A Chicken Stew With Mayan Roots

Seven years ago, just as Jorge Cárdenas was about to open Ix Restaurant in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn, he returned to his home in Quetzaltenango, in the highlands of Guatemala, to make sure that his recipes tasted like those his Mayan grandmother had taught him to make.

He worried about his version of jocón, a velvety stew made with chicken and tomatillos. He had his family and friends taste it, and they confirmed that it was as good as he’d thought.

Recipe: Jocón (Chicken and Tomatillo Stew)

“I tried many, many jocónes,” he said. But he always thought of his grandmother’s. “The taste was always on my mind.”

Jocón — a word that comes from jok’, which means to grind or mash in the Mayan K’iche’ language — is popular throughout Guatemala, said Miguel Cuj, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Vanderbilt University who is Guatemalan. The flavor of the soup can vary, depending on who makes it. Some versions are spicier because of chiltepe chiles, or are made with red tomatoes.

Archaeologists have found ancient Mayan bowls, and believe that stews like jocón were once eaten daily, said Michael D. Carrasco, an art history professor who edited the book “Pre-Columbian Foodways: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Food, Culture and Markets in Ancient Mesoamerica.” In 2007, the Guatemalan government declared jocón an essential piece of the country’s heritage, said Amalia Moreno-Damgaard, the author of two Guatemalan cookbooks.

The stew is a combination of Mayan and Spanish ingredients including tomatillos and cilantro from the Mayans, and sesame seeds and chicken from colonizers. Mayans likely used local proteins like turkey or venison. “It’s a blend of the ancient and the modern,” Ms. Moreno-Damgaard said.

Jocón is mostly served during special occasions like birthdays or weddings, she said. It’s traditional during celebrations like the pedida de mano, a ceremony in which a man proposes to a woman at her home.

Maira Pérez López first tried the stew in 1998 at a restaurant in Huehuetenango in her native Guatemala. She loved it, and vowed to recreate it. Family members taught her how to make it before she moved to the United States. After making a handful of versions, she felt she had nailed the flavor, and even added her own touches, like adding celery.

In 2009, Ms. Pérez López started selling lunches to farm workers in Albany and Syracuse, N.Y. She serves jocón about once a month.

“When you like something,” she said in Spanish, “the taste just stays with you.”

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