When I first traveled from Mexico to Guatemala I had no idea what to expect from Guatemalan food. I loved the food from the Yucatan and wondered if Guatemalan cuisine would be as diverse.
The good news is that while Guatemala is a small country, there are so many tasty things to eat. Guatemala is a country that has been at the culinary crossroads of North and South America for centuries.
Today, it is still influenced by its big brother Mexico to the north, while also enjoying strong links with the rest of Latin America
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The food in Guatemala is very good, and offers a great variety in the dishes to try, with some great street food to enjoy too.
The Key Influences On Guatemalan Cuisine
Having once been at the heart of the Mayan civilization, the influence of this once great empire is clearly seen in the country’s cuisine.
It’s easy to spot a Mayan dish because it won’t have the traditional Spanish spelling, similar to poc chuc or tikin chic in Mexico.
Some dishes are said to date back to this period, while more modern dishes may use the traditional ingredients with a more contemporary twist.
There’s also much culinary influence from the Spanish, as Guatemala was once part of its empire. Yet, over generations some classic Spanish dishes have evolved to include local ingredients and cooking methods.
There are also smaller population groups of African and Asian descent, who have also had an influence on the food of the country.
In particular, the Garifuna influence is strong in Guatemala. This community is originally from a stranded slave ship from Africa. Over the years many of the dishes blended African and Latin American traditions.
Most of my favourite foods are a blend of African and Caribbean descent, especially in Cuba. African slave ships were heading north to Cuba, Haiti and finally the United States, but many of them did not make it.
What Is Guatemalan Food?
With a strong influence from Mexico, Guatemalan cuisine tends to use more tomatillos and achiote than other Latin American countries.
The Mayan influence also brings a lot of tomato, onion, sour orange (aka Seville orange) along with corn, chiles and beans.
You will also find that markets and stores will have a great range of the tropical fruits grown in the country.
Guatemala is also one of the most famous coffee regions in the world. While most of it is exported around the world, Guatemalans have enough for home and it is fantastic.
However, Guatemalans tend to like their coffee sweet, with a bit of milk but also somewhat weak. If you need strong coffee you may need to go to a hotel or tourist restaurant.
And as a side note, while it’s not traditional. I had one of the best pieces of fried chicken in Antigua Guatemala. Don’t miss out!
Is Guatemalan Food Spicy
While typical food in Guatemala is seasoned well and often uses chiles, it’s much more mild than you would expect. Guatemalan cuisine focused more on flavour than spice from the chiles.
Yet, if you like spicy food you can always ask for a bit of salsa picante.
Traditional Guatemalan Food
Here are some of the traditional dishes and foods in Guatemala that you will find on the table in the homes and restaurants, also known as comedores.
Pepián de Indio
There is no official national dish of Guatemala. Originally from Antigua, pepian de indio is as close as you will get to a national dish in Guatemala, blending influences from Mayan and Spanish culture.
A thick, spicy stew that is usually served with meat, this food in Guatemala is found across the country. The sauce for the stew is generally prepared with carrots, corn, pears and potatoes, that are seasoned well with spice.
Some versions can have up to three meats, while some will just have roasted chicken, beef or pork in the stew.
In Guatemala food like pepian de indio is usually served with rice and corn tortillas. If you like it spicier some restaurants offer a hot chili sauce alongside.
Oh how I adored chiles rellenos in Mexico, they were one of my favourite things to eat in Playa del Carmen. Like in Mexico, while many countries may have stuffed peppers, Guatemala cranks up the heat by stuffing chili peppers for one of their tastiest dishes.
The chilies are first grilled to blacken and soften the skin. Then they are cored and stuffed with a tasty filling.
I personally love a simple vegetarian chile relleno that is just cheese, believe me this is enough. But many are much more filling and include ground meat, carrots and other veggies. The peppers are then dipped in batter then fried.
They can be served as an appetizer or as a side dish. But if you love them it’s possible to eat them as a main dish with several sides like rice and beans.
This Guatemalan salad originated in the city of Antigua. Yet, it is now common across much of the country.
Piloyada ingredients often depend on what is available, but the piloy bean is the key item. These beans are then combined with boiled eggs, onions, tomatoes and fresh white cheese.
Although you may find some vegetarian versions of this dish, it is more commonly served with meat. This can include pork, frankfurters, ham or salami, or often a combination of several meats.
Güicoyitos are a type of zucchini commonly found in Guatemala. This is a simple dish where they are stuffed and roasted.
It is possible to make this a vegetarian Guatemalan food, only made wth vegetables and rice but you’ll need to ask in advance. Güicoyitos rellenos are most commonly stuffed with ground meat, a type of ricotta and other cheese.
If you can’t eat dairy you should avoid this dish as it’s very creamy. Some sauces will also include tomatoes and may have a little less cheese. However, the stuffed zucchini are often topped with a generous handful of cheese before roasting.
With a coastline on both the Pacific and the Caribbean, seafood plays a big role in Guatemalan cuisine. This seafood stew takes its cues from the Mayan and Garifuna culture, using maize as one of the key ingredients.
This is a very seasonal, local dish and no two recipes are the same. The seafood depends on the daily catch, but usually offers fish, shrimp, crab and shellfish too. The stew is prepared with plantains, vegetables and coconut milk to give a creamy flavour.
Embracing the Latin American and indigenous traditions of using all parts of an animal, this stew has offal at its heart.
The Guatemalan food is prepared using pig or lamb offal, with liver, heart and brain often included in the stew.
But timid eaters need not worry about being able to identify the meat. The offal is diced and cooked slowly over the course of several hours, simmering in a tomato based broth seasoned with cumin and garlic.
You would never know you’re eating heart, liver or brain unless someone told you. The slow cooking helps to soften the meat in the stew to make it tender and delicious.
Revolcado also includes annatto seeds, also known as achiote, which are native to the region. It gives this stew and many other Guatemalan foods a strong red colour.
This Guatemalan stew is usually served with white rice, making it a filling meal.
Another amazing Guatemalan stew, it was traditionally cooked for special occasions. The preparation is unique as traditionally the meat and broth are steamed in a nest of mashan leaves.
However, most places will now use a slow cooker to replicate this approach. Because of the preparation time, this is often considered to be a holiday or celebration dish.
Subanik is made with a variety of different cuts and types of meat. They are cooked in a sauce that features several varieties of spicy chilies, onions and tomatoes. Using a mix of chilies helps to add complexity to the flavour.
As with revolcado, this stew is usually served with rice.
Kak’ik or Kaq’iq
This Guatemalan dish is traditionally served as the first meal when a new couple or family move into their new home.
It originated from the Mayan cuisine, but has now grown in popularity and is found across the country.
If you’re growing tired of pork or beef you should seek out this traditional Guatemalan food as kak’ik is a stew that uses turkey. The base for the stew is made by roasting tomatoes which are then pureed with garlic and a generous helping of chili.
The legs and thighs are added to the sauce, with most servings having large pieces of turkey in the stew. This is another dish that can pack a hot punch, so be careful if you are sensitive to spice.
Mole de Platanos
Unlike the mole that you will find in Mexico, such as Oaxaca, the Guatemalan version is one that is sometimes served as dessert.
Made with fried, sliced plantains. Mole de plantains are topped with a complex, chocolate mole sauce.
Not what you’d expect, this sauce is flavoured with tomato, chilies, sesame seeds and cinnamon to balance sweet and savoury.
This Guatemalan salad is common throughout the country and generally served as an appetizer, or occasionally as a side dish.
The key ingredients of the salad are radish, mint and chicharron. It has all the great components of a salad with the freshness of the mint balancing the salty chicharron (fried pork rinds).
The citrus salad dressing is light and zesty.
When it comes to Guatemalan food, there are few dishes that are as flexible and used in as many ways as hilachas,
This dish is very similar to the most famous Cuban food, ropa vieja, which means old clothes. And while hilachas means rags, in Guatemala tomatillos are also used, something you won’t find in Cuba.
Beef is roasted, steamed and finally shredded into a spicy tomato and tomatillo sauce.
Hilachas is served in many different ways. It can be a tortilla filling or served as part of a large meal featuring many Guatemalan foods. It can even be served as a main meal with a portion of rice and salad.
If you’re familiar with the Argentinean food milanesa, these pork chops are served in a similar way.
The chops are first browned then breaded and cooked until crispy. There are many varieties of the dish that will then smother the chops in a creamy onion sauce to serve.
This is usually then served with rice or French fries and salad.
Jocón is a salsa made with tomatillos and cilantro and thickened with sesame seeds. It’s vibrant green colour is a beautiful blast of colour.
This really tends to stand out against the more common reddish stews of Guatemalan cuisine. It is most commonly served with chicken, but again the meat in the stew can vary depending on the area or availability.
Jocón is a dish that has a long history dating back from the Mayan era. Today it is still especially popular among the indigenous population – no the Mayans were not killed off, in fact they are alive and well in Mexico and Guatemala!
Long before the Spanish brought chicken to Central America, this sauce was served with the wild fowl of the forests.
This is another of the common ways of preparing pork in Guatemala. At the heart of this Guatemalan dish is the adobo marinade which is thoroughly rubbed into the meat before it is cooked.
This marinade is made with garlic, thyme and oregano, while the achiote gives it great flavour and a strong reddish colour. The meat is then cooked until it is tender and cuts easily under the knife.
The meal can be served with various sides, including rice and salad. Others will serve it in a tortilla to eat – especially if you are buying it as street food.
Pork is the most common meat to be cooked in the adobada style. However, you may also find beef or chicken prepared in this way from time to time too.
Salpicón de Res
This popular Guatemalan food is a meat salad made with meat that is slow cooked until it is tender and easy to pull apart.
The salad also includes onion, tomato, peppers and mint. The dressing uses the traditional citrus flavour of bitter orange, also known as Seville orange in English.
And while it’s considered a type of salad it is loose term as it is often served as an appetizer as tacos or tostadas.
Fiambre is a Guatemalan food that is widely associated with the country’s Day of the Dead celebrations on November 2. This is probably as it is a grand salad that can be made in advance but also makes a great colourful centrepiece.
Fiambre is generally served on a bed of lettuce or greens and includes beets, onions, brussel sprouts, olives and boiled eggs. But the decadence doesn’t stop there, the vegetables are topped with deli meats and sausages.
It’s like the original deli salad.
Family recipes can vary significantly, especially in the dressings. In coastal areas shrimp and other shellfish are also often added to fiambre.
Ceviche is a seafood dish found Throughout South and Central America. It is essentially made with raw fish, citrus juice and often chilies.
Ceviche in Guatemala should only be eaten on the coast, where the seafood will be fresh. The Guatemalan food is often prepared with shrimp, but can include chunks of white fish or other shellfish too.
Ceviche is so easy to make. Seafood is combined with tomato, onions and sometimes celery, then soaked in lemon juice and seasoned.
Some places may add hot sauce or chili while others keep hot sauce to the side. So if you are not keen on spicy dishes, it is worth checking before ordering.
While tamales are found in many countries in Central America, here in Guatemala they are generally larger than they are elsewhere.
There are hundreds of different kinds of tamales in Guatemala. Some are special for Christmas or a day of the week – pache is a potato tamale only eaten on Thursdays.
You can also find them everywhere. They are SO time consuming to make that it makes me sad they are so cheap to buy.
People don’t usually make them at home but instead buy them from women walking down the streets yelling “tamales! tamales!” Or in some towns people will make them in their homes and if the red light is on outside their door it means tamales are ready for sale.
Guatemalan tamale dough is made with maize, which is wrapped and cooked in a large maxan leaf or a corn husk.
There are several varieties of tamales worth trying in Guatemala. Along with the three options listed below, you may also find regional variations and different fillings available too.
These red tamales are the most common variety. The achiote spice gives tamales Colorados its famous red colour.
The stuffing includes red peppers, olives and diced meat and tomato based sauce.
The black tamale is a sweet version of the Guatemalan food. Instead of the savoury flavour, it is a unique taste as it’s filled with chocolate, raisins and nuts.
There are also other versions of tamales negros made with a dark corn, and stuffed with chicken and a savoury chocolate mole sauce.
Tamales de Elote
These are slightly sweet tamales that vary from the rest of the tamales in the country.
The dough is made with sweet corn. The stuffing includes cream and parmesan cheese, and will often also include raising and some vanilla essence.
It may sound odd but it is worth trying.
Street Food In Guatemala
Often mistaken for tamales, these smaller dough pockets are very popular in Guatemala.
Chuchitos are steamed in corn husks. Unlike Guatamalan tamales, they can be made with a dough of either corn or potato. The sauce for these Guatemalan snacks is made with tomatoes, tomatillos and onions.
You will often find that they are served with a hot sauce, and make for a delicious cheap snack.
These simple turnovers are one of the Guatemalan street food staples. Dobladas are common throughout the country.
The basis for this Guatemalan dish is the maseca flour. The soft tortilla wraps a filling that is usually onions, peppers, cheese and meat.
Vegetarians need not fear, there are plenty versions of vegetarian dobladas.
Dobladas are served throughout the day. It’s a quick breakfast food but also can be part of a main meal with eggs and beans.
Although pupusas are most commonly associated with El Salvador, you can also find them in Guatemala.
At first look, many people will dismiss pupusa as simply being a tortilla made with thick dough similar to a arepa in Colombia or Venezuela.
Although they are most similar to a stuffed arepa, they are not an arepa.
With a corn dough, fillings commonly include cheese and refried beans. But today they can vary dramatically by street food vendor – almost as many fillings as there are pizza toppings.
I personally love a vegetarian pupusa with just refried bean and cheese.
Although pupusa are prepared in advance they are cooked to order. They are served with a side of cabbage coleslaw and a number of different sauces.
Grilled corn on the cob is a popular summer treat at home, but it doesn’t compare to grilled street corn in Guatemala.
However, similar to street corn in Mexico, Guatemala offers a tasty and spicy snack with a wonderful mix of flavours.
The ‘loco’ in the name refers to the range of toppings and sauces added to the corn to make it ‘crazy’ corn. There are two options, either grilled or asado and boiled or cocido. I think the grilled version is much better as it brings out the charred flavours of corn.
Now…the first step may seem the most bizarre but trust me it is delicious.
Grilled corn is smeared with mayonnaise to hold the toppings together. The most popular version is then dipped in crumbled fresh cheese and cilantro. Finally it is finished off with chili powder, salt and pepper, before being drizzled in lime juice.
Once you have elotes locos it will change the way you eat corn on the cob at home.
Tostadas are found across the Spanish speaking world, and are generally small pieces of dough that have been toasted.
Guatemalans use a corn tortilla dough rather than the bread used in some countries and look like round nacho chips we know at home.
Toppings usually include refried beans and also a local crumbly fresh cheese. This can then be served with guacamole or a tomato based salsa.
In some places these are also used as a buffet or self-serve type of food. The tostadas are presented with a range of different toppings.
These little snacks are a Guatemalan dish that many people will think are nachos.
However, garnachas are not fried but instead grilled corn dough. They are served on a plate topped with shredded beef or pork.
The mix is then finished with a salad of cabbage and fresh cheese, before commonly being topped with a rich tomato sauce.
Borracho literally means drunk in English. This is the perfect name for this sponge cake doused with local rum.
It’s a simple recipe. The cake dough is made with egg yolks, flour, sugar and baking powder.
Separately, rum is cooked into a syrup with sugar and a little vanilla. The sponge is then soaked in the rum syrup to make a tasty and indulgent treat.
Many people will then smother the cake in icing and top the cake with fruits in syrup.
Found in Spain, and throughout Latin America, Guatemala has its own take on these fritters that are traditionally cooked at the end of the year.
Buñuelo dough is made with flour, eggs and butter. The dough is rolled into a small ball around an inch in diameter. These are then tossed into a pan of hot oil to fry quickly.
Buñuelos are then served with a sweet syrup that is usually made with star anise and vanilla.
Because they are so easy to prepare, Buñuelos are often found on street stalls and served at local fairs and events. These can be served in cones or trays with several different sweet sauces available.
Rellenitos de Plátano
Plantains are one of the most versatile ingredients to be found in Central America. They are just as often used in desserts as they are in savoury dishes. Here the traditionally savoury combination of plantains are refried beans is given a sweet twist.
Although often served as a dessert, rellenitos de plátano can also be served as a snack alongside a strong cup of Guatemalan coffee.
Rellenitos dough is made with cooked, mashed plantains that is rolled out and filled with the refried beans that have been cooked with chocolate, sugar or honey.
I love this Guatemalan food because beans are almost always savoury. Yet, this dish shows that they can also be used in sweets.
Chancletas de Güisquil
Fun fact: In Cuba, chancletas means flip flops! But I promise you this is not a dessert of footwear.
In many Latin American countries chancletas are stuffed with savoury ingredients to make an appetizer or main dish. However, in Guatemala these small chayote squash are used to make a tasty and delicious dessert.
Chayotes are steamed or boiled to soften the flesh, chopped in half to remove some of the flesh.
Chancletas de güisquil are stuffed with nuts, raisins and almonds and topped that are bound together with breadcrumbs, egg yolk and sweet wine.
The finished Guatemalan dessert is baked in the oven with a sprinkling of brown sugar.
Pin It For Later: Traditional Guatemalan Food
Things to Do in Guatemala
Guatemala is just a hop and skip from Mexico and not too far from Nicaragua. It is one of the cheapest places to travel and is still relatively unspoiled. You won’t find the over developed tourism of Costa Rica here, but you may also not find the level of service.
But the warmth of Guatemalans and the sheer beauty of the county will win you over. Here are a few of my favourite adventures.
Fiambre (c) Jez http://flickr.com/photo/95033136@N00/287897540, Kak ik (c) Hermann Luyken [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons, Tamale (c) Anamix257 [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons, Borraco (c) Daniel Ferreira [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons, Rellenitos de Platano David Amsler [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons, , Elotes (c) Jason, Pupusa (c) Roberta Romero, Chuchitos (c) Marco Verch, Chile relleno © mswine, Tapado © Mickael T, Hilachas © Rinaldo Wurgliysch, Carne Adobada © Jay Peeples,