While traveling in Guatemala a couple of weeks ago, I sampled this dish at one of Guatemala City’s top restaurants, Kacao. The chicken is served in a rich sauce of ground seeds, vegetables and spices. At Kacao, chef Humberto Dominguez puts his own touch on many of Guatemala’s signature dishes. He served this Pepian de Pollo as a stew, in a bowl, but you can also make the sauce a little thicker and serve it as shown below.
Some call this dish Guatemala’s version of Mexico’s mole, and there are many similarities. The preparation involves toasting seeds, chile pods, canela and and a few flakes of red chile, then blending this mix with a warm blend of pan-roasted tomatoes, tomatillos, onion and garlic. The chicken is simmered in broth before being added to the pepian sauce and simmered to tenderness.
For this recipe, I scanned a number of versions online, including one presented last year at the Culinary Institute of America, San Antonio’s Latin Flavors conference, as well as several others. The final preparation tasted similar to the one we enjoyed on our rainy, first evening in this beautiful Central American country.
Chicken Pepian is traditionally eaten with rice and corn tortillas, and might be garnished with slices of cooked chayote squash. Or, the squash may be cut into cubes, steamed, and stirred into the stew. Also, the dish is good made with beef or pork, too.
This looks like an involved recipe, but it actually can go together in an hour, with another 15-20 minutes for simmering together the sauce and the chicken.
Pepian de Pollo
3 pound chicken cut into pieces, or use chicken thighs, which have the most flavor
3-4 cups chicken broth
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
5 medium-sized roma tomatoes
5 medium tomatillos, husks removed
2 medium onions, skin on
4 large cloves garlic, in skins
½ cup sesame seeds
1/4 cup pepitas (shelled pumpkin seeds)
2 sticks canela (the softer, easily shredded type of stick cinnamon usually found with Mexican spices, not the hard stick cinnamon)
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes or to taste
1 pasilla chile
2 guajillo chiles
1 ancho chile
2 corn tortillas
1/2 teaspoon achiote powder or paste
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Place chicken, broth and salt in a large pot and bring slowly to a boil, reduce heat and let simmer until the chicken is cooked through, but not quite fork tender (about 20-30 minutes).
While the chicken is simmering, put tomatoes, tomatillos, onions and garlic on a large comal, cast-iron or nonstick skillet. Turn the heat on to medium and let the vegetables dry-roast. Turn them with tongs and let them get charred on all sides. The onion peels might start to look pretty black, but you’ll remove the outer skins anyway. This will take 15 minutes or so. When they are soft and roasted, move them on a plate where they can cool enough to handle.
While the vegetables are roasting, and in another dry skillet, put the sesame seeds, pepitas, cinnamon, and red pepper flakes over low heat. Toast them, tossing, and once you can smell and see they are getting browned and toasted, remove them from the heat and pour into blender. Set the pan back on the heat and now toast the pasilla, guajillo and ancho chiles, lightly, turning them a few times. When you can smell the chiles warming, becoming fragrant (just a couple of minutes) take them off heat and turn onto a plate. Now, put the corn tortillas into the pan and again, let them toast, dry, until they are crisped.
Whirl the toasted seeds and spices in the blender and pulse to a coarse powder. Take the stems off and seeds out of the dried, toasted chiles and put them into the blender along with the crisped tortilla (which you can cut or crush into pieces with your hands). Blend this mixture well, but you might need a cup or so of chicken broth from the pot to help the process along. That’s OK. Turn this finely blended mixture into a bowl and set aside.
Next, trim stem ends and skins from the cooled, pan-roasted vegetables. The softened garlic will come right out of the skins. Put these into the blender and blend to a smooth sauce. Add the tomatoes and onion mixture to the the seeds and chiles mixture and mix well. (You can also put these all into the blender to further process, if there is room.) Add the achiote and pepper and whirl until smooth. Taste for salt.
Now, drain the chicken stock from the pot with the cooked chicken and set aside. Then, pour in the contents of the blender, stir gently and add 2 cups of the chicken broth. Simmer the chicken until fork tender (another 15-20 minutes) in the mixture. If it gets at all pasty, add some more broth. It should be a smooth, thick sauce that coats the chicken pieces well but isn’t sticky.
Serve pieces of chicken on a plate covered generously with the sauce, or serve stew style in a bowl. (If you would rather have it as stew, which is how we had it at Kacao, use enough chicken broth to give it a more stew-like consistency.) Serve with white rice and more warm, corn tortillas.
Makes 6 servings.
Photographs by Bonnie Walker