I could say this about most Belizean women I have met: “Insert Name Here” is a hard working woman.

Rita at work on her daily tortilla orders

In this case, Rita Chi’Quien sets the standard.

She has close to thirty acres of farmland at the back of Forest Home, just outside of Punta Gorda in Toledo, Belize.  She farms, teaches sewing and makes school uniforms, runs a small store, grinds corn on her own belted grinder, fills daily orders for corn tortillas (10 for 50 cents US) and is a wife and mother to nine children.

Chi’Quien (pronounced sheh-queen) has worked with Sustainable Harvest International (SHI) to help grow her farm and support her businesses. The foundation’s mission is to support families in Central America by teaching methods of organic farming and agriculture business “best practices”.

“They have helped me a lot with my farm. I doing a lot of things that I don’t have before because of them.” SHI addresses the needs of the farmer and the land, respecting that support of both is the equation for success.

“A while ago I got sick. I had the stones and had to go to Belize to the hospital.  I pray to God to let me live and not have surgery.  He did, and I walked out of that hospital with no more pain.” She went on to explain that at that moment, she had to change how she lived.  She contacted SHI for assistance and has acted as an ambassador for the program ever since. Prospective families and volunteers visit with Chi’Quien year-round.

On my first day with Chi’Quien, she agreed to show me how to make corn tortillas and Caldo, a chicken soup beloved by the Maya in Belize.

When I arrived, the “local chicken”  for the soup base, was ready to be put into a pot of boiling water.  The phrase, “local chicken” in Belize is no misnomer. It means exactly that: a bird from your backyard and not the store.  “I use local chicken because the one from the store is too fatty and bad for your health in the long time.”

Chi’Quien told me how she cuts the neck of the bird, drains the blood and dips the whole bird in boiling  water.  “I then pull out the feathers and what is left over, I hold the chicken over the fire and burn off all the little feathers.”  She demonstrated with her hands over her indoor fire hearth; a beautifully built open stove with a grill on one side, and flat top or “comal” on the other.  Wood fire is the preference for most Maya in Forest Home, (as with cooks across Belize) and Chi’Quien gathers cuttings from her yard.

Above the hearth hung a wooden grate, filled with chiles from Chi’Quien’s farm.  “I put them there to dry over many days.  When I get new ones, I move the old ones over to keep drying.”  The colors, a range of fresh ruby red to smokey, garnet crimson, crowned the  hearth like the jewels of her garden.

“When they dry, I grind the to make a chile spice.”  She showed me the fresh blackened powder. I dipped my finger in and tasted.  The blast of spice hit the tip of my tongue, and then the warmth spread in my mouth and throat.

She winked at me. “Too hot for you?”  Then she smiled.

Next up:

Caldo and Corn Tortilla Recipes.

Kristin Fuhrmann Simmons

2 thoughts on “Heart of Toledo: Maya Kek’chi cooking part one

  1. What a great report.
    I remember the chicken senerio from when I was a child on my god-mother’s farm.
    That’s how we prepared a chicken.
    Your pictures are beautiful
    Rita is a modern reminder of Ver Meer portraits.

    • I love that thought about Vermeer. It’s so true. She is amazing and it is a thing of beauty to watch her work.

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