With its equatorial setting, fertile volcanic soils, warm temperatures and high rainfall, Guatemala’s geography has made it ideal for cultivating a wide range of agricultural products. The development of Guatemalan cuisine has been heavily influenced by its three stages of history – the ancient Mayan Empire, colonial Spanish rule and the modern republic which exists today.
The History of Guatemalan Cuisine
The Mayan relied heavily on their staple crop of maize which is still evident is many traditional dishes, together with the cereal known as amaranth. Spanish colonial rule from 1524 to 1821 saw the introduction of dishes such as enchiladas, tamales and tortillas which are still prominent on menus today. The establishment of banana and coffee plantations in the late 19th century and early 20th century saw increases in the availability of both products, while sugarcane became an important crop by the end of World War II. But influences on Guatemalan cuisine in the modern republic have come from far and wide, with Chinese food particularly popular and most cities and towns home to at least one Chinese restaurant.
Large Guatemalan cities and tourist hubs boast a diverse range of international foods and fast food restaurants, while the cuisine tends to be more traditional in remote rural areas, drawing on local produce and staple crops. Coffee, black beans and tortillas are the quintessential breakfast in rural areas, with a large lunch served in the middle of the day and a more simple dinner in the evening.
Traditional dishes in Guatemalan Cuisine
Chicken, beef and (to a lesser extent) turkey are among the most popular meats in Guatemalan cuisine and are often accompanied by frijoles con arroz (beans with rice). Stews such as estofado (beef, potato and carrot), subanik (meat and vegetables), pepián de indio (meat with a recado sauce) and pollo guisado (chicken stew) are all favorites, together with gallo en perro (spicy stew), pollo en crema (chicken in a creamy sauce) and kak’ik (turkey soup). Chuletas fascinante are breaded and pan-fried pork chops which are eaten throughout the country, while pollo a la cerveza is a chicken dish cooked in a beer sauce.
Bistec is a grilled or fried beef which is dished up at street food stalls around the county, together with churrasco (charcoal-grilled steak), while yuca con chicharrón features boiled cassava served with chunks of fried pork. Other popular street foods include shucos, a Guatemalan hot dog often served with guacamole, cabbage and mayonnaise, together with chicharrones y carnitas (fried pork skins and meat).
Fish and seafood dishes tend to be confined to the coastlines and are often prepared with various spices. Guatemalan ceviche is a “must try”, with fish, shrimp, snails and clams “cooked” in lime or lemon juice, together with coriander, tomatoes and sometimes avocado.
Other traditional Guatemalan dishes include chiles rellenos (bell peppers stuffed with meat and vegetables), guacamole (mashed avocado) and mosh porridge, with yucca and plantains offering additional carbohydrates. Tortillas are widely popular, served warm and wrapped in a cloth, together with rice and black beans which are either mashed, eaten whole (parados) or refried (volteados). Caldo de huevos is an egg-based clear soup which is lauded as a remedy for hangovers, while chirmol chapín is a tasty tomato salsa, made with fresh coriander and mint.
But perhaps the most quintessential Guatemalan dish is tamales, with there reportedly being hundreds of different varieties found throughout the country. They differ depending on the dough or masa (with corn, potatoes and rice all used), together with the filling and how it is wrapped (in leaves or corn husks). In Guatemala, they are more frequently wrapped in the leaves of plantain or banana than corn husks, as is popular in Mexico. It is common to eat paches – a tamale made from potatoes – on Thursdays, although tamales in general are a favorite Christmas food.
Guatemalan desserts include arroz con leche (a sweet rice pudding), garbanzos en dulce (chickpeas with a thick, sweet syrup) and repollitos con dulce de leche (a pastry filled with a cream made from condensed milk and often topped with chocolate sauce). Rellenitos de plátano are also popular, made from balls of mashed plantains that are filled with sweet black beans before being fried and topped with sugar, together with chancletas de güisquil, a fried chayote fruit which has been covered in whipped egg whites.
When it comes to drinks, Guatemalans tend to drink weak, sugary coffee, despite producing (and exporting) some of the world’s best coffee beans. Sodas known as aguas are also widely popular, as are licuados – fruit juice shakes mixed with water or milk and sugar. Gallo is the national beer, while quetzalteca is a strong, raw cane spirit for the brave hearted.
Festive Guatemalan Cuisine
Around 60 percent of Guatemalans are Roman Catholic, although traditional Mayan beliefs are also influential, and many festivals and celebrations center around religious holidays. Semana Santa, or “Holy Week”, is the year’s biggest holiday, with fish, torrejas pastries, encurtidos (spicy vegetables with vinegar) and candied fruits among the traditional foods. Those with Mayan ancestry often feast on kilim (a traditional chicken dish), tobic (a beef and vegetable soup) and joch (a hot drink made from ground corn, barley, cinnamon and brown sugar) during this period. Other popular festival treats include buñuelos (doughnuts glazed with honey and cinnamon) and piñatas filled with sweets which are common at children’s parties.
Dia de los Muertos at the beginning of November is also associated with certain dishes, including the chilled salad of fiambre. It can include up to 50 different ingredients and originated in families taking deceased members their favorite dishes to the cemetery. Over time, these dishes became mixed into this delicious salad which often features sausages and cold-cut meats, pickled baby corn, beetroot, pacaya flower, cheese and olives. Each family usually has their own take on the dish and it has become a tradition to share your fiambre with others on this day.
Other dishes traditionally served on Dia de los Muertos include ayote en dulce (squash boiled in a sweet syrup), empanadas de ayote (squash pastry) and jocotes en miel (fruit boiled in syrup).