A rough guide to Guatemalan cuisine

jurg widmer guatemala

Of course the country is famous for its fantastic Mayan ruins, its lively cities, its wild jungles and volcanoes, but we believe that Guatemala is often sorely overlooked when it comes to its cuisine. It is home to some truly delicious local food – and so we thought we’d give you a quick taster of some of the highlights of Guatemalan cuisine for you to try on your next trip to this wonderful country. A lot of Guatemalan food has been borne out the collision of the Mayan and Spanish culinary traditions, and there is a huge range of complex and fascinating dishes to choose from. Here are just a few of the best.

Chicken pepián

A truly ancient Mayan dish, pepián is one of the most popular dishes in Guatemala. It is a kind of spicy chicken stew, although there are also loads of veggies in there too. You may find some variations on the dish – some people prefer pork or beef to chicken – but the end result is always the same: a spicily delicious mix of squash, corn, carrots, potato and even pear, all served up with tortillas and rice.

Kak’ik

Another ancient Mayan dish – Kak’ik is a turkey soup combined with a wonderful blend of spices. You’ll find coriander and chillies in there, but also achiote – an intensely orangey yellow seed that has a subtle, but still powerful nutty flavour (the tree they come from is so red that it is sometimes called the ‘lipstick tree’!). The dish is a popular one for big family celebrations, but it’s always easy to find and is well worth a try. It is the favourite dish of the Mayan Q’eqchi’ people and Cobán is one of the best places in Guatemala to find a great Kak’ik.

Tostadas

So, a basic Latin American staple next, but the Guatemalan take on tostadas is something truly special. There’s nothing too sophisticated about their approach to the tostada – just a fried tortilla with as much guacamole, salsa or black bean paste as you can handle. This mouth-watering pile of deliciousness is then topped off with coriander, onions and a big fistful of cheese. Simple but highly effective.

Desayuno tradicional

If you have been overindulging a little the night before, or perhaps if you’ve just got a long day of trekking in the jungle ahead of you, then a good breakfast to set you up for the day is essential. The traditional Guatemalan breakfast of scrambled eggs, onion and tomato, avocado, mashed beans, stewed plantains and tortillas is a great way to kickstart the day – so, skip the cereal and treat yourself to something a bit special.

Rellenitos

Who doesn’t love doughnuts? Once you’ve recovered from your desayuno tradicional you may find that your energy levels are starting to dip. The best answer to the mid-morning slump we’ve found is a quick coffee and a few rellenitos (in our experience it is physically impossible to have just one). They’re made from plantains, refried bean paste, sugar and cinnamon all mashed together and then deep fried. It might not sound particularly tasty, but trust us, they are truly irresistible. Highly recommended.

Street food

Guatemala is an incredibly easy and affordable place to try out new tastes, and one of the cheapest and most authentic ways to do this is to sample the local street food. One of our favourite quick snacks are the spiced green mango slices which have been seasoned with chili and lime – a gorgeous combination of flavours. Of course, you’ll also be able to pick up tostadas from most street stalls, but we are also big fans of chiles rellenos – basically jalapeño peppers that have been stuffed to bursting meat, green beans and spices, covered in batter and then fried. They’re not for the faint hearted (quite literally), but they are exceptionally good once in a while.

Guatemala is blessed to have so many different cultural traditions that have all fed into the rich culinary landscape that the country has today. As the population has transformed over the centuries, each new culture has brought its own influences and ideas, its own tastes and cooking techniques – and today it means that there is an incredible range of different tastes and flavours to explore. Our advice is just to get out there, be brave and try something new – there is a whole world of incredible Guatemalan food out there waiting to be discovered.

Jürg Widmer 


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