t's getting close to lunchtime at the market in San Juan La Laguna when a vendor named Horacio tells me that I need to try some puchon-ik. San Juan is a quiet village of around 10,000 people in the highlands of central Guatemala, on the shore of Lake Atitlán and within walking distance of several volcanoes, including one that's spewing puffs of ash on this particular afternoon. At the lakeshore, motorboats zoom up to the wooden dock several times an hour to drop off small groups of European backpackers or local women balancing baskets of food on their heads. A steep road leads uphill to a concrete building with a small indoor market, where Horacio Cotuc works at a chicken stand. I've just arrived in town, and when I mention to Cotuc that I'm here to write about the country's ancestral Maya cuisine, much of which has been prepared the same way for about 2,000 years, he declares that puchon-ik, a chile-spiced dish of small, sun-dried fish, is San Juan's unrivaled favorite. Later, on my own in an empty restaurant on the village's main road, I have what seems like a stroke of luck: The waiter offers to serve me puchon-ik even though it's not on the menu. He comes back with a plate of thumb-size river fish, their heads and tails still intact. Feigning nonchalance, I begin chewing my way through several mouthfuls of whole pescaditos, but I'm distraught to discover that they are just as spiny and hard-to-swallow as they look. I hide a few half-nibbled fish under a tortilla, offer a polite “gracias” to the waiter, and return to my hotel to do what any hapless foreigner would do—Google puchon-ik. Number of results: zero.