Luke Armstrong | Oct 2, 2023
“You eat tacos all the time then?” someone asked me once when I mentioned I spent a lot of time in Guatemala.
“No,” I said, an edge in my tone. “We eat kak’ik and crazy corns, subanik, and drunk cake!”
And so begins our education in the delicious dishes of Guatemala.
The history of Guatemala is a long one and can be divided into periods — the Mayan Empire, Spanish rule, and the modern republic — and each has 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 you might find in a box of Kellogg's. The Spanish didn’t think that amaranth was the breakfast of champions, so they brought their own foods that began mixing with the local fare to create Guatemalan cuisine as it exists today.
Modern times have seen McDonald's and sugary sodas make their way into many Guatemalans’ daily diet, but let's not dwell on this. We’re here to explore 10 dishes you must try during a visit to Guatemala.
One of the oldest recipes in Guatemalan cuisine, pepián is considered the country’s national dish. Thick and exotic like a curry, pepián 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 and vegetables like onion, tomato, poblano pepper, and chunks of potato.
But we're not done yet. This isn't an after-school snack. Add seeds and nuts like peppercorns, pumpkin seeds, and cumin seeds to thicken it, and we’re ready to try it.
The recipe varies a bit from chef to chef and everyone you meet has an abuelita who makes lo mejor pepián del mundo!
Fun fact: Although pepián is the national dish of Guatemala, it actually comes from Mexico, created by the Aztecs and altered by the Spanish.
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 from 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. Declared a Cultural Heritage dish by the Ministry of Culture and Sports in 2007, kak’ik is from the Q’eqchi’ Maya region of Alta Verapaz, Cobán.
Found wherever street food is sold, elotes are corn on the cob served either barbecued (asado) or boiled (cocido).
But it gets more exciting … or should we say crazy!
Elotes locos, translated as “crazy corn,” are piping hot corn on the cob smeared with mayonnaise and dredged with queso fresco, fresh cilantro, enough chili powder to bring down a football team, lime, and plenty of salt and pepper.
Guatemalan tamales are quite different from their Mexican counterpart. 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, and a single tamal is enough for a meal on its own.
Making tamales is fairly time intensive. The sauce (recado) — a thick, mole-like salsa of tomatoes, chiles, pepitas, and sesame seeds — must be made first and is usually prepared a few days ahead to save time on tamales-making day.
The masa (dough) for Guatemalan tamales is thinner than that used in the Mexican version, 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. We certainly won’t blame you for overloading a tamal 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 and is used in many dishes, including tamales, stews, empanadas.
Flavor-wise, loroco is very distinctive. It tastes like lilacs visited a mango factory and made confetti out of sage and oregano. This is unlike anything you may have eaten before and has the power to turn an ordinary chicken dish into a gourmet delight.
If you like cute things, like tiny houses and pint-sized cars, Guatemala has the tamales for you.
Tamalitos, or small dough tamales, are smaller than typical tamales and, because they’re basically balls of cornmeal, they’re usually plain in taste. Before you think they’re boring, though, tamalitos de masa are dipped in other great local foods such as soup, salsa, or beans.
Tapado comes from the Río Dulce on Guatemala’s Caribbean coast and uses the freshest coconut milk and seafood.
With an abundance of fresh seafood and locally grown, tropical produce — bright green plantains and coffee-brown coconuts — food on the Guatemalan coast evolved distinctly from dishes in the interior. Río Dulce is populated by the Garífuna people who are descended from the Arawak and African slaves. Today’s Garífuna have many Afro-Caribbean traditions passed down to new generations through dance, drum music, artisan crafts, and, of course, food like tapado.
Tapado 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 different 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 Maya. Chilis and spices are steamed in a nest of about six to eight 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, pastel borracho 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.
Chancletas is a dessert that uses chayote squash during times of abundance. Cooking these squash as a dessert is a way to use the excess.
The dark green chayotes are cooked whole. Once tender, they are split in half, and the insides are scooped out. 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 baked until set.
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. To find the right plan for you, visit SevenCorners.com and use our interactive guide, or call our licensed agents.