Monday, January 24, 2011

Setting up house, making coffee, cooking dinner

Note: I started this entry on Jan 20 (Friday) but kept editing it. So by the time I published it I'd made several meals.
Making coffee and cooking dinner are things I mostly took for granted. Since I moved into a house that currently has only a wood burning stove and no refrigerator, and in a town that does not have 24-hour green grocers or a something that we would recognize as a supermarket of any kind, I've had to change. Granted, I've cooked all of one meal and prepared one other that did not require cooking. 

My first trip to Guatemala a year and a half ago I stayed in a home that had only a wood burning stove and no refrigerator, but I was not the main person responsible for meals. I was often the first person up in the morning and learned to get the stove going so I could heat water for my bath, make coffee for myself (most of the Guatemalans I know in the highlands drink extremely weak coffee, so weak that I can't usually bring myself to drink it unless it is extremely cold and the coffee is very hot, but even then I mostly just use the cup to warm my hands), and make my oatmeal. I sometimes helped with meals but didn't ever cook one on my own. I am not cooking on this stove because of some romantic notion about authenticity or simplicity but for the moment, out of convenience. 

The house I rented was completely unfurnished and I had to spend a lot of time, effort and (relatively speaking) money to make it habitable. I could buy a gas stove, but that's not as simple as it seems. There are no gas lines. One has to buy a gas cylinder and attach it to the stove and then one has to refill it whenever it runs out. Gas stoves are also relatively expensive, although I am going to look aorund and see if I can get a used one. But given that there was already a wood burning stove and I had a lot of other things to purchase for the house, a gas stove was less of a prioirty than, say, a wardrobe to hold my clothes as there are no closets in the house (nor are there closets in most of the homes I've visited, including my Antigua apartment).

So, in order to make a meal I had to make sure I had enough firewood for cooking (the friends with whom I stayed before I found the apartment gave me a little; usually people buy it in bulk, but I didn't know that at the time). Then I had to shop for food. There are small stores scattered throughout Chinique. Some are quite small and specialized (children's toys, or electronics) but many carry a variety of items -- hand-made wooden spoons, packets of bouillon, some fresh produce and home-made cheese, toiletries, bottled water. They seem to cram a lot into a very small space.  Each town has its official market day - Chinique's happens to be Sunday -- but there is usually a small number of vendors in the market square most days. 

There are supermarkets in the major cities. Santa Cruz del Quiché, the departmental capital, is about 25 minutes away, and there are a couple of supermarkets. But mostly people shop at open air markets and small stores.  I had to go to Quiché (people in the small towns in the dept of Quiché usually refer to the departmental capital as Quiché, not by the complete name of Santa Cruz del Quiché) for some other errands -- I was hosting a meeting at my home and didn't have enough chairs, I needed a coffee pot so I could make coffee, and I also wanted to order a desk since the one I had seen was sold before I was able to purchase it. And my friend Felipe had promised a mutual friend, Father Marc Fallon, who was visiting from the U.S., to meet him in Quiché so I offered to give Felipe a ride. Oh yes, and I was invited to the 4th birthday party of Stefanie (again, I'll have to check spelling), the granddaughter of Dona Centa -- Stefanie's father has been in the U.S. since sometime last year, so I wanted to get her some presents. I was pretty loaded down so I only made a brief stop at a supermarket, and was pleased to find whole oats (oatmeal is widely available but it is mostly sold as "mosh" -- the equivalent of quick-cooking oats; I like something a bit firmer to the bite). I got coffee and powdered milk (both much cheaper than at local stores in Chinique and the latter a necessity since I don't have a fridge), oil and vinegar for salad, salt, honey.  A lot of the vinegar sold here is artificial: water plus acetic acid, so I've learned to read labels carefully.

I only had time and patience to pick up a few things at the market. The market extends over several passageways and side streets surrounding the main indoor market building and I often get turned around, and need to stop and reorient myself. Vendors call out as shoppers pass by, "Quetzal, a quetzal" (a quetzal is the basic unit of currency).  "Que está buscando, que le podemos mostrar?" (What are you looking for, what can we show you?). It is a little aggressive. If a vendor catches you even looking at his or her merchandise, even if you don't slow down or stop, he or she will call out to you and come over. This may be a cultural thing: I prefer to look at things on my own and will ask for help if I need it.  I wanted greens for cooking; I'd seen something that looked like a variety of broccoli rabe or turnip greens earlier that morning at a friend's house, although when I asked her what it was called she just said, "hiervas".

 I found greens, onions, carrots, and garlic, and I had some tomatoes and hot peppers that Dona A. had given me in the morning when I stopped by her store to say hello; she is the mother of Dona V. and the grandmother of M.J. (who lives in New Bedford). I had somewhat reluctantly accepted the gift; I had only stopped in to say hello and Dona A. started to put items in a bag for me -- a few tomatoes, hot peppers, two lemons, and a small plastic bag of blue-corn tortillas. She refused payment, so I bought some housewares from her (I needed more glasses anyway). I wanted to offer something for the people who were coming for the meeting: coffee and cookies seemed like a good idea. I found a discount store, a kind of Guatemalan version of Family Dollar or the 99-cent stores, on a corner near the market. There I found coffee cups costing a quetzal less than at other stores I'd seen; some spoons and forks; packets of cookies; plus some glitter pens, colored pencils, notebooks and stickers that I bought for the birthday party the following day. 

 Looking for a coffee pot took some more effort. There are enameled pots for sale all over Guatemala, casseroles, frying pans and smaller saucepans, along with coffee pots (with tops) and large enameled cups that are often used for heating water or making milk from powder. My friend F. was with me, and he also wanted to get some enamel ware for a niece's wedding. We looked at stores on the streets surrounding the market; we looked inside the market. Prices for the coffee pots ranged from Q75 to Q90; prices for the casseroles were around Q65. F. had his heart set on a particular shade of green that we never found in the size he wanted, and he tried unsuccessfully to get the price down to Q40. Eventually we found a vendor inside the market: she had the lowest price on the coffee pot (Q75) and I bought the coffee pot and a frying pan for Q110 (slight discount). I'm not sure what F ended up paying for his casserole; he asked my advice on colors (a dark blue and a light green; I told him the dark blue was prettier). 

 Back in Chinique, I had little time to prepare before the meeting. I made a salad of cabbage and carrots, and chopped up an overripe avocado I had with some tomatoes. I had gotten some firewood in the morning, and thought I would get the wood burning stove going to make coffee in my brand new coffee pot. I had some newspaper and other scraps of paper, some smaller pieces of wood, and I tried to use those as kindling but I couldn't get the larger piece of wood to catch fire and so I gave up. When the people came for the meeting I had nothing to offer them but biscuits and water.

However, one of the two men who had accompanied the 8 women (more about the group and the nature of the meeting in another post) took a look and pronounced that what I needed was some ocote to get the fire started. I asked what that was; he explained that it was pine wood saturated with resin; a small batch would cost Q3 and so I gave him the money and dispatched him to get it, and he came back and got the fire started and put the coffee pot on to heat.

The way people make coffee up here is to heat water, add coffee grounds, and then strain it through a small sieve (a French press without the press).  They make it significantly weaker than regular "American" coffee, and ever so much weaker than the espresso that I drink, so I struck what I hoped would be a happy medium (and no one complained).

Emboldened by my success with the coffee, I decided to make caldo de gallina -- chicken soup, a standby in most Guatemalan homes. To be fully authentic I would have had to have raised and killed the chicken myself but the hell with authenticity (we've gotten beyond that, I hope) and so I set off in search of some chicken. Not as easy as I would have thought at 4:30 in the afternoon; not every store sells chicken, and those that do might have sold out by afternoon.

My landlord and his family own a store a few blocks away from me, on the corner of the street where they live, and so I asked there. My landlord's mother, who was tending the register when I walked in, asked what I wanted the chicken for. She explained there were two kinds -- pollo blanco (white chicken) and pollo amarillo (yellow chicken). She couldn't exactly explain the difference but gave me to understand that pollo amarillo was superior and what was called for to make caldo de gallina. However, she had none. Graciously she walked me down the street to see if any of the other stores that normally sold chicken were open (this is something I have observed; if I am looking for something in particular, and a store doesn't have it, employees and even owners of stores will often tell me where I can get what I am seeking rather than just trying to sell me what they have and convince me it will suit my needs. When I was looking at stoves at Elektra, a houseware/furniture store in Sta Cruz, the salesman recommended that if I were to buy a stove, I'd do better to buy a gas cylinder "en la calle" since it would be cheaper than the one sold by the store). 

Alas, no pollo amarillo to be found. So, I said I'd make do with pollo blanco and we walked back up the street and she pulled some frozen chicken quarters out of the freezer; I took two (no use firing up the stove and cooking to just make one serving of soup), and went back home. Alas alas, I had not observed closely enough when Gorgonio was lighting the stove, or else it just takes practice, but it took about half an hour and a lot of soot and ashes to really get the fire going, but going it did get.

Into the pot went water, the chicken, some bay leaves, onions, carrots and a bit of oregano.  When it was mostly cooked I started the rice (I'd splurged on an electric rice cooker at a big housewares store in Guatemala City, Cemaco; I'd never owned one before but figured it might come in handy and it did; it also does a decent job on other cooked grains, including oatmeal).  Then I added some more vegetables to the soup (so I wouldn't have to cook another dish): a kind of soft-skinned squash called ayote  that looks like one of those round, green, Italian squashes, huge bunches of greens. 

While all that was going on, I used the stovetop to roast some chilies and tomatoes to make chirmol -- home-made hot sauce that accompanies many meals (I'll give a recipe in a separate post). I served it Guatemalan-style: a scoop of rice in the bowl, chicken, vegetables and broth on top, and the chirmol on the side (the chirmol is on the right, in a special ceramic bowl called a chirmolera; to the left are a few blue-corn tortillas that Dona A. had given me and that I reheated).

So, at last, my first dinner in the new home.  

No comments:

Post a Comment