Cobanero chile peppers, and coriander. In Cobán, the origin place of kak’ik, it can be found on almost every restaurant’s menu.The word ik in the name of the dish means spicy in Q’eqchi, referring to the spicy Cobanero chiles, while kak means red. The stew is traditionally served with rice and tamales which have been steamed in banana leaves. It is recommended to garnish the dish with chopped mint leaves before serving.
Deemed an intangible cultural heritage by the Ministry of Culture and Sports in November 2007, the Kak’ik is an ancestral dish of Pre-Hispanic origin largely cooked and consume among the Q’eqchi’ Mayas of Guatemala. “The red coloring evokes memories of the blood used in rituals and ceremonies by their ancestors.” The Kak’ik is a turkey soup-stew which features a number of spices from which achiote, coriander, and a number of chilies stand out. The Mayan women of the Q’eqchi’ ethnic group still kill, clean, and cook the turkey as has been done for generations.
Most traditional foods in Guatemalan cuisine are based on Maya cuisine, with Spanish influence, and prominently feature corn, chilies and beans as key ingredients. Guatemala is famously home to the Hass avocado and the birthplace of chocolate, as first created by the Maya.
There are also foods that are commonly eaten on certain days of the week. For example, it is a popular custom to eat paches (a kind of tamale made from potatoes) on Thursday. Certain dishes are also associated with special occasions, such as fiambre for All Saints Day on November 1 and tamales, which are common around Christmas.
Regional Guatemalan cuisine is relatively obscure, due in part to its geographic isolation in volcanic highlands, and also due to the civil war in the second half of the 20th century which discouraged international visitors. Guatemalan cuisine is heavily influenced by Mayan cuisine, with some Spanish influences as well. Many dishes are hyper-regional and are not available outside specific towns.
Maize is an important staple food in Guatemalan cuisine, and has been cultivated in the region since ancient times. Hot chocolate also has a long history in Guatemala. Before the modern era, chocolate was seen as a luxury, and cocoa beans were also used as currency by ancient Mayans. Pork and beef were later introduced by Spanish colonization in the 16th century, supplementing the local meat sources of turkey, other poultry, and fish. Many Guatemalan dishes are cooked without the use of cooking oil, with ingredients placed directly on the comal or wrapped in leaves.
As noted on one of my favorite blogs, gastroobscura.com:
In 2007, the Guatemalan Ministry of Culture and Sports named one dish part of the country’s intangible heritage: kak’ik. Kak’ik comes from a Q’eqchi’ Maya tradition dating back to the days before Spanish conquest. This community of Maya people originally resided in what is now the departments of Alta Verapaz and Baja Verapaz. Women (who traditionally prepare the dish) use native turkeys, cilantro, tomatoes, chilis, and achiote, a spice that comes from a bright-red plant with such a vibrant color that it’s sometimes called the “lipstick tree.” The resulting broth is famed for its spiciness.
There are nearly a million Q’eqchi’ people living in Guatemala today and, along with their population, kak’ik has expanded beyond the boundaries of its traditional homeland. Though often eaten for special occasions such as weddings (with all necessary preparations, including the killing and cleaning of the turkey, taking place at home), the dish can also be found at restaurants from Antigua to Lake Atitlán. Perhaps the best place to try kak’ik is Cobán, the capital of Alta Verapaz and still home to the largest concentration of Q’eqchi’ people in the nation.
The dish originates in the Alta Verapaz region of Guatemala – its capital city of Cobán, founded by Dominican friars in 1538, serves as the social and commercial hub for the surrounding Q’eqchi Mayan community. Set at an altitude of 4,000 feet in mist-shrouded rainforest, Cobán is often chilly. As such, the spiciness of the steaming hot caldo (soup) and richness of the turkey meat is especially welcomed by all during the chilly Winter months, and I shall teach you the true path to culinary glory with this recipe! The recipe is loaded with tons of onions and garlic as well, which I highly approve of!
First off, you’re going to need a turkey, of course. If at all possible, please do try and obtain an heirloom turkey (whose meat is far tastier and closer to wild turkey) – if you’re a hunter or know one, by all means try and obtain a wild bird if at all possible! Superb heirloom turkeys may be purchased from here.
To make kak’ik authentically, you MUST use the rare Cobanero chile pepper which mercifully is easily available from here. In Cobán, unlike the rest of the country, not only turkey is used to make the broth but also chicken and beef (making this a true protein trifecta) and I happily follow their lead in My recipe. This dish is always served with white rice to add to the broth and with small corn masa tamales seasoned only with salt, which are called white or pochitos.
Both peppermint and culantro leaves are integral to the flavor profile of kak’ik – not familiar with culantro, you say?
Culantro is an herb native to Mexico, Central, and South America which has a strong, aromatic scent that fills the air if you brush up against it. This easy-to-grow herb has many culinary uses in Caribbean, Latin American, and Asian cuisine. It is a very popular herb in Guatamala, Puerto Rico, and other Latin countries. Although used in small amounts, its very strong flavor is used as a seasoning in a wide range of foods including meats, vegetables, and chutneys.
It goes by many names: long coriander, false coriander, culantro or recao (Spanish), langer koriander (German), ngo gai (Vietnamese), pak chi farang (Thai), and bhandhanya (Hindi). While culantro and cilantro look different, the leaf aromas are similar, although culantro is stronger. Cilantro can be substituted, but use a bit more if using it as opposed to culantro – you can buy culantro at most Hispanic or Asian grocers, or you can buy a live plant from here. Achiote paste is absolutely necessary for this recipe – this is a very good brand!
My Citizens, kak’ik will warm you to your core and I hope you see fit to trying it at your earliest opportunity – it is not only delicious, it is HISTORY in a bowl from a part of the world most Americans know little about. As our borders have become more closed over the last several years our knowledge regarding our Latin American neighbors to the South has equally suffered. I hope in no small part that My post illuminates a mighty cuisine indeed residing in Guatemala!
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