In a bustling Guatemalan marketplace, you might mistake sheathed pacaya for an ear of corn. From a distance, its green spathes mimic the familiar husk. One peek inside reveals dozens of tentacles resembling baby corn kernels.
These clustered flora are the male inflorescence of the pacaya palm, a common plant native to Guatemala. Pacaya farmers breed male palms for size (the bigger the inflorescence, the better). Guatemalans serve these unadorned strands in salads, such as fiambre, taken straight from a jar of brine. One first-time taster described the taste of jarred pacaya as distinctly bitter, but texturally akin to crumbly baby corns. But unlike baby corn, these are rarely a kid favorite; the vegetal aftertaste shares a likeness with bitter melon or raw zucchini.
Those less partial to pacaya’s bitterness have found other ways to enjoy the flower. Guatemalans prepare the fresh plant by hulling its sheaths and blanching them in boiling water. Next, they slather the clusters in corn flour batter and pan-fry them to a golden crisp. Some fry the fronds en huevo, wrapped in crispy egg and topped with tomato salsa. The tender tendrils still have an “‘al dente” texture after being cooked, according to one reviewer. Others prepare the tentacles as if they belonged to an actual octopus, grilling them with salt and lemon.
When seeking this Guatemalan delicacy, be sure to mention it’s food you’re looking for. If locals point you away from the markets and toward the mountains, they’re not suggesting a pick-your-own adventure. Pacaya shares a name with one of the country’s most active volcanoes, and its eruptions are frequently visible from Guatemala City. The plant, on the other hand, is something you should be able to find around town.