The Culinary Tourist: Food without Borders

by Lisa Gensheimer - January 15, 2008

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I don't speak a word of Spanish, except maybe por favor and gracias, but I am learning. A December trip to Guatemala with a group of ophthalmologists opened my eyes to its beautiful culture and people, and just as important, the universal language of food.

We pry open two, rusted sheets of corrugated metal and slip through what amounts to a gate. It doesn't take much to unhinge this barrier between the prowling gangs and the barrio on the other side. Not when you're in the red zone of Guatemala City.

Dr. Guillermo Carranza, the city's former forensic pathologist, watches our back as we zig-zag though traffic and disappear down the narrow gulley to Arsenia Suruy's house. It's broad daylight, but you can't be too careful.

Two young men were murdered here yesterday in a brutal gang shooting, only a few yards from where we parked our van. Investigators found 56 shell casings scattered across the intersection at 12th Avenue and 33rd Street. One of the bodies ended up in front of San Juan church.

Halfway into the alley, a woman in a crisp, red-and-white apron steps out and waves us inside a cement block home, painted a different color so you can see where one house ends and another begins. Her name is Marta, and like her sister Arsenia, all of her children were born with cataracts, a condition that, left untreated, will cause them to go completely blind.

The outside world fades away as 17 relatives crowd in to tell their stories -- aunts, uncles, cousins, grandfathers and grandmothers, some of whom came here by bus, all the way from Santa Rosa, an agricultural region three hours to the south. Their bus tickets cost the equivalent of two weeks' pay.

Arsenia and her daughter, Cindy Gabriela, 19, are busy preparing tamales and fresh-squeezed papaya juice while the little ones race around the dining room table and outside, climbing up to the unfinished second and third floors while we continue talking. Arsenia, who washes and irons clothes for a living, and her husband, Maxumo, a construction assistant, have worked diligently on this place, buying the building they had rented for years and making improvements whenever they could afford a bag of concrete mix or a few rods of rebar.

After the sautéed chicken, tomato, potato, cornmeal mixture (masa) and chili peppers are tucked inside flavorful pacaya leaves, Arsenia tells us about the angel who visited her one night at Roosevelt Hospital, the public hospital in downtown Guatemala City. Not knowing what could be done to help her children, and after being berated time and again by the doctors for bringing more babies into the world, she looked up in desperation. And there was Dr. Mariano Yee, the chief of ophthalmology, standing in the green, fluorescent light. He was the only one who would listen.

Dr. Mariano and his brother, Nicholas Yee, went on to found Visualiza, a full-service ophthalmology center in Guatemala City, which provides free vision services to the poor. Their social service practice is underwritten, in part, by their clients who can afford to pay and by donations from partnering organizations throughout the world. The project, based on the Aravind Eye Care System in India, has become a model for all of Central America. Right now they're concentrating on a new program called "Windows of Light" that provides free eye care for children.

Over the years, Dr, Mariano has performed cataract surgeries on five of the Suruy children, all for free, including Cindy when she was 7 years old. Cindy has put her schooling on hold for a while so she can work full-time in a factory, making socks. Her cousin Yolanda, now 18, was too afraid to have the surgery when she was little, but now she wants to see more than anything -- soon her own child, Irma Samantha, will be taking her first steps. Arsenia reminds Yolanda that she is welcome to stay at her home when she has her surgery in January.

Ten-year-old Heraldo tells his cousin not to worry. He had his cataract removed a month ago and it didn't hurt one bit. Funny how the gift of sight can turn a boy into a man in the blink of an eye. Now, instead of just feeding the horses, Heraldo can work full-time on the coffee farms, he says, glancing up at his grandfather, Feliciano Monterroso. Heraldo can pick 25 lbs. in a day, earning him $1 a day for his labor. Sure, he would like to pursue his studies someday, but for now, school will have to wait.

Story after story unfolds as we open our tamales, like unexpected Christmas gifts tied up with string.

I know I will never be able to duplicate their flavor or what transpired in Arsenia's kitchen that day. But if you know where I can find pacaya leaves, please drop me a line.


In Central America and throughout all of Latin America, tamales bring families and friends together for special celebrations like Christmas, New Year's, first communions and baptisms. Whether you call them chuchitos, hallaca, humita or nacatamal; stuff them with seafood, pork or vegetables; wrap them in a corn husk, banana leaf or pacaya leaf; top them with sour cream or serve them alone -- tamales are a delicious way to say "Welcome."

To make 50 tamales, Arsenia and Cindy peeled and quartered 15 pounds of potatoes, boiled them until soft, then drained and mashed them. Fresh corn masa was added to the mixture (a labor-intensive process I'll write about later), but you can use instant if you want.

They sautéed 1 chile pepper with 2 or 3 pounds of chopped tomatoes, sprinkling in 5 teaspoons each of ajomjoli (toasted sesame seeds) and pepitoria (toasted green squash seeds) available in Latino markets, to which they added about two pounds of shredded chicken.

Layering two, green pacaya leaves into what looked like 15-inch squares, they spread a few tablespoons of the masa/potato mixture in the center, and topped it with a couple of tablespoons of the spicy tomato/chicken mixture.

Then they folded the pacaya leaves as you would a burrito, tying each, envelope-like package end-to-end with a thin strand of what looked like raffia.

The tamales boiled gently on the stove for about 40 minutes, in a big pot covered by about two-inches of water before they were drained and served.

Learn more about Visualiza and their many international partners, here.

Read how Seva is supporting innovative eye care programs like Visualiza.

Find out how you can help stop preventable blindness through Vision for the Poor.

© Lisa Gensheimer
Photos by Rich Gensheimer

The Culinary Tourist appears twice a month in Gather Essentials: Travel. Go exploring with award-winning documentary producer Lisa Gensheimer as she discovers the fun, food and people she meets along the way. Whether you're visiting the home of a faraway friend, stopping for directions at a roadside market, or on holiday in an exotic location, richly layered experiences await. Read more about Lisa's work at Main Street Media. Read more of her stories - join Lisa's Gather network here.