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Traditional Guatemalan Food

Guatemalan food may at first seem a bit odd to gringo palates, though the freshness and pungency of local ingredients, including a bounty of tropical fruits and vegetables, soon have many people enticed by the local flavors.

Dobladas de queso (folded tortillas stuffed with cheese). Photo © Al Argueta.
Dobladas de queso (folded tortillas stuffed with cheese). Photo © Al Argueta.

Guatemalan dishes are based largely on corn, a staple crop with Guatemala’s indigenous population. Corn is ground and made into a dough, which in turn is used to make tortillas, cooked over an open fire on a comal. Tortillas are a staple with Indians and ladinos alike, and the average Guatemalan family consumes several dozen tortillas per week. In the countryside, tortillas with a dash of lemon and salt, along with beans, form the basis of meals in many low-income households. Even in the cities, tortillas are bought from the local tortillería or, in many cases, delivered fresh daily. Unlike revenge, tortillas are not a dish best served cold. Guatemalans like them piping hot, and they usually arrive in a basket wrapped in traditional cloth to keep them warm. Many restaurants will have a tortillería at the front of the restaurant, where you can watch the tortillas being made, attesting to their freshness.

Other Guatemalan dishes include tamales, made from corn meal, pork or turkey, tomato sauce, and olives wrapped in a banana leaf and boiled. Traditionally, Guatemalans will eat a tamal at midnight on Christmas Eve. Chuchitos are a delicious combination of cornmeal with turkey and tomato sauce wrapped in a cornhusk. Paches are similar to tamales, but they are made from potato-based dough instead of corn. Guatemalans are no strangers to tacos, though the local version is a corn tortilla filled with pork or chicken, rolled up, fried, and covered with tomato sauce and traditional cheese bits. Tostadas are flat, fried corn tortillas topped with tomato sauce or bean paste, shredded parsley, and cheese bits.

Chuchitos. Photo © Jgoge, licensed Creative Commons usage.

Among Guatemala’s dishes are also a variety of spicy stews found regionally. Found in the northern region of Las Verapaces, kakik is a turkey stew requiring 24 ingredients. Served along the Caribbean Coast of Izabal, tapado is a seafood stew made with plantains and coconut milk. Spicy meat dishes include pollo en jocón (chicken in a tomatillo-cilantro sauce) and pollo en pepián (chicken in a tomato-pumpkin seed sauce).

In addition to three meals a day, Guatemalans are also big fans of the refacción, a midafternoon snack consisting of a light sandwich or pastry and coffee. The prominence of bakeries and cake shops throughout the country attests to the popularity of this extra half-meal. Not all Guatemalans can afford to eat three square meals a day—a large part of the population subsists on less than $2 daily. In many places, meat is a luxury few can afford. Dinner is usually late for North American tastes and is usually eaten sometime around 8pm.

Besides traditional food, heavy European influences on Guatemalan culture throughout the years have resulted in a wide array of culinary tastes. You’ll see plenty of evidence of this in Guatemala City and Antigua, where there are numerous options for dining in addition to some very interesting fusions of Guatemalan and international flavors. In food and culture, Guatemalans love to emulate the consumption patterns of their North American neighbors. You’ll see plenty of fast-food franchises, mostly in Guatemala City, but also with surprising frequency in other urban areas. Guatemala City also has its fair share of U.S. casual dining franchises the likes of T.G.I. Friday’s, Chili’s, and Applebee’s. But, since you didn’t come all this way to eat the same food you’d have back home, you’ll need a few tips on where to eat locally.

Señora Pu at work in her kitchen - La Cocina de la Senora Pu. Photo © Al Argueta.
Señora Pu at work in her kitchen. Photo © Al Argueta.

Where To Eat

You can expect to find table service and menus in restaurantes. Comedores are much simpler eateries, sometimes with a menu but other times with a set dish for the day. The best comedores are easy to spot: They’ll have the greatest number of locals eating there. You’ll find Guatemalans often eat at streetside stalls serving greasy tacos, fried chicken, and the like. These places are often referred to in jest as shucos (dirties) and are best avoided by international travelers unless you have a very strong stomach or have developed resistance to intestinal critters through continued exposure to food of questionable cleanliness south of the border.

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