Who’s in the kitchen? I asked the bartenders in La Lancha restaurant after only my second meal during my trip to Guatemala. Ezekiel, they said. He’s been the chef here at La Lancha. I wanted Ezekiel to know that I liked what he had been serving the past two days. While traveling Central America, I’ve had the same fried fish, roasted chicken, rice and plantains in every country. There’s nothing wrong with an honest meal, of course, but it was refreshing to eat something traditional that was executed so well. I was checked-in a resort, but the food did not taste like something for a corporate meeting and the menu certainly did not come with the word “fusion” in it.
I’ve had Ezekiel’s rolled-up tortilla with ground pork and beef and smothered with tomato salsa. I’ve had his chiles rellenos, or stuffed peppers; his fish fillet with coriander sauce was equally tasty and flavorful. It was during the third night that I ordered what Guatemalans call subanik, also known as “God’s meal” in the La Lancha menu, simply because it is a bowl of everything. It was the perfect bowl of hot reddish-orange broth, made better with the rice I mixed in. I couldn’t help but order it again for my last night’s dinner.
When I checked out of my room the next morning, the man himself, Ezekiel, stepped out of the kitchen with the recipe written on a piece of paper. I translated his notes out loud to make sure I understood and he showed me how the peppers that are crucial to the subanik broth look like. He showed me a large dried black pepper and a skinnier one that was dark red. They looked familiar to me because I have seen them in the Spanish aisle of my neighborhood supermarket. I couldn’t wait to buy them and try the recipe at home.
Back in New York, I found and bought guaque and ancho chiles in $1.50 packets. Guaque chiles are larger than jalapeÃ±os but have the same level of spiciness. Poblano chiles are slightly spicier than bell peppers and become the more familiar ancho, or wide, when dried because of its new shape. I had some leftover dried pimento peppers in the cupboard, so I decided that adding a third variety can’t hurt. They key to subanik broth is to simmer the chiles with tomatoes and tomatillos, those green tomatoes that come with an onion-paper skin. Toasted sesame and pumpkin seeds only add to the smoky flavor of the soup.
Feel free to add almost anything to your version. For my first, I used chicken and leftover turkey meat and skipped the vegetables. For my second, I skipped the meats entirely and just added the vegetables towards the end. I’ve tried both kaffir and mint leaves and found either worked well, as long as you have fresh lime juice to serve.
2 dried ancho chiles
2 dried guaque chiles
2 dried pimento peppers
5 red tomatoes
1 tbsp sesame seeds, toasted
1 tbsp pumpkin seeds, toasted
1 zucchini, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
2 stalks of celery, chopped
2 pieces of chicken breast, sliced in small chunks
1 cup of stewing beef chunks
1 cup rice
fresh lime juice
half a bunch of cilantro leaves
1. In a large Dutch oven, boil 10 cups of water with the chiles and the tomatoes. When the water boils, turn the heat down to a medium simmer. Add the cilantro, mint leaves, sesame and pumpkin seeds and cook for about an hour, uncovered. The tomatoes will swell and eventually soften. Gently smash them with the back of a spatula. The broth will be almost black when it’s ready.
2. Using a slotted spoon, scoop the chiles and tomatoes into a food processor and purÃ©e. Strain the remaining broth to another container to remove the chile seeds. Return the strained broth and the purÃ©e to the Dutch oven and continue to simmer.
3. Add the rice to the tomato-chile broth. Stir occasionally to cook the rice. After about 10 minutes, add the carrots, celery and chicken. When the vegetables are halfway done, add the beef and the zucchini. Cook until zucchini is tender. Ladle into bowls and serve with a squirt of lime juice and a sprinkle of sesame seeds.