Not only do we enjoy a country’s cuisine this site hasn’t visited yet, Guatemala’s, but today’s entry samples a facet of that culture not many outsiders, myself included, have tried, namely Mayan food. Formally, the soup pictured above is called Guatemalan Turkey Soup, at least that’s how the recipe lists it, but its alternate name, Kak-Ik, is much more evocative of its Mayan origins.
Indeed, this soup very easily could have been prepared thousands of years ago, long before there was a Guatemala, strictly speaking. Three of the main ingredients, turkey (of course), tomatoes and tomatillos, were readily accessible to the Maya. Until relatively recently, though, they wouldn’t have been available to many others, as those ingredients were unknown outside the Americas. Only after the Columbian exchange, from the 1500s onward, were tomatoes, et al. introduced to the wider world.
Roasting the tomatoes, tomatillos, onions and garlic intensifies their flavors, the slight char concentrating their essences. The modern recipe calls for roasting them ahead of time in an iron skillet, which no doubt is the way Guatemalans prepare them today. However, skillets (and iron for that matter) were unknown to the Maya, who most likely roasted the vegetable over an open flame. Taking that as inspiration, I charred the vegetables slightly on the grill.
These roasted ingredients simmer with the turkey, each one deepening the others’ taste profile. A few supplemental additions contribute complexity. Cinnamon brings an earthy sweetness, while bay leaves, scallions and cilantro strike fresh herbal notes. The inspiration may be an ancient one, but Kak-Ik has a fresh, interesting, novel flavor. Oh so satisfying, though, particularly on a chilly day.
The recipe was featured in the June/July 2017 issue of Saveur, though it originated thousands of years before that. In fact, this recipe probably has deeper antecedents than any other featured here, far pre-dating even the Byzantine source of last year’s The Priest Fainted. Kak-Ik’s appeal is timeless, as satisfying today as it was in antiquity.
(Guatemalan Turkey Soup)
- 4 pounds turkey pieces, such as thighs
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 and 1/2 tablespoons freshly-ground black pepper
- 1 medium yellow onion, peeled and cut into wedges (*1)
- 3 heads of garlic, the individual cloves peeled
- 14 tomatillos, husked and rinsed (*2)
- 4 medium tomatoes
- 1/2 cup minced scallions
- 1/2 cup chopped cilantro leaves
- 1 teaspoon ground annatto seeds (*3)
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 3 large bay leaves
Put the turkey pieces in a large stockpot and sprinkle them with the salt and pepper. Cover with 8 cups of water and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to maintain a low simmer.
Meanwhile, heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. (*4) Add the onion pieces and the garlic in a single layer and roast them, turning as necessary until lightly charred. Remove them to a bowl, then repeat the process with the tomatoes and the tomatillos.
Blend the charred ingredients in a food processor until just smooth. Add this to the stockpot, along with the scallions, cilantro, bay leaves, cinnamon and ground annatto. Continue at a lower simmer for about two hours, rotating the turkey pieces occasionally until the meat is fall-apart tender. (*5) Ladle into bowls and serve.
1 – Of course, a nice shallot is a great substitute.
2 – Tomatillos are becoming more common in larger supermarkets, but if you can’t find them, substitute four more tomatoes and a couple tablespoons of lemon juice.
3 – Annatto seeds are used mainly to impart a deep red color. If you don’t have any on hand, skip it. The soup won’t be quite so vibrant, but it still will be appealing.
4 – Or grill them, as I described I the opening text above.
5 – About an hour into the final simmering stage, I extracted the turkey with tongs, shredded it with forks, then returned it to the pot to finish simmering. This makes the soup more “taster-friendly.”