What should you know about Guatemalan food?
This article will explore what to eat in Guatemala, explaining the basics of Guatemalan cuisine, street food, main dishes, soups, drinks, and desserts. But first, a few general tips about Guatemalan food.
Guatemala cuisine is significantly influenced by Mayan cuisine as plenty of Guatemalans are Mayan. That means that corn is a staple ingredient in all its forms. In that sense, some of these dishes are similar to the Yucatan cuisine as they share a similar Mayan heritage.
But although Guatemalan food is similar to Mexico and other Central American countries, it has its own intake and identity. So without delay, let’s explore Guatemala’s traditional dishes.
What should you know about Guatemalan food?
Guatemalan cuisine is heavily based on the ingredients and cooking methods of the Maya civilization. Maize is an essential ingredient for the Mayas. It used to be a sacred ingredient and one which exists in abundance.
That being said, Maize is a staple in Guatemalan food. It is used in any possible way you can imagine. It is used to make tortillas, atole, tamales, soups, and others.
Besides maize, other staple ingredients are squash, beans, tomatoes, and plantains. Chicken and Pork are widely used, especially in stews. Seafood is used in many dishes on the coast and by the lakes Atitlan and Petén Itzá.
Guatemala also has a significant influence from Spanish cuisine Caribbean, and other Central American countries like El Salvador and Honduras, as they have many immigrants from there.
Where to eat Guatemalan food
Guatemala has an abundant street food vibe, not at the level of Mexican street food, but close. So if you love street food, Guatemala is a good place for you. And you can’t go wrong with street food normally it is always good. But look out for food stalls with many people ordering.
The best places to find good food are where the locals eat. The cantinas are the ideal site to eat locally – they serve traditional food and are cheaper. And near the bus stops, there are plenty of food options. We ate all types of street food and never got food poisoning.
We also loved the food vibes by Lake Atitlán, Panajachel. They served the best cheap breakfast filled with good stuff. Plus, Panajachel may have the best hot chocolate in the world, as explained below.
Street food in Guatemala
Tortillas are the base and most important dish in Guatemala. They are a cornerstone of Mesoamerican cuisine. They are made with maize massa, rolled into disks, and cooked in a comal, a flat griddle used to cook tortillas.
To make the maize massa, you need to process the maize in a method called Nixtamalization. A process in which the maize grain is soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution. It is used to make the maize manageable and form a dough that can be used for tortillas.
Tortillas in Guatemala are different from Mexican tortillas. In Guatemala, they are thicker, fluffy, and usually made by hand. And normally served hot as they are done at the moment. In Mexico, they are thin and use a mold to flat out the massa. Tortillas are present in all meals.
Tamales are a staple dish in Central America and Mexico. They are a traditional Mayan dish made with corn dough called massa, which is steamed in banana leaves. They can be sweet or salty. And have different fillings like meat, cheese, vegetables, pineapple, raisins, and berries. It also has various sizes.
The main difference between Guatemalan and Mexican tamales is the size. Guatemalans are smaller and are less spicy. In Guatemala, you will find different type of tamales: tamales colorado (made with red sauce), tamales Negros (made with chocolate), tomalitos de Cambray, Chuchito Tamales and tamales de Chipilin.
Guatemalan love their tamales. They even serve them on Christmas Eve and other holidays. Honestly, it is not a favorite of ours, but it is something you should try.
Tostadas are deep-fried tortillas topped with a wide variety of ingredients. They are sold as street food, and you will find them everywhere.
There are tostadas of various things: beans, meat, cheese, and guacamole. It will depend on the region of Guatemala.
Pupusas is a traditional flatbread of El Salvador – Actually, it is the national dish of El Salvador. So why did we include it in the dishes to eat in Guatemala?… Because you can find them everywhere in Guatemala. There are plenty of street vendors selling them, and they are delicious.
Pupusas are made with corn masa, stuffed with different ingredients, like cheese, chicharrones, and beans, and accompanied with fermented cabbage.
Main Dishes in Guatemala
Frijoles Volteados is a staple dish in Guatemala. You eat them with everything in Guatemala. Simple, as a side dish, with tortillas, rice, and meat or fish.
Frijoles are refried beans, usually black or kidney beans. They are made with cooked beans mashed until a paste and then fried with onions and garlic.
It is a simple dish but so delicious you won’t mind eating them with everything, even breakfast. You will find this everywhere, it is served in every restaurant and with all meals.
Pepián is Guatemala’s National dish. It is a meat stew that has Spanish and indigenous cuisine. It can be made with chicken or beef. And a variety of vegetables like tomatoes, chilies, onions, and chayoles. It is served with potatoes and rice.
It is a delicious dish. The chicken or beef melts in your mouth, and the sauce is flavorful and spicy. We learned to cook this dish in a cooking class in Antigua, the Mayaizantigua, and it was so much fun and interesting. We highly advise doing it. Plus, this is 100% a local experience!
Caldo de Res
Caldo de Res is the most popular and typical dish of Guatemala. It is a soup or stew made with beef, carrots, corn on the cob, chayote, squash, and potatoes. You serve the caldo over white rice.
This dish is comforting food, something to eat when you need feel-good food. When you eat it in a restaurant, they will serve the meat and the caldo in a soup bowl and the vegetables and rice by the side, so you add them to the stoke, as you wish. In the end, you can sprinkle some lemon juice.
Chiles Rellenos is a typical Guatemalan dish of stuffed sweet peppers topped with tomato sauce. Usually, the peppers are filled with beef and vegetables like carrots, potatoes, and green beans, which are chopped into small portions.
The stuffed chiles are covered with egg butter and fried. They are served with tomato sauce drizzled on top. Some people also eat Chiles rellenos inside a bread bun.
These chile rellenos are similar to traditional Mexican chile rellenos. But they use poblanos chiles in Mexico, and the stuffing is different.
Hilachas is a very tasty traditional Guatemalan. It is made with shredded meat (beef or chicken) cooked in tomato sauce and accompanied by potatoes and carrots.
This dish is similar to ropa vieja, a Spanish and Latin American dish that means “old clothes.” It is done with leftover food from other meals, but it is redone and improved. Some recipes don’t use leftover food but slow-cook the meat for this dish. Either way, it is delicious.
We ate Hilachas in Antigua, a popular and fantastic restaurant serving cheap typical Guatemalan food called Rincón antigüeño. And we adored it and highly recommend it.
Fried fish is common in Guatemala, especially in the towns near Lake Atitlan and Flores near Lake Petén Itzá. You will find in nearly every restaurant the option of fried fish. The most frequent fishes are Tilapia and Dorado.
Usually, the fish is served whole, previously cleaned. The fish is slightly involved in flour before friend it. It is served with rice or chips and a salad. And it is very good. I advise you to try it and not be intimidated by the whole fish.
Guatemala claims it is chocolate’s birthplace, but that place is disputed with Mexico and Belize. Independently of its origin, chocolate has a vital role in Guatemala. It is a significant producer of cacao and has good-quality chocolate.
Guatemala’s long history of using chocolate dates back to the Maya Civilization in the Pre Columbian era, which used to consider cacao the food of the Gods. Being that said, you can’t travel to Guatemala and not try the most chocolate possible.
Several stores sell locally produced chocolate, especially in Lake Atitlan and Antigua. Antigua even has a chocolate museum where you can learn interesting information about the production and transformation of Cacao seeds.
In Semuc Champey, where you can find one of Guatemala’s most beautiful landmarks, artisanal chocolate is sold by children and some adults and is delicious.
Cocadas is a Guatemalan dessert made with shredded coconut and sugar. It is crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside.
It is made with shredded coconut and sugar that is baked until brown. You will find it all over Guatemala. We ate them in Antigua, and they were delicious, with coconut flavor with a smoky and molasses taste.
Camote en Dulce
Camote en Dulce is a traditional Guatemalan dessert made with a simple ingredient, sweet potato. It is delicious and soft, and it will fill you.
To do this dessert, you need to cook the sweet potato with sugar, cinnamon stick, cloves, and sugar until it is soft. It will be golden and very sweet.
You can find camotes en dulce everywhere in Guatemala, in street vendors, bakeries, and some restaurants.
Granizados is a fresh Guatemalan dessert made with scraped ice, sweet syrup, fruit pulp, or other toppings. You will find it everywhere. And it is such a fun dessert.
This is a street food dessert. Several food stalls sell them with different combinations of flavors, toppings, and syrups. Even the strangest things like Doritos or nachos with chamoy, a Mexican sauce.
Plus, it is fascinating to watch the vendors making their creations. We recommend trying them.
We drank the best hot chocolate in the world in Guatemala. And we couldn’t make a list of what to eat in Guatemala without including it. It was dense with an intense chocolate flavor. That you can drink or eat with a spoon.
We drank this hot chocolate in Panajachel near Lake Atitlán in La Casa del Chocolate artisanal. But there are more chocolate stores in Guatemala with prime hot chocolates as it has such good quality chocolate.
Atole is a drink made by the Mayans dating back to the Pre Colombian time. It is also a traditional drink in Guatemala and also in Mexico.
It is made with corn flour, panela sugar (unrefined whole cane sugar), cinnamon, vanilla, and water. It is sweet, silky, and delicious. There are different modern versions of atole, with various flavors like chocolate, known as champurrado, biscuit atole, and vanilla atole.
Usually, you have atole for breakfast with a tamale. It is filling and comforting.
Agua fresca is fresh cold water aromatized with fruit. You will find it everywhere in Guatemala. It is the staple drink.
There are different flavors of agua fresca. The most common are lemon, papaya, mango, and jamaica (hibiscus tea).
Be aware they aren’t smoothies, as the fruit concentration is low. Smoothies are similar to licuados or preparados. Aguas Frescas are typically made in advance and are ladled in large jars. They are so refreshing and satisfying.