Eating and drinking in Guatemala
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Guatemalan food is filling, good value, and can be very flavoursome. The cuisine has evolved from Maya, Latin American and Western traditions – though they usually overlap now to form what Guatemalans call comida típica. Popular tourist centres tend to have more varied menus and plenty of choice for vegetarians, and in Antigua and Lago de Atitlán you can feast on a wide selection of global dishes.
In places orientated more to a Guatemalan clientele, you’re likely to be offered a lot of simply prepared grilled or fried meat dishes and have much less choice. Off the beaten path the diet can get pretty monotonous, with things revolving around the “three-card trick” of eggs, beans and tortillas for breakfast, lunch and dinner. You’ll find that the concept of healthy eating has yet to really penetrate Central America, and a lot of local food tends to be full fat by definition.
Unless you’re in a tourist-orientated place, your choice is usually between a restaurant and a comedor. The latter is like a traditional American diner or an old-school British café; in general, they are simple, often scruffy-looking local eateries serving big portions of food at inexpensive prices (a full meal for about US$2.50–3). In a comedor there is often no menu, and you simply ask what’s on offer, or look into the bubbling pots. Restaurants are slightly more formal and expensive and only found in large towns.
Many locals prefer to eat from street food stalls, which sell the food of the poor at rock-bottom prices; they’re usually clustered around the marketplace.
You’ll find fast-food joints in towns and on highways. Pollo Campero is a KFC-style Guatemalan-owned fried chicken chain. While on the road, you’ll also come across the local version of fast food: vendors offering a huge selection of drinks, sweets, local specialities and even complete meals. Treat this kind of food with a degree of caution, bearing in mind the potential lack of hygiene.
In every main tourist centre you’ll also find gringo-geared café-restaurants, often foreign-owned places with cosmopolitan menus featuring sandwiches, curries, stir-fries and the like, and plenty of vegetarian options. There’s usually wine by the glass, cappuccinos and lattes, and fresh fruit shakes. Such indulgence does come at a price.
Traditionally, Guatemalans eat a substantial breakfast of tortillas, eggs and beans, sometimes with sour cream or fried plantains. Eggs can be served up a myriad of different ways (see Guatemalan cuisine), using some superb, often spicy sauces. Pancakes (panqueques) are also common, but can be disappointing as they’re often made from a mix out of a packet.
Up in the highlands, breakfast often includes a plate of mosh, which is made with milk and oats and tastes like porridge – it’s the ideal antidote to the early morning chill.
In touristy towns things get a lot more eclectic, with all sorts of granola and muesli options available, with fresh fruit, honey and yoghurt. The bread in these places is often freshly baked.
Lunch is the main meal of the day, and this is the best time to fill up as restaurants and comedores offer a comida corrida, or menú ejecútivo: a set two- or three-course meal (usually soup and grilled meat) that costs about US$2–3 and includes a drink.
Guatemalan cuisine does not vary that much regionally (except on the Caribbean coast) though some areas have famous local dishes (see Health). Vegetarians are rarely catered for specifically, except in tourist-geared restaurants. It is, however, fairly easy to get by eating plenty of beans and eggs (which are always on the menu) and often some guacamole.
In touristy towns, there’s a wealth of choice with everything from panini and wraps with imported cheese to sushi and noodles.
Guatemalans are fond of their street food refracciones (snacks), these include tostadas and tamales, steamed cornmeal stuffed with chicken or another bit of meat.
For a quick bite, many locals opt for a shuco (literally a “dirty”, a food cart that sells Guatemalan-style hot dogs), which is a bread bun filled with a sausage (or chorizo) and guacamole for US$0.75. Taco stands (often priced at three for Q10 (US$1.30) are also very widespread.
Cakes and pastries are widely available, but tend to be pretty dull and dry.
For Guatemalans, dinner (taken 7–9pm) is a light meal. Mexican-style dishes, including tacos and enchiladas are popular. In the tourist hot-spots, particularly Antigua, there’s a tremendous choice of restaurants, serving cuisine from around the world, with Italian, Japanese, Indian, North American and of course Guatemalan and Mexican food available.
Most meals in Guatemala traditionally revolve around the basic staples of beans and maize, though diets are changing due to increased exposure to international cuisine.
Beans (frijoles) are usually served in two ways: volteados (boiled, mashed, and then refried) or parados (served whole with a little onion and garlic).
Maize is the other essential, a food that for the Maya is almost as nourishing spiritually as it is physically – in Maya legend, humankind was originally formed from maize. It appears most commonly as a corn tortilla, which is similar to a wrap. Maize is traditionally ground by hand and shaped by clapping it between two hands, a method still in widespread use; the tortilla is then cooked on a comal, a flat pan of clay placed over the fire. Guatemalan tortillas should be eaten while warm, usually brought to the table wrapped in cloth. Fresh tortillas have a lovely pliable texture, with a delicate, slightly smoky taste. Maize is also used to make a number of traditional snacks (see Dishes and specialities). Squash (güisquíl) is the main Maya vegetable, often used in dishes along with meat, tomato and onion; pacaya, a rather stodgy local vegetable, is another.
Chillies are an essential ingredient of the Guatemalan diet (especially for the Q’ek’chi Maya), usually served as a spicy sauce (salsa picante), or sometimes placed raw or pickled in the middle of the table.
Nomenclature is confusing – cornmeal wrapped inside banana leaves or corn husks and steamed could take any number of names depending upon flavourings, and these change from region to region. Plain steamed cornmeal is a tamal blanco; stuff it with meat and tomato salsa, however, and it becomes either a chuchito or a tamale. If blended with potato, it’s a pache – these are common in the Xela area. Up in the Ixil, and around Rabinal, look out for boxboles, cornmeal flavoured with spices, almond and a pinch of chilli, and cooked inside a pumpkin leaf. Mixed with frijoles, a tamal is a bollo, tayuyo or tamalito de frijol. When sweet, it’s a camallito de cambray (with anise) or an elote. Keep an eye out for a red lantern outside a house – this indicates the family has fresh tamales for sale.
The corn tortilla can also be prepared in a myriad of ways. Fried and topped (typically with guacamole and some salty cheese), it’s a tostada, while rolled or folded around a filling – meat-and-cheese is always popular – it may be a taco, enchilada or doblada. Usually a salsa, based on a blend of ripe tomato and miltomates (green tomatoes), is served with these dishes. A pupusa (called a baleada in Honduras) is a fresh tortilla stuffed with anything, but usually including refried beans, repollo (pickled shredded cabbage leaves) and cheese.
Encasing food in an egg batter and frying it either envueltos (“wrapped”) or frituras (“fritter style”) is another popular cooking style. Chiles rellenos, peppers stuffed with vegetables and meat, are especially delicious. Simpler, often vegetarian variations abound using green bean or cauliflower, but look out for those made with güisquíl (squash), flor de izote (the slightly bitter petals of a palm) or bledo, a leaf similar in flavour to spinach.
Salads are often simple, though several variations are well worth trying, including piloyada, a hearty affair based on plump red beans with eggs, tomatoes and meat; iguaxte, cooked potato or vegetables flavoured with a distinct paste of pumpkin seeds, dried chillies and sometimes tomato; and chojín, which is radish-based and often made with cheese and either pork or pork crackling (chicharrón). Fiambre, a vast salad of pickled vegetables with cured sausage (mixed with beetroot in central Guatemala and often barley in the Quetzaltenango area) is perhaps the country’s most celebrated dish; it’s eaten on All Saints’ Day around a family grave in the cemetery.
Many traditional dishes are chunky soups or subtly spiced tomato-based stews (caldos, cocidos or sopas). Spicy pepián sauce is made throughout the country and usually incorporates chicken and vegetables, but occasionally chocolate. The more lightly spiced pulique is flavoured with coriander and capsicum. Suban-ik, which hails from Chimaltenango, is a tasty dish with chicken and pork, while Cobán’s kak-ik is a turkey broth with coriander and mint.
Most large towns have a place that specializes in ceviche (raw fish marinated in lime juice), and on the coast it’s customary to order fried fish or camarones (shrimps), and wash it down with Gallo beer.
Sweets, snacks and desserts tend to be very sweet. Rellenitos – cooked, mashed plantain, stuffed with sweetened beans and fried – are widely available, as is mole de plátano, which is plantain served in a sweet, spiced cocoa-flavoured sauce. Vegetables – for example, sweet potato, pumpkin or chayote – may be simmered in sugar syrups until they are caramelized or stuffed with a sweet mixture. Cake making is generally a specialized business, but pastel borracho is one that is soaked in rum syrup before being iced, while pastel de elote is made with corn.
To start off the day most Guatemalans drink a cup of hot coffee or tea (both are usually taken with plenty of sugar). Espresso machines are becoming much more widespread in Guatemala and you’ll be able to get a cappuccino in most towns. Out in the sticks it’s usually instant coffee with powdered milk. Atol, a warm, sweet drink made with either maize, rice (or even plantain) and sugar is also very popular, especially in the highlands.
At other times of day, soft drinks are usually drunk with meals. Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Sprite and Fanta (all called aguas) are common, as are refrescos, thirst-quenching water-based drinks with a little fruit flavour added; rosa de jamaica and tamarindo are two of the more unusual variants. In many places, you can also get a licuado, a delicious, thick, fruit-based drink with either milk or water added (milk is safer).
Tap water in the main towns is purified, and you can usually taste the chlorine. However, this doesn’t mean that it won’t give you stomach trouble – stick to bottled water, agua pura (see What about the water?).
Gallo, a medium-strength lager, is the most popular beer in Guatemala, indeed many Guatemalan men consider it the national drink, and the brewer promotes it as “Nuestra Cerveza” (our beer). Unfortunately it’s a pretty bland brew. The main competitor, Brahma, a Brazilian beer, is a little more interesting with a slightly spicy finish. Moza, a dark brew with a slight caramel flavour, is worth trying but rarely available. Other hard-to-come-by brands (all lagers) include the premium beer Montecarlo, Dorada Draft and Cabro. Imported brands are scarce. A 33cl bottle of beer costs about US$1.50–2.75 in a bar, but watch out for litre bottles (around US$3.50), which work out to be very good value.
As for spirits, rum (ron) and aguardiente, a clear and lethal sugarcane spirit, are very popular and cheap. Ron Botran Añejo is a half-decent rum (around US$6 a bottle), while the fabulously smooth Ron Zacapa Centenario (around US$40 a bottle) is one of the world’s best; indeed, it regularly wins international prizes.
Hard drinkers will soon get to know Quetzalteca and Venado, two readily available aguardientes that fire up many a fiesta. If you’re after a real bargain, then try locally brewed alcohol (chicha), which is practically given away. Its main ingredient can be anything: apple, cherry, sugarcane, peach, apricot and quince are just some of the more common varieties.
Chilean and Argentinean wines are now quite widely available anywhere where tourists gather. A glass of red or white house wine is usually around US$3 in most cafés or restaurants; bottles start at US$10 (or US$6 if purchased in a supermarket).