Culture Through Favorite Flavors

I learned the ropes of the kitchen with my maternal grandmother in Guatemala when I was a little girl. My parents divorced, and while they were trying to solve their differences, I lived with her for a long time. I did not know it then, but I was learning kitchen lessons for life.

Despite my Americanized culinary training, my heart and soul are deeply Latin. I chose to concentrate my career on the food culture of Latin America to continue to learn about my roots and the similarities and nuances of each country’s flavors.

Although my culinary core is Guatemalan, I embrace the foods of all 21 Latin countries. I am fortunate to have traveled to most of these places, and learned first-hand from generations of women artisans who have spent lives traditionally cooking cultural foods.

My style is modern, yet I focus on dishes that are staples and representative of a place or region. My kitchen philosophy is practical, healthy, and therapeutic.  

I take pleasure in reading antique books to inspire my cooking. I have had access to culinary literary works dating as far back as 1844, when cookbooks were scarce and recipes were written
 in accordance with the cooking style of a particular cook. If my grandmother had written a book, her style would have been similar.

Latin cuisine is not only delicious and nutritious, it can also be naturally vegetarian, vegan, and even gluten free. As a bonus, it is easy to prepare.

Unified by the Spanish language and culture heavily influenced by Spain or Portugal, Latin countries share commonalities in ingredients such as corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, chiles, herbs, and spices, many of which are either native or came to the land during colonization.

People often ask me if Guatemalan cuisine is like Mexican cuisine. I say yes and no. The similarities lie in sharing some ingredients, but the nuances come from native ingredients and distinctive styles driven by each country’s traditions and customs, as well as layers of other cultural influences, such as African, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, and other European countries. If you carve the world of cuisine by continent, region, and country, it is easier to understand.

My favorite flavors are spicy and full of herbs, vegetables, and lean proteins, preferably fish and seafood, and simply seasoned with citrus juices. These are the building blocks of many of my recipes and teaching principles. One can enjoy great cuisine at home by learning basic flavors, ingredients, and techniques.

I have passed many of my healthy culinary practices on to my son, now living away from home at college. I take pride that he is able to cook beyond basic recipes that he learned with me at home, much like the way I learned with my grandmother.

Pass on your culinary roots and favorite flavors to your family members so that the memories of enjoying those meals at home are not lost. Share food so that recipes live on.

Amalia Damgaard Cookbook: Pollo en Crema y Lorocos. Photo by © Todd Buchanan

Pollo En Crema Y Lorocos

(Chicken with Loroco Flower Buds and Cream Sauce)

Pollo en crema y lorocos is a delectable dish from Oriente in eastern Guatemala. Loroco is the flower bud of a plant native to Central America. It is delicate, aromatic, has a strong flowery-earthy flavor, and holds up well during cooking. Loroco is best when eaten fresh. Alternatively, use frozen buds. Loroco is great in stews and when mixed with cheese, it makes an excellent filling for Empanadas de Loroco y Requesón (loroco flower buds and ricotta cheese-stuffed corn masa cakes). Serves 4 to 6 people.

4 to 6 skinless chicken thighs, visible fat removed

1 1/2 cups fat-free, low-sodium chicken stock

2 corn tortillas, torn into small pieces

1/2 cup julienned yellow onion

2 minced garlic cloves

3/4 cup julienned red bell pepper

1/2 cup small-diced roma tomatoes

1 tablespoon butter

1/3 cup frozen loroco flower buds, thawed and separated

1/2 cup fresh Guatemalan cream (or Latino table cream)

1 teaspoon kosher salt

Freshly ground white pepper

Garnish with 1/2 cup minced red bell pepper, sautéed

In a medium pot, cook the chicken in the stock with the tortilla pieces for 20 to 30 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a dish and keep it warm. Mash the tortillas and stock until they are well incorporated. Set aside.

In a medium skillet, sauté the onions, garlic, peppers, and tomatoes in the butter for 3 to 4 minutes. Add the loroco and sauté 1 minute. Add the cream and the thickened stock. Season the mixture with salt and pepper. Return the chicken to the skillet and spoon the sauce over the chicken. Simmer covered for 5 to 10 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings, if needed.

Recipe from “Amalia’s Guatemalan Kitchen-Gourmet Cuisine With A Cultural Flair”

Amalia Moreno-Damgaard (she/her) was born and raised in Guatemala City. She graduated from Le Cordon Bleu, wrote “Amalia’s Guatemalan Kitchen,” and established Amalia Latin Gourmet to help corporations develop a broader understanding and appreciation of Latin cultural nuances. Details: