Maria Matus signs "I Love you" in ASL. She and her family are members of an ASL church community.

I sat at the table, making sure I was looking both attentive and polite. The aroma of grilled chicken, heady with citrus and charcoal, wafted to my nose, pulling my attention from my host, to the plate in front of me.

“Muchas muchas muchas gracias, Se´┐Żora Matus!”

“You are very welcome. Eat and tell me how do you like it?”

A horse out of the gate, I dug in. It was everything that was promised to me; sweet, spiced pull-apart chicken with a sticky and crunchy crust. I look her in the eye and smiled.

Maria Matus has been cooking her signature “Pollo Brujo” or “Witch’s Chicken” for years. “I started selling to tour groups who were going cave tubing.” she said. I wished I had been one of the lucky tourists; meandering down the Jaguar Paw in my inner tube, to find her food packed and ready for my midday break.

It would have made my day.

“Now I just cook for friends and those who know.” She smiled. I wanted to be in the know, and in fact, I was ready to sign adoption papers.

Maria and her husband Noel, along with their two young sons, moved to Belize thirteen years ago. They left El Salvador to escape the civil war. A deeply spiritual woman, she said, “Its important to clear the mind and put aside distractions. I am happy here in Belize and feel good in my heart.”

“I cook with love. For care of myself my body and my family.” Maria uses olive oil and butter in place or shortening for her tortillas. She uses ingredients from the local outdoor market, and buys chickens direct from the butcher.

Its Friday when the lunch order calls come pouring in. Its Maria’s main business day. The Matuses are ready, prepped with the grilled pollo brujo, creamy refried beans, and Maria’s fresh tomato sauce. Onions are served on the side; a simple recipe perfected by Noel.

“I make them this way so they are not bad for your breath and have a lot of flavor.” said Noel. He slices yellow onions thinly, covering them with fresh squeezed lime juice, salt and hot water. They are drained and packed in cups for service. The onion flavor is bright and pert; a perfect partner to the sauce to top the chicken.

“So what’s in the chicken?”

“I can’t tell you. That’s our family secret.” They looked at me smiling.

“I will cook for you any time though.” I moved closer to squeeze her hand in thanks.

Fresh Tomato Sauce and Noel-style Onions

Tomato Sauce

4 Fresh tomatoes, washed. Do not remove skin.

1/2 cup washed and chopped cilantro

1/2 minced chile pepper, habanero or jalapeno

salt and pepper

Pass all ingredients through a grinder or blend in a food processor. Salt and pepper to taste.

Serve with onions on top of grilled chicken

Onions Noel-style

2 onions, any style. Sweet or Vidalia are best, sliced in thin rings

Juice of two limes

1 tsp salt

1 1/2 cups hot water.

Add all ingredients to bowl. Cover with plastic wrap to steam 15-20 minutes.

Drain water and serve with tomato sauce and chicken. Its also great with fish.