Guatemala has long lived in the shadow of its towering neighbour to the north, Mexico, including in the culinary realm. However, although not as famous as Mexican cuisine, Guatemalan food rivals any fare found in Mexico, as well as Central America.
While Mexico is renowned the world over for its tacos, burritos, enchiladas, pozole, mole and much more, south of the border in Guatemala you will find food-based more on Maya cuisine combined with Spanish influences, with a touch of the Caribbean tossed into the mix. Guatemalan food, in fact, is widely considered to be the most flavorful and delicious in Central America.
Furthermore, Guatemala is also the birthplace of chocolate, which was first developed by the Mayans centuries ago. Because the Mayans considered chocolate the food of the Gods, today you can still find some heavenly varieties in Guatemala, one of the world's largest producers. In fact, according to Epicure & Culture, Guatemala produces over 10,000 tons of chocolate a year, and is home to more than 9,000 cacao farms.
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Traditional food from Guatemala relies heavily on corn, beans, pork, chicken, beef, cheese and tortillas. Here you will be pleased to find a plethora of meat stews, otherwise known locally as caldos, and soups, or sopas. However, if you just can't shake those intense cravings for Mexican food, being so close to Mexico, you can find it in Guatemala as well, including nachos, tamales, tacos, et al. But if you want to stay traditional, eat your fill of pepian wherever you go in Guatemala. The country's national dish is a stellar stew that will keep you coming back for bowl after bowl.
For chocoholics, Guatemala is a paradise where chocolate shops selling top-of-the-line chocolate abound. Criollo, which is classified as "fine grade,” is the primary variety of cacao used in Guatemalan chocolate; it is also the oldest known and rarest variety. Some of the best chocolate artisans in the country include Danta Chocolate in Guatemala City, named one of the best in Central America and an International Chocolate Awards gold designation recipient, and Chocolate Doña Pancha, a 5th generation family run chocolate shop in Quetzaltenango that specializes in traditionally made chocolate. In Guatemala, you will find chocolate in many desserts and drinks as well, including hot chocolate and cacao-laced desserts. Guatemala even as a chocolate museum, the ChocoMuseo in Antigua.
Pepian is a hearty stew of slow-cooked meats, tomatoes, poblano pepper and pieces of potato, often bolstered by peppercorns, pumpkin seeds and cumin seeds. Meats used in pepian can include chicken, beef or pork, but typically only one per stew, although some Guatemalan chefs will combine two or all three of the aforementioned meats.
Kak'ik is a traditional Mayan turkey soup with spices, such as coriander, achiote and chile peppers. It also consists of tomatoes, tomatillos, onions and bell peppers. This rustic soup is traditionally served by Guatemalans when christening a new home, but can be found in almost any restaurant in Guatemala at any time.
Pupusas are ubiquitous wherever you go in Guatemala, as well as Central America. They are thick corn tortillas stuffed with a cornucopia of fillings, such as cheese, refried beans and pork. Pupusas are fried until crisp and garnished with salsa and cabbage. They are the perfect food to eat on the go by hand.
Forget what you know about the average tostada, which is generally topped with beef, chicken or pork. In Guatemala the tastiest tostadas are topped with noodles. This beloved street food features a standard flat tortilla but heaped with a mound of noodles, as well as guacamole, salsa, radishes and onions. However, if you don't want to nosh on noodles with your tostada, you can still get those with chicken, beef or pork.
Fiambre, a traditional Guatemalan salad, has more ingredients than perhaps any other traditional food from Guatemala, up to 50 in most cases. Fiambre is usually made in celebration of the Day of the Dead and All Saints' Day, when families gather and bring various foods to the celebrations, which are eventually mixed together to create a massive salad. However, Fiambre can be ordered at many restaurants year-round. Some of its many ingredients include sausages, cold cuts, corn, onions, beets, various cheeses, olives, chicken and much more.
The Guatemalans make a vast array of tamales, most of which contain corn, rice or potato dough, sauce and meat, wrapped in green maxan leaves or corn husks. Some of the most popular tamales in Guatemala include tamales Colorados, which blend a tomato and achiote-based paste called "recado” and are filled with pork and a hot chili pepper inside; paches, or potato tamales; and tamales Negros, black tamales which are made with a sweet corn dough, mole (chocolate sauce), raisins, prunes and chicken.
Revolcado, pig head stew, is for the more intrepid eater, as it contains pig heart, tongue, ears, kidney, brain, and liver. Although it might sound too intense for most palates, it's a Guatemalan delicacy beloved by many, dates back to the colonial era, is a fusion of indigenous and Spanish cultures and is actually rather appetizing. The spicy tomato sauce the ingredients are simmered in make it even more mouth-watering.
Like their neighbours to the north in Mexico, the Guatemalans love chile relleno, and they make it to perfection. Chile rellenos are poblano peppers stuffed with minced meat, cheese, vegetables and spices, and typically fried in egg batter, although there are numerous variations on this dominant dish. Any restaurant in Guatemala worthy of the name will have these delights, and one of the best for chile rellenos is Fridas in Antigua Guatemala.
Jocón de Pollo
One of the most Mayan dishes that constitute Guatemalan food is jocón de pollo, which is a combination of chicken pieces, pumpkin and sesame seeds, tomatillos, cilantro, onions, chilli peppers, and corn tortillas that are chopped, soaked in water and finally drained. This very traditional food from Guatemala is typically served with rice and avocado slices of the world-famous Hass avocado type, which, contrary to popular belief, has its origins in Guatemala and not California.
Although officially designated as an exemplary dish of Guatemala, pinol, Mayan soup/stew made from toasted, ground corn and spices, might be hard to find outside the Sacatepéquez region, as it is somewhat specific to that part of the country. Luckily, however, Antigua Guatemala is part of the Sacatepéquez region and its capital city. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the most visited cities in Guatemala, and known for its preserved Spanish Baroque-influenced architecture and pinol. Antigua restaurants serve up some of the best bowls of pinol in the region, as well as the country. Pinol is usually consumed directly from the traditional bowls in which it is served without using a spoon or fork.
Platanos en Mole
How can you go wrong with world-famous Guatemalan chocolate? You can't, especially if you pour it over plantains. Platanos en mole, along with pinol, jocón de pollo, pepian and kak'ik, has been designated by Guatemala's Ministry of Culture as "food most emblematic of the country.” This traditional treat is made from sweet plantains with a spicy and sweet chocolate sauce. Plantains in mole sauce is Guatemalan food that has been eaten in this country for more than 400 years, so it will not be hard to find anywhere you go.
Empanadas are not unique to Guatemala, as they can be found just about anywhere in Latin America. However, the Guatemalan version, inspired by the country's Spanish roots, is rather original. The stuffed pastry here is made from a buttery dough imbued with achiote paste and filled with creamy milk custard. Otherwise known as empanadas de manjar de leche, these taste treats are a favourite Guatemalan dessert.
Rellenitos de Plátano
Do you have an overwhelming desire for doughnuts? If so, try the adventurous and eclectic Guatemalan variety. Rellenitos de plátano are mashed, cooked plantains with sweet black beans, sugar and cinnamon. The beans are occasionally mixed with chocolate. Rellenitos de plátano is perhaps the most traditional and tasty of all Guatemalan desserts.
Do you love coffee? If so, you will love champurradas, a cookie-like dessert that tastes similar to biscotti, which goes great with java. In fact, if visiting a Guatemalan at home, it is a faux pas to not have a champurrada with your coffee. Champurradas are crunchy, buttery cookies rolled in sesame seeds. You can find them at bakeries all over the country and they are sold by many street vendors.
Tres Leches Cake
Tres Leches Cake is a cold dessert consisting of three layers: cake, filling and topping. There are also three types of milk, hence the name tres leches, in the filling and topping: sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk and heavy cream. If you love milk, this is the cake for you but is not meant for the lactose-intolerant. Strawberries are put on top as the final tasty touch.
Don't let the name fool you, this cake is only for adults who like a buzz with their dessert, as it contains alcohol. In fact, borracho means drunk, and borracho cake is swimming in alcohol, in this case, Guatemalan rum made from sugar cane.
Borracho, a light sponge cake, is also drenched in sugar syrup and topped with cornstarch pudding and raisins. It is usually sold by the slice, and try to limit yourself to one or you might need to call a cab to get home.
Guatemala is just as renowned for coffee as Columbia. In fact, it is one of the most influential coffee growers and exporters in the world. What makes Guatemalan coffee great is the country's warm, wet and high-elevation climate, which is perfect for growing coffee beans.
Guatemalan coffee is characterized by its robustness, aroma, slight acidity and flavour. Some of the best Guatemala coffee brands, according to Try New Coffee, include Organic Huehuetenango, Antigua Santa Barbara, Dark Huehuetenango and Pacamara.
Guaro is a delicious and popular Central American liquor distilled from sugar cane. This spirited potent potable has a slightly sweet taste and can be quaffed in a shot or a cocktail. However, guaro is typically 60 proof or more so rather strong, and drinking it slowly in a cocktail is recommended.
Limonada con Soda
This thirst-quenching Guatemalan staple, made of fresh-squeezed lemon or lime juice, sugar and carbonated mineral water, is perfect for those sultry Central American days.
Limonada con soda is one of the most popular drinks in the country, so much so that it's even prepared fresh in some grocery stores, and you can always find it on the street wherever you go in Guatemala.
The people that inhabit Guatemala have been drinking cusha, a spiritual spirit, for centuries. Cusha is home-brewed and was once used in ancient rituals, where shamans would spit cusha over participants because of its healing powers.
Today, you can enjoy cusha without being spat upon, and you will see it sold on the streets in a bag. Be aware, however, that cusha is essentially Guatemalan moonshine so take it easy and slowly sip this transcendent firewater.
No list of drinks is complete without mentioning the country's best and most famous beer. In Guatemala's case, that beer is Gallo, which can literally be found in any bar and restaurant in the country. Brewed in Guatemala City, Gallo Beer is as popular in Guatemala as Budweiser is in America, and dates back to 1896.