Spices are important in Guatemalan cooking, especially in many sweets and drinks around the holidays. Spice colors are rich in the landscape this month also, which seems fitting as spices were what the Europeans sought when they first sailed west to bump into these shores. Guatemala produces some spices, but joins the rest of the world in adding clove, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and other spice flavorings and aromas to holiday cooking. Meanwhile, Highland hillsides and gardens are brushed this month with such spice colors as tans, golden yellows, browns, reds and greens.
Dona Catalina puts handfuls of cloves and ginger into her Christmas fruit punch. Dona Audrey makes a savory midnight cake with fresh vanilla extract from local beans. Dona Amanda always adds sticks of cinnamon to cups of her thick, hot chocolate. And of course many Guatemalans serve black, smoky cardamom seeds with their brewed coffee.
Cardamom is a major Guatemalan export. This country edged out Nepal a few years ago to be the world’s leading producer of cardamom seeds, pods and powder to flavor Indian, Nordic, Middle Eastern and other worldwide cuisines. Cumin is also a big export, and is used in many Guatemalan recipes. Mayan tradition says eating some cumin each day keeps both chickens and lovers from straying. We’ve not tested that, but if the Maya say so, it must be true.
Fenugreek grows here too. Maybe you don’t recognize this spice growing wild along the roads, but you’d know the flavor in many dishes. Fenugreek aroma is like maple, as people in New York City learned when a fenugreek extract processor across the Hudson spread the scent throughout the city, just as fenugreek added to Guatemalan recipes fills the kitchen with that pungent maple-syrup odor.
Surely the spiciest addition to Guatemalan holidays is the cobanero chili from Alta Verapaz, hotter than many poor gringo mouths can tolerate, but forming a perfect color combination when woven into holiday wreaths. Cobanero is a shiny green pepper when young, turning into a finger of deep red when mature, colors blending into a perfect holiday decoration as well as chili adding an unforgettable flavor to spicy dishes, if you’re up to the heat.
Spice flavors and spice colors are all around you to enjoy as you wait to hear spicy salsa music at holiday celebrations. Take it all in with your taste buds, eyes and ears. Just be careful with even a touch of cobanero chili should you have a little cut!