Luke Armstrong | Feb 15, 2021
“You eat tacos all the time then?” someone (a Packers fan) asked me once when I mentioned I spent a lot of time in Guatemala.
“No,” I said, an edge in my tone, “We eat kakik and crazy corns, subanik and drunk cake!”
The history of Guatemala is a long one and seen in three periods: the Mayan Empire, Spanish rule, and the modern republic in existence today. These three periods had an influence on Guatemalan cuisine. The ancient Mayan civilization grew maize (corn) as their staple crop and ate amaranth , a cereal not so unlike something might find in a box of Kellogg's.
The Spanish did not think that amaranth was the breakfast of champions so they brought their own food—enchiladas, guacamole, tamales, and tortillas that began mixing with the local food to create Guatemalan cuisine as it exists today.
Modern times has seen the advent of McDonald's and sugary sodas making their way into many Guatemalans daily diet. But let's not dwell on this, we’re here to visit ten to-die-for dishes that I hope you try during a visit to Guatemala.
One of the oldest dishes in Guatemalan cuisine, Pepián is considered the country’s national dish. Thick and exotic like a curry, Pepiàn is a coming together of vegetables and cultures. Influenced by Spanish and local palates, it’s part stew, part curry, and is served with rice and corn tortillas.
Hearty enough for a lumberjack, this stew features slow-cooked meats; vegetables like onion, tomato, poblano pepper and big fat chunks of potato the size of Idaho.
But we're not done yet. This isn't an after school snack we’re making here, it's a country's national dish! Add seeds and nuts like peppercorns, pumpkin seeds and cumin seeds and we’re ready to try it.
The dish gets its dense consistency from being thickened with seeds and nuts. But the recipe varies a bit from chef to chef and everyone you meet has an abuelita who makes lo mejor pepian en el mundo!
Fun fact: Although pepián is the national dish of Guatemala, it actually comes from Mexico, created by the Aztecs and altered by the Spaniards.
Pronounced like you're having a coughing fit, Kak’ik is a favorite of the Mayan Guatemalan diet. Kak’ik is essentially turkey legs cooked in a red broth made of tomatoes. It features a number of spices like achiote, coriander, and several kinds of chiles.
It is usually accompanied by small white tamales steamed in banana leaves. This dish is from the Q’eqchi’ Maya region of Alta Verapaz, Cobán was declared Cultural Heritage dish by the Ministry of Culture and Sports in 2007—so make sure you use silverware!
Found wherever street food is sold, elotes are corn on the cob served either barbecued (asado) or boiled (cocido).
But it gets more exciting than just that!
Elotes Locos are piping hot corn on the cob smeared with mayonnaise and dredged with “queso fresco“, fresh cilantro, enough chile powder to bring down a football team, lime and plenty of salt and pepper. It is called “Crazy Corns,” for a reason people!—this stuff should be locked away. Definitely make sure you opt in for a dangerous sports waiver on your travel insurance plan if you plan to eat this!
Guatemalan tamales are quite different from Mexican tamales. In guatemala tamales are wrapped in banana leaves, which imparts a grassy floral scent. They are two or three times larger than tamales made in corn husks. A single tamal is enough for a meal on its own. So if you came in from Mexico, first order uno and you can have dos if you're still hungry.
Making tamales is fairly time intensive. The sauce (recado) must be made first — it’s a thick, mole-like salsa of tomatoes, chiles, pepitas and sesame seeds — it is usually made a few days ahead of time to save time on tamales-making day. The masa (dough) for these is thinner than that used in Mexican tamales and the fillings are typically pork or chicken with additional touches of capers, olives, raisins, bacon, and bell pepper. But customize them as you like. No one’s ever been locked away for overloading a tamale with all the good things!
There are many luscious edible flowers in Guatemala, but loroco is at the top of the list.
This delicate, flavorful and aromatic flower bud is native to Guatemala and neighboring El Salvador is used in tamales, stews, empanadas and many other dishes.
Flavor-wise, loroco has a very distinctive taste. How to describe… It tastes like the lilacs visited the mango factory and made confetti out of sage and oregano. . .This is unlike anything you may have eaten before. . .
This flower has the power to turn ordinary chicken dish into a gourmet delight!
If you like cute things, if you like small things little houses, little cars etc., Guatemala has the tamales for you.
Tamalitos are smaller than the typical tamales are usually plain in taste. Wait a minute, are these just balls of cornmeal? Basically, so they are used to dip in other great local foods such as soup, salsa or beans.
Tapado comes from the Río Dulce on Guatemala’s Caribbean coast. It is a tree-fresh coconut milk and boat-fresh seafood dish.
With an abundance of fresh seafood and locally grown, tropical produce—bright green plantains and coffee-brown coconuts—food on the coast Guatemala evolved distinctly from dishes in the interior.
Rìo Dulce is populated by the Garifuna people who are a confident Caribbean people descended from the Arawak and African slaves brought over by Spanish ships starting in 1635. Today there are around 100,000 people who identify as Garífuna. They have many rich Afro-Caribbean traditions passed down to new generations through dance, drum music, artisan crafts and of course food like Tapado!
Tapado (ta-paa-do) is one of the more popular Garífuna dishes, a medley of seafood, bananas and plantains all swimming in a spicy, coconut milk-broth. Go to Lívingston, Guatemala and you will find a new variation of this dish at every restaurant and food stall.
In the Kaqchikel language, any dish ending in "ik" will contain hot chili peppers.
Subanik is a ceremonial chili dish from the Kaqchikel May. Chilis and spices are steamed in a nest of about 6 to 8 large “mashan” leaves tied at the top with “cibaque” decorative rope. You’ll usually find it served with white rice or tamales.
It has a leafy bite to it and in flavor evokes an artichoke.
While it sounds like cake from a midnight fridge, in Guatemala borracho cake is a light sponge cake that is thoroughly drenched in sugar syrup and laced with a typical Guatemalan rum distilled from locally grown sugar cane. You can find it in pastry shops across the country sold by the slice. At checkout time, the cake is topped with a cornstarch pudding made with milk, and then decorated with raisins. Happy birthday!
Chancletas is a desert that makes use of the chayote squash during times of its abundance. Come harvest, these squash are so plentiful no one knows what to do with them all. Using them as a dessert is a way to use up the excess.
The dark green chayotes are cooked whole. Once tender, they are split in half and the insides are scoped out as for a twice baked potato. The inner flesh is mashed or pureed and sugar, cinnamon, raisins and cookie crumbs are added to thicken. The mixture is placed back into the skins of the chayote and set on a baking sheet. These are baked until set, about 20 to 30 minutes. The name chancleta means slipper, as they resemble a slipper (with a green swamp monster foot inside).
Remember when trying the local cuisine to use common sense and best practices to stay healthy while you're traveling. Opting in for travel insurance is some of that common sense to keep you healthy!
Luke Maguire Armstrong is the author of "The Nomad's Nomad." He has spent the last decade traveling, writing and designing, and funding philanthropic programs around the world.