Chef Amalia Moreno-Damgaard and Guatemalan Cuisine

Published by General Mills’ Que Rica Vida, March 7, 2014 -story by Katia Blankley .  For almost 20 years, Amalia Moreno-Damgaard was an important executive in various baqrvLogonks in the Midwest. With a master’s degree in international business and culture, advising companies and recommending international financial strategies was her world.

However, Amalia had a strong passion for cooking, which began when she was a little girl and lived with her maternal grandmother in Quezaltepeque, a town in the department of Chiquimula in eastern Guatemala. When her son Jens was born, Amalia felt a need to switch careers and, following her instinct and passion for cooking, graduated from Le Cordon Bleu. Today, Amalia is a talented chef and business woman who promotes Latino cuisine and culture, as well as more wholesome cooking in general with private, business and consulting events in the state of Minnesota, where she lives with her family.

Guatemalan Cuisine

We spoke with Chef Amalia about Guatemalan cuisine, her favorite dishes and the ingredients she misses most from her homeland.

“Guatemalan cuisine has its roots in Mayan culture and civilization, but also has contributions from Spaniards, who in turn brought dishes and traditions from the Arabs, Italians, Greeks and others,” said the chef, who loves cooking. “On the other hand, we also have influences from the cuisine of the Garifuna, an Afro-Caribbean group who settled in the region.”

The chef divides Guatemalan cuisine into five categories: native cuisine, which originated with the Mayas; traditional cuisine, a combination of native and Spanish cuisine; homemade cuisine, Spanish dishes with a Mayan touch; Garifuna cuisine; and street cuisine, with standouts like various types of tostadas, chuchitos (a type of tamale), tortillas filled with beef, rolled-up tacos, buñuelos (fritters), garnachas (fried corn dough with toppings), etc.

“Street cuisine or chucherías (like we call them in Guatemala), is very important, because in addition to being delicious and plentiful, it’s associated with religious traditions and celebrations.”

Chef Amalia mentioned that among her favorite Guatemalan cuisine dishes are Mayan stews, including jocón, a stew made with chicken, tomatillo and cilantro; and pepián negro, prepared with chicken and pork, in an almost black sauce of dried chilies, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, tortillas, potatoes, green beans and carrots, among others.

“Mayan stews are full meals, very easy to prepare and can be served with white rice,” she said. “They have the advantage that you can cook them in advance and keep them in the freezer for those days when you’re very busy.”

Although the variety of Latino products available in U.S. markets has increased, Chef Amalia thinks there are always ingredients that are impossible to find, for which she has identified appropriate substitutions. “One of them is frijoles piloyes, a very delicious variety of beans used to prepare piloyada antigüeña, a bean salad with pork, Spanish chorizo, queso fresco and a vinaigrette, among others.”

The chef also mentioned among the ingredients she misses from her country a wild herb called zamat, which is used to prepare kaqik, a delicious turkey soup with chilies, annatto and more.

Cuisine During Lent

In Guatemala, since the majority of the population is Catholic, one of the country’s most important celebrations is Holy Week. During this season, throughout this Central American nation, there are various processions representing the Stations of the Cross (the path Jesus followed to the cross).

“In Antigua, the Holy Week celebration is impressive,” said Chef Amalia. “They have solemn, dramatic processions where the neighbors make colorful carpets from painted sawdust to cover the streets. Those are days in which they prepare special meals and people eat a lot of chucherías in church porches.”

Among traditional Lent dishes, Chef Amalia mentioned some that are very popular: Vizcaína-style cod, tuna or sardine empanadas, pickled vegetables and all kinds of seafood. There are also a large variety of desserts made from seasonal fruits, usually in syrup or brown sugar cane sauce.

A Book for Collectors

After four years of trips and research, Chef Amalia put together a book with 170 of her favorite recipes, which includes traditions and customs from Guatemalan cuisine. The recipes are simple, explained step by step and prepared with ingredients that can easily be found in U.S. supermarkets.

The book was published in late 2012, has become a best seller and earned six first-place national awards in the United States (

Interesting Facts

  • Chef Amalia’s favorite dessert is canillitas de leche, a caramel spread that is shaped like thin miniature legs. (In Guatemala, legs are called canillas.)
  • A Qué Rica Vida moment for Chef Amalia is when she maintains good family dynamics by cooking, preparing with her husband and son the tasty and healthy dishes that they all like.

Empanadas de Sardinas (Spicy Sardine-Stuffed Baked Pastries) Recipe by Amalia Moreno-Damgaard

Empanadas (stuffed baked pastries) are popular in Guatemala and throughout Latin America. They vary from country to country and can be sweet or savory. Sardina (sardine) empanadas are popular during Cuaresma (Lent).

Makes 18-20 small empanadas (3 1/2 inches in diameter)

Masa (Dough)

  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 1/2 oz (5 tablespoons) buttermilk
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 4 tablespoons all-vegetable shortening (no trans fat)


  • 1/3 cup finely diced yellow onion
  • 1 15-oz can Latino sardines in spicy tomato sauce (or cooked tuna or other fish)
  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice (limón verde)
  • 6 heaping tablespoon bread crumbs2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
  • 1 cup diced poblano pepper 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • 1 cup roughly chopped cilantro leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon crumbled oregano Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon cold water

Adorno (Garnish) Sesame seeds

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Dissolve the salt in the buttermilk. On a clean, dry surface, combine the flour and shortening with your fingers, working quickly so the shortening doesn’t get too soft. The mixture should look coarse and mealy. Add the buttermilk mixture all at once and again work quickly with your fingers to mix the dough. Form a ball, wrap it in plastic, and let the dough rest at room temperature for 20 to 30 minutes.
  2. In a hot skillet, sauté the onion, garlic, and poblano in the oil for 2 minutes. Add the cilantro and oregano and season with black pepper. (The sardines are very salty, so don’t add salt.) Let the mixture cool completely.
  3. In a medium bowl, break the sardines into small chunks with a fork. Combine the sardines with the cooled vegetable mixture. Add the lime juice and bread crumbs and mix well until pasty and moist but not runny. (You will have more stuffing than you need for this recipe. You can freeze the leftovers for later use or triple the dough recipe.)
  4. On a clean, floured surface, roll the dough with a floured rolling pin until it’s very thin and is stretched as far as it will stretch without breaking. Cut 3 1/2-inch circles with a cookie cutter. Place 1 heaping teaspoon of filling in the center of each circle. Fold each circle into a half-moon and seal the edges by pressing them with your fingers. Use a fork to form ridges around the edges. Make an egg wash by beating 1 egg with 1 teaspoon of cold water. With a pastry brush, varnish the empanadas with the egg wash. Sprinkle a pinch of sesame seeds on each empanada.
  5. Bake the empanadas on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or foil until the dough is cooked and medium brown all over (20 to 25 minutes). Turn the baking sheet around halfway through the baking time for even browning.

Recipe Variation:

Empanadas de Atún (tuna-filled baked pastries): Follow the recipe above, but substitute the spicy sardines with seasoned grilled or canned tuna.

Photo of  Amalia Moreno

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