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Fusing an intriguing blend of ancient Mayan dishes with American and Spanish influences, Guatemalan foods make up one of Central America’s most colorful and hearty cuisines.
Famously the birthplace of chocolate, today Guatamala brings to the table a sumptuous array of dishes, packed with tropical produce, tender meats, and a generous amount of heat and spice.
Guided by the expertise of a local writer, let’s uncover a few of the many culinary delights of this wondrous country, putting 16 of its most traditional and beloved foods under the spotlight. Prepare for color, heat, and plenty of passion!
Traditional Guatemalan Foods
Breakfast and Appetizers
1 – Traditional Guatemalan Breakfast
Across all of Guatemala, there’s a collective, unifying affinity for the first meal of the day: breakfast. Owing to the accessibility and variety of its ingredients, the humble farmer, the affluent business executive, and everyone in between share a love for this classic dish, in one of its many combinations.
The traditional Guatemalan breakfast usually comprises a medley of eggs, black beans, plantains, crema (sour cream), cheese, and bread, accompanied by a cup of coffee.
Whether sunny side up, scrambled, or even poached, the eggs can be served in any way desired. The black beans are served blended, and the plantains boiled or fried.
For those busy, on-the-go mornings when sitting down for a full breakfast isn’t feasible, a simple bean and egg sandwich makes a worthy stand-in.
For Guatemalans who are either in a rush or just not too hungry, they’ll sometimes have just coffee and bread. But in almost any hotel, restaurant, or home, if a traditional Guatemalan breakfast is what’s on order, this particular dish is served – often with generous portion sizes.
2 – Chancletas (Stuffed Squash)
A large part of Guatemalan cuisine centers around various types of squash due to their natural abundance within the country. This recipe calls for a small squash with soft skin, called “güisquil.”
Squashes have been used historically as a food staple, over centuries, as a crucial component of many Central American dishes. The “güisquil” is just one such example of this popular food group.
To prepare, the squash is first boiled whole. The pulp is then scooped out and the skin is placed aside, ready to be stuffed later on. The pulp is then mashed, and combined with eggs, sliced almonds, raisins, wine, salt, sugar, and cinnamon. The skins placed aside earlier are then stuffed with this mixture and topped with breadcrumbs. It’s then baked and served at room temperature.
The word “chancleta” in Guatemala refers to a type of sandal; this could be where the dish gets its name from, as the stuffing fits into the skin similarly to how a foot fits into a sandal. In any case, it’s a dish to try, either as an appetizer or a dessert.
3 – Pepián (Meat Stew)
Pepián is a meat stew that has its roots in the pre-Hispanic era. Guatemalan cuisine doesn’t get much more emblematic or traditional than this, and for many, the stew is seen as the country’s national dish.
For the Kaqchikel people, the original creators of pepián, it was a lunch that was traditionally served at both religious and political events. The brotherhoods that were formed in the 16th and 17th centuries assured the tradition was kept alive, passing the recipe down through subsequent generations, thus allowing the dish to live on.
The stew is rich brown in color, with visible flecks of green, red, and black. The meat in the dish can be beef, pork, chicken, or a combination of all three. Several varieties of chilies and plantain peels are added in.
This concoction is liberally seasoned with a variety of aromatic spices, which have been both blended and toasted. The ingredients are then cooked slowly together to really bring out the flavors. Once prepared, this hearty stew is served with rice and corn tortillas.
Pepián is a rich and flavorful dish that transports the diner back centuries as they embark on the same culinary journey as the indigenous people of Guatemala once did, many generations ago.
4 – Hilachas (Shredded Beef Stew)
Originating from the region of Salamá, hilachas is a dish that is traditionally either eaten at home or packed as a meal to take to work.
The base of the stew comprises a medley of chili peppers and tomatoes. The seeds of the chili peppers are also placed in the pot, adding plenty of spice, heat, and flavor. Once prepared, the sauce base is set aside to sit, ready for later.
The cuts of beef used in hilachas are usually eye of round or outside round. Located near the rump, similar to sirloin, these lean cuts tend to pull apart and shred easily once cooked.
Once the beef is cooked and shredded, the sauce is added, and the stew pot is filled with plenty of potatoes and carrots. Next, the whole pot is gently simmered over a couple of hours, long enough for the stew to thicken and the flavor to be enriched.
Hilachas is commonly served with rice and a white tamale. This hearty stew, with plenty of heat, is a simple yet satisfying dish. Despite being a classic home-cooked dish, this stew can also be ordered in just about any restaurant.
5 – Guatemalan Enchiladas (Tostadas with Beet Marinade)
Guatemalan enchiladas are different from the enchiladas in Mexican cuisine that many people are familiar with.
Enchiladas are one of Guatemala’s most colorful dishes, due to the dish’s bright and vibrant blend of vegetables. These tostadas were originally brought to the country by the Spanish conquerors of old. Though enchiladas were originally eaten with bread, the Guatemalan people adapted it, serving it in corn tostadas instead.
To make the dish, the first step is to put together the marinade. It’s vital that this is done well ahead of time, as it needs to be prepared at least a day in advance. The vegetables – carrots, peas, and beets – are cut, boiled, cooled, and placed into the marinade to soak for at least twelve hours.
The tostada serves as the base, which is then layered with lettuce, beef sirloin, heaps of the marinated vegetables, cheese, boiled eggs, and topped with tomato sauce.
As an essential staple of Guatemalan cuisine, this dish really is a must-try for visitors. However, it’s worth remembering that it’s probably not a good idea to wear white whilst eating it, as those vibrant colors have a tendency to stain. Eating enchiladas can get pretty messy!
6 – Caldo de Gallina (Hen Soup)
Guatemalan-style hen soup is a dish that’s enjoyed all over the country. It is most often served at celebrations, such as birthdays and weddings, and in some regions, it’s an integral part of the tradition of when a potential bride-to-be is asked for her hand in marriage.
Caldo de gallina is a simple but richly flavored chicken and vegetable soup. Old stewing hens, rather than young chickens, are used to make the soup, as they produce a richer, juicier flavor when simmered for long periods. This ensures that the meat stays tender and doesn’t dry out or crumble apart.
There are two special cultural secrets that make this simple dish so special. Firstly, the hen is grilled before being placed in the water with the vegetables. Secondly, a few drops of lime are added to the broth, giving the soup a tangy kick that very much enhances the flavor.
It is common in caldo de gallina for all parts of the hen to be added to the broth, so if there is a chicken foot sticking out of the bowl, it’s nothing to be concerned about!
7 – Tamales Colorados (Red Tamales)
Tamales are a corn dough-based dish, dating back to the Mayan era. It’s believed that centuries ago, the Mayan people would combine corn dough with different types of meat, in preparation for the Winter Solstice.
Over time, the dish has evolved, but today still stays true to its Mayan heritage. In Guatemala, the variety that’s most commonly eaten is the red tamale.
Tamales colorados are first prepared by boiling the banana leaves or corn husks, which will envelop the rich dough and meat fillings, and then leaving them aside to dry.
While the leaves or husks dry, the filling is prepared. Pork is the common choice of meat for this type of tamales, and it is chopped and sprinkled with aromatic spices and chili. Once the pork is ready, the corn dough is stirred and cooked as part of a particular process that requires a lot of patience.
Once everything is prepared, the tamales are ready to be put together. Using the banana leaf or husk as a base, the dough and filling are carefully spooned in, molded into a rectangular shape, and the leaves are folded over, making a neat little package. Finally, the wrapped tamales are placed into a large pot of hot water and boiled for around 90 minutes.
Due to the lengthy process involved in their preparation, tamales are a special dish mostly eaten on Saturdays, and for various celebrations and festivities.
8 – Paches (Potato Tamale)
The people of the western highland city Quetzaltenango put their own twist on the famous tamale. Due to the abundance of potatoes in the region, they opted to use them (rather than corn) as the dough base.
The method of preparation for “paches” is very similar to its traditional counterpart. Aside from the base of the dough, the main difference is that a large chili pepper is placed into the middle of the filling with the pork. These tamales are traditionally served with “pan francés,” a light and airy bread roll.
If you were to visit the city of Quetzaltenango and wanted to test out these tasty tamales, mark any Thursday on your calendar, as Thursdays are typically when this dish is eaten in the region. Look for restaurants and eateries with an outside red light.
9 – Jocón (Green Chicken Soup)
Jocón is one of the most traditional and famous dishes in Guatemala – so much so, the dish was even declared an Intangible National Cultural Heritage in 2007. Though it has its roots in the city and municipality of Huehuetenango, nowadays, it can be found throughout Guatemala.
The dish has evolved over time, to today even be considered gourmet cuisine. The name comes from the Quichean “jok om,” meaning “green stew.” The dish earned its name from its characteristic color, owing to the vibrant green color of the ingredients used, including green tomatoes and coriander.
Jocón is a simple dish to prepare. Bell peppers, green tomatoes, jalapeños, and pumpkin seeds are all added to the broth, with the jalapeños providing plenty of heat and kick and the pumpkin seeds adding an undertone of nuttiness to the flavor.
The chicken is first boiled separately, then added to the broth and left to stew, before finally this wholesome and heated soup is served with rice and corn tortillas.
10 – Kak´ik (Turkey Stew)
Kak´ik is one of the most culturally rich dishes in Guatemalan cuisine, and perhaps the recipe that has stayed most true to its origins. Its name originates from the ancient language of the Mayans: “kak” means red, and “ik” means hot or spicy.
It is said that this red stew was made by the Mayan people to pay tribute to the blood spilled during pre-Columbian rituals. Pre-Hispanic in origin, it’s a Q´eqchi´ dish that’s native to the Alta Verapaz region. Just like Jocón, this dish was named an Intangible National Cultural Heritage.
Kak’ik is prepared by first boiling the turkey, then cutting the meat into squares. Following that, a rich, refreshing blend of tomatoes, peppers, cinnamon, cloves, and chilies are added to the cooking pot. The dish gets its rich red color from the annatto seeds of the achiote tree. These ingredients are simmered together before being served with rice and white tamales.
While kak’ik is commonly found in many restaurants, for many Guatemalans, it’s a special dish saved only for weekends and festivities, such as New Year.
11 – Shucos (Hot Dogs)
Unlike many foods, the birth of this particular dish can be pinpointed to one place: just outside the Yurrita Church, in zone 4 of Guatemala City. The word “shuco” literally means “dirty,” and these particular hot dogs are believed to have been given their name by customers who’d bought them, as they were sold as street food.
But don’t be fooled by the name, as today, everyone from business executives to students cannot resist the temptation of these utterly indulgent hotdogs.
Shucos are beloved because they are a food of unashamed indulgence. The dish is comprised of a grilled bun, which cradles a grilled Guatemalan sausage. The sausage is then generously smothered in tomato ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, guacamole, and finally, topped with pickled cabbage.
Shucos are the perfect grab-and-go lunch for students and city workers, no matter where you are in Guatemala City. As street foods go, this has to be up there on your must-try list.
12 – Fiambre (Cold Meat Salad)
Guatemalan folklore states this dish came to be after the Santa Marta earthquake of 1773 in the city of Santiago de los Caballeros. It started with women from the city putting together a salad of plants they’d found to be edible, in response to the sudden food shortage that had descended upon the region at the hands of the earthquake.
As time went by, locals began to add cold cuts of meat and fish. The end result was a perfect combination of both pre-Hispanic and European ingredients, and thus the dish was created. Nowadays, it’s eaten every November 1st and 2nd, as per tradition.
To prepare, vegetables such as peas, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower are boiled before a dash of vinegar is added to the water. There are two versions of fiambre: white and red. To make red fiambre, all that’s required is the addition of beets. The meats are prepared separately and comprise ham, fish, and chicken. Everything is layered on top of lettuce leaves before being sprinkled with cheese, olives, and capers.
A beautiful salad with an abundance of flavors, this dish is Guatemalan tradition at its finest.
13 – Frijoles con Chicharrón (Beans with Pork Rinds)
Frijoles con chicharrón is an everyday, no-nonsense dish for the average working citizen. In fact, it holds such significance to Guatemalan culture, that it was one of the five dishes given the Intangible National Cultural Heritage title in 2007.
In frijoles con chicharrón, both the beans and the pork rinds are fried together, allowing the beans to fully absorb the aroma, juices, and flavor of the pork.
Once the beans and pork are in the pan, a simple tomato and pepper sauce is added, and the mixture is left to simmer, thicken, and reduce. Once it’s ready, it’s often served with rice, with a corn tortilla on the side.
Whilst perhaps not as adventurous as other aspects of Guatemalan cuisine, this is still a dish more than worth trying.
14 – Rellenitos (Fried Plantain Dessert)
Rellenitos are one of the most iconic desserts of Guatemalan cuisine, made from a few simple ingredients that can be picked up from any supermarket. The name translates to “stuffed,” and it’s the stuffing inside the plantains that make this dish so unique.
First, the plantains are baked and mashed. Separately, beans are prepared with chocolate and cinnamon. Balls of mashed plantain are then combined with the bean and chocolate mixture, before being fried. Rellenitos are served topped with a sprinkling of sugar, along with either a cup of coffee or hot chocolate.
Perhaps a dish for more adventurous types, but when seeking out a real, authentic taste of Guatemala, this is the go-to dessert.
15 – Buñuelos (Deep Fried Dough)
Anyone who’s ever spent a Christmas in Guatemala City knows the familiar yet faint smell of gunpowder that descends on the city like a cloak throughout the holiday season; a by-product of all the fireworks used to celebrate the festive period. And as every bit as nostalgic as this smell may be, so is the food associated with this classic holiday.
Buñuelos are a dessert popular throughout Latin America, with countries having their own unique versions of this treat.
While the dough used to make buñuelos is most commonly made with all-purpose flour, there is a variation that calls for yucca, although this is a less traditional type of buñuelos.
Once the dough is fried and ready to serve, the buñuelos are drizzled with a sweet syrup, prepared beforehand. The base for the syrup consists of equal parts water and sugar, with a sprinkling of cinnamon. To spice this fried, doughy treat up a touch, anise and lime zest can be added, though this is optional.
Many Guatemalans grew up helping their grandmothers lovingly prepare this easy, delicious dessert for the entire family. Buñuelos are sweet, indulgent, and nostalgic for so many people.
16 – Nuégados (Doughnuts)
The Xinca name for this dessert is “kiah ‘uy iuwu,” but the dish is better known as “nuégados.” Although this wholesome dessert originally came from Jutiapa, it can now be ordered in almost every restaurant or café. Nuéganos are also commonly made at home in preparation for All Saints’ Day celebrations.
These doughnuts are made from a simple dough, which is rolled into small balls, then deep-fried, before being coated with a generous amount of syrup or glaze. It is common for cafes, restaurants, and bakeries to organize nuéganos into a neat, decadent little tower before being served.
Whilst quick and simple to prepare, nuéganos are a dessert that is sure to satisfy any sweet craving you may have in Guatemala.
Guatemalan Food Summary
A cuisine that intrigues and dazzles with its vibrancy, innovation, and ancient roots, Guatemalan cuisine is truly one of Central America’s most diverse culinary experiences.
Built on the foundations laid down by the Mayan people millennia ago, Guatemalan foods are a prime example of how old can meet new and evolve to become something truly unique and adored.
A trip to Guatemala is simply not complete without trying some, if not all, of these traditional foods. Be sure to keep this list handy, so you can ask local restaurant owners and street food vendors to prepare these Guatemalan favorites for you.
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Keen to try some of these authentic Guatemalan dishes? Keep this list of traditional foods for safekeeping, by pinning it to one of your foodie travel Pinterest boards.
Contributor: Mercedes Ordonez is a content writer, poet, and translator, hailing from Guatemala City. Passionate about her home country, Mercedes is eager to share more about Guatemalan travel, culture, and cuisine through her writing.
Editor: Hannah Bates is a London-based editor and proofreader, who has worked for a number of publications in various sectors, including travel.
Images licensed via Shutterstock