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#434034 - 03/26/12 08:42 AM Maya Kek’chi cooking
Marty Offline

Rita at work on her daily tortilla orders

I could say this about most Belizean women I have met: “Insert Name Here” is a hard working woman.

Rita at work on her daily tortilla orders In this case, Rita Chi’Quien sets the standard.

She has close to thirty acres of farmland at the back of Forest Home, just outside of Punta Gorda in Toledo, Belize. She farms, teaches sewing and makes school uniforms, runs a small store, grinds corn on her own belted grinder, fills daily orders for corn tortillas (10 for 50 cents US) and is a wife and mother to nine children.

Chi’Quien (pronounced sheh-queen) has worked with Sustainable Harvest International (SHI) to help grow her farm and support her businesses. The foundation’s mission is to support families in Central America by teaching methods of organic farming and agriculture business “best practices”.

“They have helped me a lot with my farm. I doing a lot of things that I don’t have before because of them.” SHI addresses the needs of the farmer and the land, respecting that support of both is the equation for success.

“A while ago I got sick. I had the stones and had to go to Belize to the hospital. I pray to God to let me live and not have surgery. He did, and I walked out of that hospital with no more pain.” She went on to explain that at that moment, she had to change how she lived. She contacted SHI for assistance and has acted as an ambassador for the program ever since. Prospective families and volunteers visit with Chi’Quien year-round.

On my first day with Chi’Quien, she agreed to show me how to make corn tortillas and Caldo, a chicken soup beloved by the Maya in Belize.

When I arrived, the “local chicken” for the soup base, was ready to be put into a pot of boiling water. The phrase, “local chicken” in Belize is no misnomer. It means exactly that: a bird from your backyard and not the store. “I use local chicken because the one from the store is too fatty and bad for your health in the long time.”

Chi’Quien told me how she cuts the neck of the bird, drains the blood and dips the whole bird in boiling water. “I then pull out the feathers and what is left over, I hold the chicken over the fire and burn off all the little feathers.” She demonstrated with her hands over her indoor fire hearth; a beautifully built open stove with a grill on one side, and flat top or “comal” on the other. Wood fire is the preference for most Maya in Forest Home, (as with cooks across Belize) and Chi’Quien gathers cuttings from her yard.

Above the hearth hung a wooden grate, filled with chiles from Chi’Quien’s farm. “I put them there to dry over many days. When I get new ones, I move the old ones over to keep drying.” The colors, a range of fresh ruby red to smokey, garnet crimson, crowned the hearth like the jewels of her garden.

“When they dry, I grind the to make a chile spice.” She showed me the fresh blackened powder. I dipped my finger in and tasted. The blast of spice hit the tip of my tongue, and then the warmth spread in my mouth and throat.

She winked at me. “Too hot for you?” Then she smiled.

Click here to read the rest of the article and see a GREAT SLIDESHOW

#434035 - 03/26/12 08:46 AM Re: Maya Kek’chi cooking [Re: Marty]
Marty Offline

Rita Chi’Quien has made a load of tortillas.

“I make the corn tortilla for people. Its 10 for $1″ (50 cents US).

Rita can crank out 3 dozen in about ten minutes. She is the go-to woman of the Forest Home Maya Settlement in Toledo for corn grinding, corn “liming” – soaking field corn in a mixture of calcium hydroxide and potassium hydroxides (ash), and for the finished product, corn tortillas.

Considering how many people, (I counted 8 in 2 hours) come by in their cars, Rita’s house could be compared to a “drive thru.” She runs back and forth, keeping track of her orders and making change, stoking the fire and grinding fresh corn.

“I rinse the lime corn and then put it straight in the grinder.” She demonstrated. Sustainable Harvest International helped Rita buy a belted corn grinder. It has created a huge amount of commerce for Rita and her husband. Her tortillas are so good; I would skip the recipe and buy them straight from her. Considering how hot fresh and well-made they are, a pat of butter or dip in a soup is all they need.

She transfered the corn to her kitchen. Ground corn was then formed into masa – a dough mixture that when shaped into golf ball sized lumps, is pressed and cooked on her comal.

The collection bucket for the limed and ground corn.

In creating this recipe, I recognize that for many of us who don’t have corn grinders, field corn, nor the liming solution – it could be difficult. I have adapted it to ingredients that you can find easily in the grocery store.

Corn Tortillas


2 cups masa harina

1 1/3 cups warm water

Mix Masa and water in a bowl until thoroughly combined. Turn it out onto a masa-sprinkled surface and begin to knead the dough. It should be come pliable, soft and smooth – like the consistency of fresh play-doh.
If it is too wet, add more masa. If its too dry and crumbly, add more water. Form the dough into a large ball and cover with plastic wrap and let rest for 30 minutes.
Preheat your comal or pancake griddle – a cast iron pan works well too to medium-high. Divide dough into golf ball sized balls. Using a tortilla press that is lined with wax paper, or a rolling pin over wax paper, press out rounds of tortilla and place on griddle.
It works well to form the balls and only roll out as many as you can put in your griddle.
Cook on one side for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Flip and cook on other side. Use a spatula to do this. I called Rita, “fingers of fire” because she was able to handle skillet- hot food and flip the tortillas with her hands. I would not recommend this.
Repeat and cover fresh tortillas with a dishtowel to keep warm before serving.

Links for Maize History and Nixtamalization from the French Culinary Institute.


#434039 - 03/26/12 08:54 AM Re: Maya Kek’chi cooking [Re: Marty]
Marty Offline

Caldo, Rita Chi'Quien Style

Rita Chi’quien gave me her recipe.

“Thank you!” I said profusely and she looked at me cross-eyed.

“Of course. Why not give you the recipe? Why I not do that?’ I realized that my profuse gratitude was out of step with the local custom of “recipe generosity.”

Getting a cook to turn over their recipes at home was like asking for their first-born child. Words like “proprietary” and “copyright” ring out loud.

Here in the jungle – everyone shares because you need to know how to cook. Not knowing a recipe is akin to not being able to eat. I understood her quizzical look that said, “If you know this, then you can start feeding yourself. Of COURSE I will give it to you.”

To know the Kek’chi, you need to eat Kek’chi food. This is a dish that everyone makes and is the number one comfort food for the Maya.


Caldo, Chicken Soup, Kek’Chi style, with lots of garlic from Rita Chi’quien.

This is the kind of recipe that has a thousand variations. You can adjust the flavors to your tastes. As always – read it through first and THEN cook. The recipe is cooked outside on a fire hearth. You can adjust it easily to cook indoors.


1 Whole Local Chicken

1 large Cassava root, peeled and cut into spoon-size chunks. ( If you don’t have cassava, use another “ground” food like sweet or white potatoes, rutabaga, carrots or parsnips. Cassava taste like the love child of potatoes and parsnips.

1 large onion. Cut into a large dice.

2 Chocos (chayote) squash, cut into wedges

8 Cloves of garlic peeled and halved.

1 large tablespoon of annato paste – You can also use red recado. If you cannot find this, use a small touch (1/4 teaspoon) of smoked paprika for color.

Salt and Pepper

1 Bunch Culantro, cut into a chiffonade strips. Culantro smells and tastes like Cilantro, but has large, flat green leaves with jagged edges. Its bud look like thistles and the edges can be pointy – so watch out! It is worthwhile seeking out this herb if you can find it. Most families in Forest Home have it growing in their yard. When they tread on it, the aroma is refreshing. If you cant find it, use 1 bunch cilantro, chopped lightly.

To cut a chiffonade: Lay leaves on top of one another and roll into a cigar shape. Cut across leaves into thin strips. The strips will unroll into ribbons.

1 bunch green onions, washed and cut into halves

1 big pinch Maya pepper. This is made by drying habaneros or red chiles over the wood hearth. It is very hard to find. You can replace it by using 1 tsp chile powder.


Wring, scald and pluck your chicken- if live and ultra-fresh. Clean and wash the meat and cut the broiler into halves, then quarters. Prep and wash your vegetables and have spices, herbs and garlic prepared to add to pot. Maya cooks have everything “ready to go” as Miss Rita Explained. She had a neat and tidy table.

Heat wood fire or coals to red hot. Place chicken pieces in pot and cover with water. Bring to boil. Alternatively, if you are cooking over a stove, place pot with water and chicken over heat and bring to boil. Add onion, garlic, annato paste, and chile powder.

If using, add cassava root. Cook 15 minutes, then add other root veggies. Cook 30 minutes more. If you need to add more water just to cover the veggies and chicken do so now. Add chocho after an additional 15 minutes.

After cooking 1 hour total, check root veggies. They should be tender but not mushy. Add salt and pepper and culantro and green onions. Cook until green are tender.

Serve a bowl with one piece of chicken, root veggies, all covered with broth. Serve hot with corn tortillas.



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