International Cooking: Food from Guatemala

Guatemala, located southeast of Mexico, is the most populous country in Central America. Its territory was the center of the Maya civilization, which extended into neighboring countries, and some Mayan languages are still spoken today. Most of the area was conquered in the 16th century by the Spanish, but Guatemala gained independence in 1821.

Guatemala suffered a period of instability and civil strife towards the end of the 19th century, and during the early 20th century it was ruled by a series of dictators. The US eventually interfered and installed a new dictatorship in 1954, and later there was a civil war between the different factions.

Guatemala has shown economic growth and successful democratic elections in more recent years, but still suffers from poverty, crime, drug trafficking, and civil instability. About a quarter of the country doesn’t get enough food.

Guatemala sounds like a beautiful country, hosting many unique and significant ecosystems as well as species that can be found nowhere else.

What Do People Eat in Guatemala?

Traditional foods in Guatemala are mostly based on Mayan cuisine, with influences from Spain. Flavors and techniques differ from region to region, and many dishes are common in one specific region but unknown elsewhere in the country.

Common ingredients include rice, corn, chilies, and beans, and the country is home to the Hass avocado. Cocoa beans were once used as currency by ancient Mayans, and hot chocolate has been popular for a long time.

Traditional meat sources were turkey and other poultry, as well as fish. Later, the Spanish introduced pork and beef which have since been incorporated into many dishes.

One dish I was intrigued by but didn’t manage to include is fiambre, which is essentially just a giant salad including, among other things, various sausages, cold cuts, pickled vegetables, cheese, and olives. I just couldn’t see a way to include something that needed to be so big, but maybe one day I will have the opportunity!

What I Made

Guatemalan Enchiladas

Guatemalan Enchiladas

A Guatemalan enchilada is completely different from the Mexican enchiladas many people are probably used to. It shares more similarities with the enchiladas I made for El Salvador, consisting of a fried corn tortilla (or tostada shell) with toppings.

In Guatemala, the exact toppings can vary, but it’s common to include ground beef, beetroot, queso fresco (fresh cheese), and boiled egg slices.

To make my Guatemalan enchiladas, I first made a vegetable escabeche. I roasted some beetroot, which is the way I always cook them even if the recipe says to boil, since I think the flavor is better. Then I peeled them and cut them into cubes. I boiled some chopped green beans and carrots, and some peas, and mixed them with the chopped beetroot. Then I added some salt, pepper, vinegar, and olive oil, and let the mixture sit while I moved on to the other ingredients.

I cooked some tomato and onion in olive oil, and then removed most of the mixture before adding the beef and cooking until browned. Here the recipe is unclear on what is supposed to happen with the onion and tomato that was removed. I decided to use them to make the sauce, for which I was meant to boil some onion and tomatoes (in the recipe, this was supposed to be additional onion and tomato, not what I just cooked). I thought the flavor would be better from sautéeing anyway. I blended up the cooked tomato and onion and seasoned with salt and pepper, and that was the sauce done. Mine was orange rather than red like the picture but it tasted good anyway.

Next, I shallow-fried some corn tortillas to make them crisp; you can also buy tostada shells if you don’t want to fry them yourself. I prefer to just buy corn tortillas though since I feel they are more versatile, and they freeze well.

To assemble, I first placed some lettuce on the fried tortillas, followed by some of the vegetable escabeche, then the ground beef, some sauce, cheese, and finally a few slices of boiled egg. I garnished with some parsley.

As you can probably guess, these were super messy to eat. But they were delicious! The recipe I used is from Growing Up Bilingual.

Guatemalan Tacos

Guatemalan Tacos

These are probably not quite like you imagine tacos to be, though they are similar. Guatemalan tacos are made by wrapping the filling (usually meat and potatoes) in a corn tortilla, then frying. The method is the same one used in making Costa Rican tacos.

First, I started making the filling by sautéeing onion, garlic, and chili. I added salt, pepper, oregano, and cumin and cooked a minute more before adding chopped potato and ground beef. After 10 minutes or so, the filling was cooked. I stirred in some parsley at this point because it was in the recipe ingredients but not the directions and I figured this was a good place to add it.

To make the sauce, I sautéed some tomato, onion, and garlic with salt, pepper, and a little coriander. I blended everything together and that was the sauce done; again, it was not as red as the sauce in the picture. Maybe they used redder tomatoes? Regardless, it still tasted good.

I assembled the tacos by adding some filling to the middle of a corn tortilla and wrapping tightly, then tying with kitchen string to hold in place while frying. This worked better than the toothpicks I used for the Costa Rican tacos.

I shallow-fried the tacos until crispy all over, then I served them topped with sauce, queso fresco, and cilantro. These were really good! The recipe is from Spanish Academy Antiguena.

Chuchitos (Small Guatemalan Tamales)

Chuchitos (Small Guatemalan Tamales)

Tamales are popular in many Central American countries. They are something I’ve wanted to make for a while, and since Guatemala reportedly has hundreds of varieties, I thought this was the time. The key ingredients are a dough made of corn, potatoes, or rice, a filling that could include meat, fruits, and/or nuts, and the wrapping, which would be leaves or husks of some kind.

Most Guatemalan tamales are wrapped in banana leaves or maxan leaves, but I chose to make chuchitos, which are small tamales wrapped in corn husks. This is because it was easier for me to get corn husks, and chuchitos seem to be one of the more popular types of tamales.

First, I started my corn husks soaking in a large bowl of warm water. The recipe said they would need an hour but the corn husk package said 10 minutes. I wanted to be on the safe side so I did this early in the process.

Next, I roasted some tomatoes, tomatillos, red bell peppers, onion, garlic, and a poblano pepper. While they were in the oven, I seeded a guajillo chili and heated it on the stove, then placed it in a bowl of water to soften. In retrospect, I think the poblano in the recipe may have been intended to be a dry chili of some kind since it was meant to be prepared the same way as the guajillo. That did not seem right to me, hence why I roasted it with the other vegetables. It was too late to change course and I knew a poblano would still taste good, so I just continued. When the vegetables were done, I blended them up with the chili and some of the water the chili had soaked in. I was meant to strain the sauce but I thought it seemed smooth enough for me, so I left it as is. I cooked the sauce for a bit in a saucepan until it thickened a little, and set it aside.

The next thing I had to do was cook the meat, which was simple. I just sautéed some chopped chicken thighs in oil with a little salt and pepper.

The last component to prepare was the dough/masa. I mixed masa harina (fine corn flour) with butter, oil, salt, and warm chicken broth. The recipe didn’t say the broth should be warm but in my experience with masa harina so far, a warm liquid works better. It just seems to absorb more easily and the dough is malleable without being super sticky.

To assemble the chuchitos, I placed some of the masa mixture on a corn husk and topped it with some chicken and sauce. I tried to enclose everything in masa, which is what the recipe said to do. But some YouTube videos I looked at later (necessary to work out how I was meant to fold the chuchitos) seemed to suggest it didn’t matter if the filling was not perfectly enclosed in masa.

My first chuchitos were overfilled; I overestimated how much filling I would be able to fit in and still close without difficulty. I definitely got better as I went!

After folding all my chuchitos and tying them with kitchen string, I steamed them in a large pot for nearly an hour, and then they were done.

I followed the recipe’s serving suggestion and served them with some of the leftover sauce on top, as well as some queso fresco. These were really good, though quite time-consuming to make!

Below you can see what the chuchitos looked like after removing from the corn husks and serving!

Chuchitos (Small Guatemalan Tamales)

If you’d like to make these, the recipe I used is from Growing Up Bilingual.

Pepián de Pollo (Chicken Stew)

Pepián de Pollo (Chicken Stew)

Pepián de pollo is a chicken stew with a sauce based on tomato and toasted seeds, and it is considered Guatemala’s national dish. Although this version uses chicken, you can also find pepián made with beef or pork, or a combination of meats.

To start, I had to make the sauce. I added half a cinnamon stick, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, a guajillo pepper, a pasilla pepper, and a corn tortilla to a skillet and toasted for a few minutes. Then I blended everything with some water and pushed the mixture through a strainer, which was much more work than I was anticipating! I actually was a bit light on sesame seeds, because even though I was halving the recipe, I was still supposed to use 2 ounces, and I didn’t realize just how much that was compared to what I had in my jar. I think I used a bit over 1 ounce.

I roasted some tomatoes, tomatillos, red bell pepper, garlic, and onion, and blended them together with a sprig of cilantro. These also went through the strainer, which again took a while, but at least I ended up with a really smooth sauce!

Next, I cooked the chicken (I used bone-in thighs) in salted water. I wasn’t sure what I was meant to do next, because the directions were a bit confusing. It said to remove the chicken and add the vegetables and sauce, but then later it was saying if the sauce is thick then you should add some of the water from boiling the chicken. That tells me that the water isn’t supposed to be left in the pot. So, I drained the chicken but reserved the water, and added chopped carrot, potatoes, green beans, and cilantro, along with both sauces I made earlier. I was meant to also add a chopped chayote but I omitted it since I was halving the recipe and didn’t want to use extra or have to find a use for half a chayote.

I let this mixture simmer until the vegetables were tender, and I did end up adding some of the chicken stock to thin the sauce a little. The recipe didn’t say to add the chicken back in but I can only assume that’s intended, so that’s what I did. This can be served alone, which is what I did, but you could also serve it with white rice and corn tortillas.

This was pretty good, but I’m not sure I loved the flavor of the seeds in the sauce. I think that’s just me though so it’s worth trying.

This recipe also came from Growing Up Bilingual.

Desayuno Chapin (Eggs, Refried Beans, and Fried Plantains)

Desayuno Chapin (Eggs, Refried Beans, and Fried Plantains)

A typical breakfast in Central America often includes eggs, beans (usually refried beans), plantains, and tortillas, but there are many variations. In Guatemala, refried beans are made with black beans, as opposed to pinto beans which are popular in other countries.

To make my version of a desayuno chapin, the name given to this kind of breakfast in Guatemala, I scrambled some eggs and topped them with hot sauce. I added queso fresco, a corn tortilla, fried plantains, and refried beans. Usually, you would use ripe plantains, but I used green since I don’t like them ripe.

For the refried beans, I used a Guatemalan recipe which was super easy and delicious. I cooked some black beans with onion and garlic, and blended the mixture with some of the cooking water. Then I sautéed more onion and garlic in some oil and added the blended beans. I cooked the mixture until the beans thickened a bit, seasoned with salt, and that was it.

The eggs can also be mixed with tomatoes and onions, or they can be fried instead of scrambled. Other common additions are sausages, salsa, and crema or sour cream. I felt this was a great breakfast as is though; I ate it with the atole de elote (next).

I got the recipe for the refried beans from Chocolate and Chiles.

Atole de Elote (Sweet Corn Drink)

Atole de Elote (Sweet Corn Drink)

I’ve seen variations of this drink show up a few times as I’ve been doing this challenge, but this is the first time I’ve made it. It’s a sweet, warm drink made from corn.

To make this, I blended a can of corn with some water, and strained it into a saucepan. I added sugar, a cinnamon stick, and salt, and brought to a boil, then reduced to a simmer.

In a separate saucepan, I warmed some evaporated milk, which I then stirred into the corn juice (as I’ve decided to call it). After simmering gently for a few more minutes, I removed the cinnamon stick and served.

This was quite good but it was also much sweeter than I was anticipating, and this was after already reducing the sugar slightly. I might just add no sugar at all next time, and that would probably be sweet enough for me.

I was also meant to garnish with corn kernels but they just sank in; you can kind of see one near the surface in the photo.

I made this using the recipe from El Mejor Nido which seems to be a Nestle site, but it was linked to me from someone on the Guatemalan subreddit so I thought it must be authentic.

Final Thoughts

This was a great week! My favorites were the enchiladas and tacos, followed closely by the desayuno chapin, though everything was good.

I’m going to be taking a break for the next few weeks as I’m going on vacation, but when I’m back I’ll be cooking food from Guinea.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Flavor Vortex © Copyright 2021. All rights reserved.