Being new to Guatemala, its culture, and its cuisine can be a bit challenging for many visitors or solo travelers. A brief and precise introduction to Guatemalan food and history goes a long way for those planning to visit the country.
My trip to Guatemala introduced me to many enriching food experiences. Guatemalan food is exceptional, influenced by Mayan and Spanish culture with a taste of oh-so-real!
Not a single food I tasted was unsatisfactory. Every authentic Guatemalan dish has something unique to it, owned to the multi-cultural land practices.
The country is famous for its steamed corn, rice, tortillas, beans, etc. Your mouth will water when you taste their stuffed baked goods filled with exotic cheese, potatoes, chicken, pork, and beans.
Mayan or Mesoamerican natives highly influence traditional Guatemalan food. It was common for ancient people to grow and eat corn.
Bordering Mexico, Honduras, and El-Salvador, Guatemala has cultural diversity, beauty in nature and archaeology, and supreme privilege in cuisine.
Exploring Mexico after Guatemala? Read these guides here:
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If you are a foodie and a traveler like me, Guatemala has so much to offer on the local streets, from mouthwatering cuisine to warm desserts. So let’s venture deep within Guatemalan food and explore these eleven highlights that left the biggest impression on me.
- 11 Traditional Guatemalan Foods You Must Try
- Guatemala Christmas Food—The Sweet Festival!
- Guatemalan Food Facts
- FAQs About Guatemalan Food
- Wrapping up the 11 Traditional Guatemalan Foods
11 Traditional Guatemalan Foods You Must Try
Pepian de Pollo—Chicken Stew
Regarded as the national food of Guatemala, Pepian De Pollo is a thick, spicy, and creamy chicken stew mixed with a paste of pepitoria and sesame seeds. The casserole has combined vegetables and chicken pieces to complement its overall flavors and aroma.
Usually served with tortillas and rice, Pepian is the most preferred main-course cuisine here in Guatemala. Although it’s a chicken stew, you can always substitute the dish with pork or beef (Pepian De Res.)
Pupusas—Fried Corn Patties
Pupusas is a dish to remember from Guatemala. It’s budget-friendly crispy corn tortillas stuffed with refried beans, pork, and cheese fillings. Since pupusas are so popular, different types of stuffing can be used depending on individual taste.
- Traditional chicharron (pork) with cheese and mashed beans.
- Chicken pupusas.
- Restaurants also use loroco—a Mesoamerican vine, along with bell pepper, onions, tomato, rice, etc., in their fillings.
Pupusas always come accompanied by homemade spicy tomato salsa and curtido.
Curtido is traditionally made of raw salad vegetables, like carrots, onions, cauliflower, and capsicum (optional). Seasoned with spices and vinegar, this mixture of vegetables tastes excellent.
You can dress these veggies on top of your golden-brown crispy pupusas and taste heaven in Guatemala.
Banana Leaves Tamale—Guatemalan Christmas Food
Although cooked and steamed in various styles, Guatemalan tamales win the show with their diverse spices, chicken/meat stew, and added vegetables. Unlike the Mexican tamale wrapped in corn leaves, a Guatemalan tamale is wrapped and steamed in big, green banana leaves.
Both the leaves are advantageous. However, banana leaves are thicker, juicier, and greener—giving fresher visuals and multiple health benefits to your tamale. Additionally, banana leaves will allow better steaming without water submersion.
Tamales are a popular dish in Guatemala and other Central American countries like Mexico. It’s made using steamed corn dough, meat stew, and steamed or fried veggies.
The Corn Masa is a thick corn and water paste for the baked base. Meat stew tops the dish, and the gravy contains broth, sesame seeds, pepitorias, spices, tomatoes, and other vegetables.
It’s garnished with spiced-up, raw, or fried vegetables like capsicum, onions, bell pepper, tomatoes, green/yellow pepper, etc. All these ingredients are placed between the steamed banana leaves.
First, you place the corn paste on the leaves—next, the gravy/stew above the paste. Then, as the topmost layer, garnish the meal with vegetables. All this gets wrapped inside a banana leaf and placed in a big container for steaming. And in an hour, you have your perfect Christmas Tamale.
Found on the streets of Central America, Guatemala empanadas are a vegetarian delight. It’s baked until crisp and is usually buttery. These pastries are topped with salad and dried spices and filled with cooked vegetables.
You can find meat variants of this dish outside the country. However, in Guatemala, the widespread stuffing is potatoes, capsicum, and spinach with added tomatoes, onions, and bell pepper.
Empanadas are also a popular dessert in Guatemala, known as empanadas Manjar De Leche or Dulce De Leche. There’s a slight change in baking/frying sweet empanadas. A mixture of milk, sugar and condensed cream makes up the filling.
You can always add chocolate while making the stuffing. The pastry has cinnamon, vanilla extract, eggs, 50% corn flour, and 50% all-purpose flour.
Spanish people in the country brought this popular Guatemalan breakfast dish. Other stuffings for empanadas may include fish, seafood, and meat.
Noodle Tostadas or Enchiladas
Guatemalan and Mexican Enchiladas are two different recipes. Mexican enchiladas are wrapped chicken tortilla goodness. On the other hand, Guatemalan enchiladas are taco-like open tostadas with catered salsa, vegetables, noodles, and toppings (meat/vegetarian).
Again, noodle tostadas are famous Guatemalan street food and can have multiple variants. Experimental chefs will offer you Noodle tostadas, Beef and lettuce tacos, Cheese and mixed veg tostadas, Chicken tostadas, and the list go on.
Guatemalan Enchiladas are considered one of the healthiest fast foods in the country, topped with plenty of vegetables. The dish also adds boiled or baked egg, ground chicken, and beans on the top.
Hilachas resemble pepian and usually include rice, beans, and tortillas as a main dish. The stew preparation uses beef flank or flat iron steak, accompanied with potatoes, vegetables, guajillo (a spicy, Spanish dried mirasol chili), tomato sauce, etc.
The meat used in hilachas is easily shredded in the semi-spicy stew. You can either order plain Guatemalan rice or mixed-vegetable rice, and both will complement your hilachas into a delicious dinner.
Guatemala has also recognized Kak’ik as part of its intangible heritage in 2007, and it is counted as one of the country’s national dishes. The name and recipe of the dish are derived from the q’eqchi’ ethnic communities—where ‘ik’ stands for spicy. Thus, Kak’ik may be the spiciest turkey stew in the country.
With the blend of cobanera, achiote, coriander, and other chilies, Kak’ik is a delicious meat stew for individuals who want something hotter and spicier.
Nonetheless, if you aren’t used to too much spice, most chilies are smoked to subtle their content. Like pepian or hilachas, kak’ik pairs with rice, beans, and tamale (wrapped in banana leaves).
Kak’ik uses turkey legs as their main ingredient, but you can also use boneless turkey meat pieces in the stew. Other elements may include tomatoes, cilantro, and chilies.
Fiambre Or The All Saints’ Day Salad
Cooked and garnished with over 100+ ingredients, Fiambre Salad is the All Saints’ day special! This day is celebrated with great enthusiasm in the memory of saints known and unknown. Individuals invest hours and days in cooking meat varieties and marinated vegetables for the Fiambre.
Some popular meats are chicken breasts, smoked sausage (chorizo), salami, ham, mortadella, and other chicken and pork varieties. You can also use beef and turkey in the combination.
Popular vegetables in the salad include cauliflower, red/green lettuce, potatoes, dried thyme, tomatoes, green peas, corn, pacayas, bay leaf, mini-gherkins, Spanish olives, beets, etc. Most of these veggies are cooked and then marinated.
The ingredients are either boiled, cooked in oil, or marinated. The big salad platter is then garnished with Parmesan, queso fresco cheese, parsley, boiled-cut eggs, olive oil, species, honey (optional), white/champagne vinegar, etc.
Desayuno Tradicional is a typical Guatemalan food frequented in every cozy restaurant. The breakfast is a combination of popular Guatemalan healthy fast foods.
This includes the savory blend of boiled or scrambled eggs, frijoles, volteados (refried and mashed black beans), cut and fried banana chips, chirmol (tomato sauce), and tortillas.
This combination is garnished with white cheese (queso fresco), sour cream (frijoles), and fresh fruits, and accompanied by black coffee.
You will witness the perfect combination of sweet, sour, cooked, boiled, fried, crispy, and mashed breakfast while having Desayuno Tradicional. As the Guatemalans say—Desayuno Tipica Chapin—It’s a breakfast for champions!
My profound love for spicy fast food always gets me deep within the alleys serving the authentic taste of the country. One such classic Guatemalan food is Chile Rellenos.
Sweet or poblano bell pepper is first baked and then stuffed with minced beef and vegetables. These veggies may include potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, peas, etc. The stuffed chilies are next dipped in beaten egg whites and then pan-fried until crisp with a golden-brown color.
On a sweeter note, Guatemala features Rellenitos, an influence from its Spanish heritage. Plantains (green, thick bananas) and black beans make up these rellenitos, which are deep-fried. They are delivered with honey and sprinkled with powdered sugar.
Rellenitos have an oval shape and are usually served with morning coffee. These black mashed beans and hard plantains give a similar composition, texture, and taste of chocolate after mixing up with sugar.
Rellenitos have a deep golden-brown color after frying with a white contrast of sprinkled, crushed sugar.
Bonus Guatemalan Culture Food—Chojin
Guatemalans devour salads and tortillas. One such salad delight is chojin, also known as Chicharron Salad. Chicharron (pig skin) is fried and mixed with other vegetables, including radish, white onions, cilantro, tomatoes, etc., in lime juice.
Sprinkle it with salt, pepper, and other spices, and you will taste a delicious combo of meat and raw, juicy vegetables.
Guatemala Christmas Food—The Sweet Festival!
Guatemala celebrates Christmas with multiple dishes. The famous main course is a tamale wrapped in banana leaves. However, the country likewise relishes sweet desserts and meals throughout the festive season, including torrejas, bunuelos, tortas (sweet bread), sweet black bean tamale, and ponche.
Torrejas bread is only available during the season and is pretty simple to make. Boil the milk with honey and cinnamon stick until it takes an excellent creamy color and desired density.
Soak your bread in the semi-condensed milk and leave it for 15 minutes. Dip the soaked pieces of bread in beaten egg white and fry until crispy with golden-brown tones.
Bunuelos are sweet balls made using all-purpose flour, eggs, and baking powder. They are served with agua fiel, a sweet, dense syrup made with water, sugar, and cinnamon sticks. Once prepared, pour the syrup over the balls for a delicious festive evening.
Sweet potatoes & black bean tamale is prepared using fried and mashed sweet potatoes and whole black beans. The dish is sprinkled with cumin, pepper, and salt. The tamale is then packed in a banana/corn leaf, layer by layer.
The first layer is corn masa (dough/paste), the second layer is mashed sweet potatoes, and the third layer is black beans. It takes more than an hour to steam the wrapped leaves thoroughly.
Guatemalan Food Facts
- The three main ingredients that Guatemalan people use in food are rice, beans, and corn.
- Spanish and Maya cultures greatly influenced the cuisine.
- Guatemalan food is not as spicy as it may appear, except for kak’ik.
- It’s inexpensive and diverse.
- The Guatemala diet is rich in meat and poultry and makes delicious stews and gravy.
- Chocolate originated in Guatemala.
- Guatemala produces some of the best single-origin coffee bean varieties.
Here’s a Guatemalan food-based guideline to enjoy healthy, hygienic food in the country.
FAQs About Guatemalan Food
Is Guatemalan food spicy?
No. Although misjudged for its red-chili stew and food appearance, Guatemalan food is not spicy. Instead, it’s smoked and has subtle spice characteristics.
Apart from the two nationally recognized dishes, pepian, and kak’ik, the rest of the Guatemalan foods have moderate and delicate flavors.
What not to eat in Guatemala?
While in Guatemala, avoid purchasing and consuming peeled fruits and tap water. If you are not used to spicy food, skip the spicy pepian and kak’ik stew. Other than that, Guatemala is full of diverse and delicious foods.
What’s the most popular dessert in Guatemala?
- Polvorosas: A baked cookie delight with a crisp layer on the outside and powdery goodness on the inside.
- Borracho: It’s also widely known as the drunk cake. For the extravagant taste and drunk muse, this pastry is soaked in rum syrup, milk pudding, and fruits.
All you can drink in Guatemala?
- The Christmas hot milk drink—Ponche with piquete or Bacardi Rum.
- Gallo and Moza beer.
- Quetzalteca Rosa De Jamaica: It’s an inexpensive drink with sweet, robust, and intense notes.
- Zacapa rum.
Wrapping up the 11 Traditional Guatemalan Foods
The streets and restaurants of Guatemala may seem like convenient food opportunities, but the diversity is bewildering. The country is a food hub offering the whole of Central America and bits of Spain.
The morning in the country can still be spent by having a famous United States breakfast with scrambled/boiled eggs, black coffee, spicy salad, taco, and tortillas.
In the afternoons and evenings, you can savor the Mayan and Spanish heritage of kak’ik turkey stew and rellenitos. Guatemala has something to offer at every interval of the day. If you plan to visit Guatemala, Christmas is a great time to experience fantastic food, beverages, and desserts.
Igor Jovanovski is an aspiring digital nomad, travel blogger and graphic designer who really loves food. He also has a creative side, and he works as a freelance graphic designer in his spare time. He has traveled across Europe quite a few times since he was young and recently started his mission to visit every country in the world! Igor’s favorite thing about traveling is the way he gets to know new people, food, places and cultures.
This exciting experience helps him create his own stories and make memories that will last forever