Getting distracted in Guatemalan municipal markets is a recipe for disaster in so many ways. At the least, you create a huge traffic jam with your body as you stare, mouth agape, at whatever you are distracted by, forcing passers-by to squeeze and press and shove around you in the remaining four inches left in the narrow aisles. At the worst, you’ll probably get pick-pocketed. The Guatemalan markets are beasts! They are large in square footage but miniscule in walking space, a variable maze of beef and beets, brassieres and brass door handles. Chichicastenango, in Guatemala’s pine forest- and cornfield-riddled department of Quiché, is the biggest of them all. The market there is a sprawling thing, taking over much of the town on Thursdays and Saturdays, and if you aren’t careful, you could definitely get swept away by the sights and sounds, let alone the wave of tiny Guatemalans just trying to do their shopping.
I have been dreaming about Chichi, as it is known locally, ever since I bought my first Guatemalan Lonely Planet over three years ago, but Guatemala is a land of many enchantments and the landscape (read: roads) is not the best for getting anywhere quickly, so it was always pushed to the side in favor of other, more garish sites. It was, I am glad to say, worth the wait.
I found myself there on a bright, clear if not a touch crisp December day, armed with two tour guides and my parents in tow, the mass of us navigating the winding, whirling beast together. Although not as busy as Saturdays, Thursday proved to be a busy day, and there were lots of people out. Trying to walk as one entity was tough, especially with all of us armed with our cameras, each lens trained on something absolutely different. Our local guide was pushing for us to hit the handicrafts section, and we whizzed through the fruits and meats and eggs and dried goods at a steady clip, much faster than I would have liked, until like a strike of pink lightning, I saw them…
… rose-colored, multi-hued, fresh from the pod piloyes.
Sitting under a vendor as inconspicuous as he could be (he, unlike his hundreds if not thousands of stall mates with mountains of produce and wares, sold only these beans) with a plastic basket filled to the brim.
Cue a moment of complete and utter distraction. For a good four seconds I stood in awe of his perfect, cherry-red and white orbs, plump and ripe from many days on the vine in the Guatemalan sun. I was a traffic jam. I luckily did not get pick-pocketed, but I did cause some distraction in our group when everyone realized I was missing, gaping at a bunch of beans. Our local guide looked impatient, our trip guide and my stepfather looked on bemused, but my mother understood, as she always does now about food-related items, that these were special.
The beans in question, piloyes, are what we know as scarlet runner beans in the States. I had seen plenty of dried varieties in the La Antigua markets, because there’s a very popular dish here called Piloyada Antigüeña, but I had never seen fresh piloyes, or fresh beans at all for that matter, until that Thursday in Chichi. Fresh beans are, with a doubt, superior to dried beans in every way. The taste is, of course, fresher, and the buttery notes are more prominent as they haven’t had to endure a drying process. They cook up quicker, shaving up to an hour from their dried counterparts. You don’t have to soak fresh beans. And just like with fresh vegetables, they are at their peak of nutrition when they are fresh, packing the most nutrients. Of course, in a pinch, dried are always great, especially if they’re from a great source, like Rancho Gordo, but if your can scope them out, fresh beans are special.
The first time I was able to encounter fresh beans was in an Italian food market in Bushwick, Brooklyn of all places, and after consulting the old Italian owner how to make them, shlepped them back to my boyfriend’s house and feasted on fresh cranberry beans boiled with bacon and drippings, scooped up with crusty bread, also from that market. This is how I knew, when I saw them again, they were special.
In Chichi, I forked over 10 quetzales ($1.20) for two pounds of fresh beans, and a day later, upon my return, they were in the pot, again with bacon and a hearty dose of thyme, an abundance of which I had in my fridge from my last market outing (or maybe Guatesgiving, I can’t remember). In the coming days I ate them as is, again with crusty bread from the local panaderia, but also in cabbage, bean and apple soup (with more bacon) and in a spicy tomato sauce, baked in the oven and topped with feta cheese. There is no way to go wrong with fresh beans. The only problem is now I have to travel three hours to Chichi until I find my local, Antigüenian source.
Thyme-Spiked Fresh Piloyes Beans
Fresh piloyes or scarlet runner beans can be found at specialty markets or at farmers markets, and these would make a beautiful substitute. Of course, if you are in Guatemala, you can go cruising the markets in Chichi to find them.
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 strips good bacon, chopped horizontally (*optional)
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 small carrot, diced
2 pounds fresh piloyes or scarlet runner beans
1 tablespoon chopped thyme leaves, plus 2 meaty sprigs
1 tablespoon salt
In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat oil over medium heat. Add bacon and render fat (fry) until crispy, about seven minutes. Add garlic and carrots and sauté until soft, another four minutes. Add beans and thyme springs to pot; add enough water to cover the beans by at least 4 inches and bring to a boil. Turn down heat and simmer beans for anywhere from 45 minutes to 1.5 hours, until beans are just falling apart. About 20 minutes before, add salt and combine well. Once heat is turned off, stir in chopped thyme. Serve hot with crusty bread or over rice or polenta. Enjoy!!
*If vegetarian, omit bacon.