Ancient Roots: Discovering Guatemalan Food for the Foodie Traveler

By Trish Keatings

Between 2000 and 2015, the number of Hass avocados consumed in the US more than doubled, earning it the official title of “America’s new favorite fruit”.

Relatively new to our taste buds, avocado has been cultivated in Guatemala for thousands of years. But beyond the fruits, veggies, and coffee that this country exports, the typical dishes you find here aren’t exactly well-known beyond its borders.

Like the avocado, a great deal of Guatemalan food finds its origins in the Mayan civilization that once inhabited and cultivated this land. Over time, ingredients and techniques intertwined with Spanish influences to create the most popular and common Guatemalan food you’ll find on the menu today.

Foodies and avocado-enthusiasts alike: dig into this guide on Guatemalan food to learn more about this fascinating history.

The Ancient Roots of Guatemalan Food

The land that we call Guatemala was once part of the great Maya civilization that stretched from Mexico all the way into Honduras, Belize, and El Salvador. While this civilization began to decline of their own accord somewhere around 800 BC, and their numbers and traditions took an even more destructive blow during the Spanish colonial reign, their presence is still very much tangible in modern day Guatemala culture and food.

The ingredients and techniques used thousands of years ago blended with influences brought by the Spanish during the colonial era. Like most other Latin American countries, you can find typical Spanish dishes such as empanadas, enchiladas, and guacamole on almost every menu. And in the same way that many of the imported Catholic religious traditions and ceremonies have been intertwined with ancient Mayan rituals and practices over the centuries, many of the dietary staples of the former inhabitants of this land are, in one way or another, part of today’s cuisine.

The Importance of Maize

If there was one crop that was more important than any other to the Mayan people, it was maize. Perfectly suited to the climate, it grew in abundance and was enough to feed the population and still leave a surplus.

The Mayan relationship to maize went beyond its role as their staple crop. In fact, Mayan mythology claims that human beings were born from corn, signifying that it had significant spiritual and religious importance. It also served multiple purposes in that it was used for basket-weaving and even fuel.

Today, maize remains an important part of the native Guatemalan diet, specifically in the form of masa: ground corn that’s made into dough. Masa is used to make many of the dishes in Guatemala and Central America.

Tortillas

Masa serves as the base for making one of the most well-known and most-consumed foods in Guatemala: tortillas. Tortillas can be described as thin corn pancakes. They come with almost every meal, along with other staples that date back to the Mayan period such as frijoles (beans) and rice.

Cooked on a flat, round griddle called a comal, all over the country you’ll find small groups of Guatemalan women tucked into tortilleras making masa into tortillas by hand, the way it’s been done for centuries. They’re served wrapped in a cloth, often in a basket, and always warm.

Tamales

Tamales are made using masa as well. They’re stuffed with a variety of fillings ranging from savory to sweet and everything in between, then wrapped in plantain or banana leaves and steamed.

Tamales aren’t necessarily associated with Guatemala. One can find tamales everywhere from Mexico down to Colombia. But what makes tamales different in Guatemalan food is their abundance and complexity.

There are tamales negros, tamales de elote, and tamales colorados. Tamales are stuffed with chicken and beef or with sugar, nuts, and dried fruits. Then, there are variations on the tamale, such as chuchitos or paches. Chuchitos combine turkey and tomato sauce while paches are tamales made with a potato-based dough instead of masa.

Chocolate

We don’t have to go into much detail to describe chocolate – we all know it, most of us love it. But did you know that Guatemala was the birthplace of chocolate?

The Mayans considered the tree, the bean, and the drink they made with it, a gift from the gods. They would crush cocoa beans into hot water to create something like a hot chocolate – a medicinal drink that was also consumed for pleasure. They even used cocoa beans as currency.

Today, chocolate has found its way into the Guatemalan diet by way of hot chocolate drinks served with breakfast and mole, a sauce that’s found across Central America and Mexico and is used in everything from meat dishes to fillings for pastries.

Official Dishes and Guatemala Culture

In 2007, the Ministry of Culture declared that four native Guatemalan dishes were Intangible Cultural Heritage of Guatemala. In 2015, they updated the list to include a fifth item.

Each one of these traditional dishes serve as yet another example of how Guatemalan food is largely the result of blending pre-Colombian traditions and ingredients with the same Spanish influence that touched many other parts of Latin America.

Pepian
This was once a ceremonial dish eaten by the Mayan people from the Chimaltenango area of Guatemala on important occasions. Today, the earthy vegetable stew thickened with pumpkin seeds is common in the Antigua area. But you can learn to make this hearty dish and enjoy it back home.

Kak’ik
Another stew that was made for important occasions in the Mayan culture, authentic kak’ik has at least 24 ingredients. It’s traditionally made with turkey and consumed by the Q’eqchi people living in south east Guatemala. The fact that the dish is made with turkey is important: turkey was domesticated by the Mayans for consumptions, whereas chicken didn’t come along until the arrival of the Spanish.

Jocon
Not exactly a food in and of itself, jocon is a green sauce that’s poured over other foods, usually meat. It’s made with sesame seeds, tomatillos, and cilantro. Sometimes called a green mole, it’s a favorite among native Guatemalan people.

Banana in mole
Not as common as the other three dishes, which can be found across the country, banana in mole is fried plantain in a spicy, chocolate mole sauce. Mole, of course, is made with cocoa. It’s believed to have origins in the Mayan cocoa sauce.

Pinol
This can be prepared as either a soup or a drink, and has pre-Hispanic origins in the central, northwestern, and southwestern regions of Guatemala. It’s made with roasted and ground cornmeal and it’s relatively difficult to locate.

Try Guatemalan Food for Yourself

The ancient roots of Guatemalan food are located deep within the Maya civilization that once worked these lands. Over time, the ingredients and techniques used to prepare their ceremonial and traditional foods combined with what was brought over by the Spanish. Today, many of the most common and popular Guatemalan foods are some mixture of the two.

If reading about all of these delicious foods got your mouth watering, imagine what tasting them would be like? Check out our Guatemalan custom trips and start planning what you’re going to try first.

Trish Keatings

Trish is a freelance content and copywriter whose passions are travel and wellness. A full-time traveler herself, she finds inspiration on the road, among the people she meets and the cultures she immerses in. When she's not writing for others, she's working on her own stories, which she hopes to publish into a novel about the transformational experience of facing fears, pursuing dreams, and finding purpose.

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