“My grandma was divorced. Never remarried. To survive she ran a variety store in our hometown of Quezaltepeque, Chiquimula, Guatemala,” said Amalia Moreno-Damgaard. She spoke to me, my fiancée, and this fine magazine’s publisher, all seated at the cooktop kitchen island in her Eden Prairie home. The writer, public speaker, culinary consultant and brand ambassador knows how to assemble a crowd. She only has to promise to cook.
“Many of my grandma’s customers lived in small villages on the outskirts of town. Every Thursday and Friday they’d come to sell loads of fresh vegetables, crabs from the river, squealing piglets, and other good things bundled in banana leaves. She’d sell them beans, sugar, buttons, shoes, clay pots, decorative candles for church, and children’s clothes and indigenous wedding dresses she had sewn herself.
“I was raised by my grandma. She taught me how to shop. How to bargain. How to use her Singer, rocking my feet in tune to the stitching. But most importantly, she taught me sazón: the intrinsic art of seasoning all foods well. It is cooking by taste, by insight, using the same techniques, cookware and ingredients Guatemalans have used since Mayan times … and probably even longer.”
Amalia’s ancestors would not have recognized her stainless steel pot, or the ring of blue fire pulsing under it. But they would have known what she was cooking: Jocón, a green stew made of tomatillo, onion, poblano, serrano and chile, thickened with corn tortilla.
“The ingredients in Guatemalan cuisine were once limited to plants and animals native to the region,” said Amalia, who, having removed the chicken thighs from the pot, now began homogenizing its contents with an immersion blender. “The arrival of the Spaniards created a new hybrid culture. There were good and bad things about the exchange, of course, but I choose to focus on the good: the chicken, and the garlic, and the spices, and the culinary traditions the Spaniards had learned under 800 years of Moorish rule. All these new things combined with the old to create Latin America’s contemporary cuisine. That’s the history – the culture – I want to share with the world.”
And shared Amalia has. She has written two cookbooks: Amalia’s Guatemalan Kitchen and Amalia’s Mesoamerican Table, the latter of which was just recently named “Best in the World” at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in Umeå, Sweden. She appears as a regular guest on MPR, WCCO, Fox9, Kare11, KSTP, Telemundo and Univision. She has taught cooking classes at Cooks of Crocus Hill, Kitchen Window, Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, Nordic Ware and The Good Acre. She has also partnered with innumerable Fortune 500 companies, professional organizations, non-profits and schools in the Twin Cities and beyond. It is all part of her mission to close the awareness gap and promote a deeper understanding of Latin cultural nuances throughout the United States.
“My philosophy on cooking is simple,” said Amalia, now agitating a pan of seasoned rice with the blade of a silicone spatula. “Fresh. Healthy. Delicious. Simple. I’ve trained at Le Cordon Bleu. I’ve visited over 80 countries across every continent for fun and to study their culinary traditions. I’ve learned many recipes known only to grandmas living in remote villages in Latin America. For all of that research, I have learned that all great food shares the same four things in common: it is fresh, healthy, delicious and simple.”
Amalia spooned the rice into a ring-shaped mold, creating a neat column that didn’t collapse beneath the weight of the brilliant green Jocón. A sprinkle of fresh cilantro completed the dish. “Try this,” she invited, passing the dish to me.
It tasted like home. Not mine, but the one Amalia holds dear.
“I remember the smell of the kerosene lamps we lit whenever the electricity went out,” said Amalia. “The way they would cast their flickering light across the kitchen. The volcanic stone mortars and pestles. The little ovens made of clay and hay. Everything we needed to make food that still stays in my head, my heart and my palate. That expression of my grandma’s love guides me to this day. It’s why I call her my North Star.
“There are things in this world which must be saved for future generations. Food – that most fundamental expression of culture, which tells us where we came from – must be preserved, especially now that so few people know how to cook like their grandmas.”
I finished my Jocón, thanked Amalia profusely, looked up at the Mayan calendar hanging on the wall and realized it was time to go. On the drive home I thought of a kitchen that once existed in New Jersey, where an old Italian woman wearing a muumuu used to bake pies for me.
Please visit amaliallc.com to learn more about Amalia, including how you can engage her services.