This article was first published in June 2019, it was last updated in June 2020.
Food in Guatemala is very similar to neighbouring countries like El Salvador or Mexico. It is based on the main ingredient cultivated and eaten centuries ago by the Mesoamerican cultures: corn.
While Mexican food is characterised by the tortillas, and Salvadorian food by the pupusas, the most important Guatemalan food are the tamales, eaten in many variations and with a range of fillings.
Let’s have a look at this extensive list of traditional foods in Guatemala to get you started on your exploration of the cuisine of this important Mayan country.
- History and origins of Guatemalan cuisine
- Best foods in Guatemala
- Staple traditional Guatemalan foods
- Breakfast in Guatemala
- Lunch or dinner in Guatemala
- Guatemalan desserts and sweets
- Guatemalan drinks
History and origins of Guatemalan cuisine
Guatemala’s slogan, as a country and for tourism, revolves around the fact that it is where Mayan culture is most alive. The Mayan population accounts for a large proportion of Guatemalans and traditions have been maintained despite the passing of centuries since the Spanish arrival.
Religious traditions from Catholic origin as well as Mayan intertwine in some parts of the country, even within the walls of churches in places like Chichicastenango. This cultural blending is also apparent in Guatemalan food.
Corn originated in this part of the world centuries ago and has been a popular crop since. From it, you can make a masa, or dough, which is used to prepare pretty much all of Central America’s dishes, from tortillas to tamales and anything in between.
The Spaniards brought some ingredients to Central America on their trips, as they did not like the local cuisine and in particular corn, but ended up adapting to it as the popular crops in Europe did not grow adequately in tropical lands.
Dairy, beef and chicken were added, among others, to the indigenous traditional Guatemalan foods. Cheese, now an ever popular ingredient across Central America, was brought over by the Spanish. The locals had turkeys, but no chicken, and cattle was nonexistent too.
Put all this together and you have the world’s first ever fusion food, in Central America as well as in Macau, where a similar process occurred when the Portuguese brought their traditions and foods, and also those of their colonies, to the Chinese territory.
Something to consider as well in Guatemala is its geographic position with coastal areas both on the Pacific and Caribbean sides as well as high altitude mountains (Antigua lays at 1,500m above sea level) and its volcanic soil which is similar to the landscapes and conditions in El Salvador with volcanoes like Santa Ana and Mexico but unlike other Central American countries.
Like in El Salvador, Guatemala is a coffee growing and exporting country and it also grows cocoa, bananas and sugarcane.
Best foods in Guatemala
While the range of foods in Guatemala is wide and there isn’t a national dish per se, the Ministry of Culture designated four dishes as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Guatemala in 2007 and a fifth was added in 2015.
4. Banana in mole sauce
The first three of the dishes on this list are commonly found in menus across Guatemala. They are hearty and they make for a meal in themselves. The fourth is less common and the last one is a drink that is a bit harder to try.
Let’s have a look at the best Guatemalan foods in detail.
Staple traditional Guatemalan foods
Like in other Central American countries, food in Guatemala revolves around some staple dishes that usually feature in every meal. You can’t sit down to eat and not have tortillas, frijoles or even tamales, it would be like eating in Spain and not having olive oil or bread.
And these traditional Guatemalan foods are usually eaten at breakfast, lunch or dinner, even as snacks, they are that pervasive. So let’s take a look.
Tamales are the most prominent Guatemalan food, not because they are unique to the country, they are in fact very common across Latin America but because in Guatemala they are taken to a whole new level with complex recipes featuring various ingredients.
Tamales can be distinguished by the ingredients used to make the dough that makes the central part of a tamal, by the filling and by what is used to wrap it around with for cooking.
The dough for a tamal in Guatemala can be made using the traditional corn masa but it can also be made with mashed potatoes or rice flour. They are then called paches and traditionally eaten on Thursday.
Corn masa is a very specific base ingredient for many Central American dish and, contrary to what you may think, it is not made by using corn flour mixed with water but with nixtamalized corn.
The process of nixtamalization was used by the ancient Mesoamerican civilisations to tame the corn for human consumption while also ensuring most of its nutrients were preserved.
It is the process where corn ears are first soaked in an alkaline water solution which breaks down the skin of the corn and injects it with calcium. This way, its vitamins and nutrients are boosted and the resulting corn is of much higher value.
The soaked corn is then mixed with water to make a wet dough paste that is used to prepare tortillas, tamales and any other Guatemalan food that uses corn as its base. Although this is the original process still used across the country, it is time consuming and not everyone has the machine to mash the corn, so people use shared facilities like the ones I saw in El Salvador.
Some of the most popular fillings for tamales are chicken and beef with vegetables in corn dough and wrapped in banana leaves. Sweet tamales filled with corn, sugar, nuts and dried fruits are also common.
Tamales can also be made in red/orange with achiote seeds which provide it coloring or black with mole or chocolate.
Tortillas are made using the same corn masa used for tamales only they are flattened out with the hands and then cooked over a comal grill.
A comal is a sort of flat round griddle that is heated with coal or wood and used to make tortillas and other foods that need to be toasted crispy. You can add oil to the surface to ensure nothing gets stuck.
You will see signs on houses and stores across Guatemala that read “Tortillas los tres tiempos”. I was highly curious about this as to me, in Spain, it simply translated to “tortillas three times” and I couldn’t figure out what it meant. Until I asked.
These are individuals and stores that make and sell fresh tortillas at the three meal times, breakfast, lunch and dinner. It is common for people to then warm them up in the oven or pan at home and serve them wrapped in cloth to keep the moisture and warmth.
These signs go to illustrate how important tortillas are in Guatemala and Central America. No meal is complete until you eat the most important Guatemalan food: tortillas.
The other Mayan food that made its way to the 21st century Central America and is an important Guatemalan staple food are the black beans, or frijoles.
Frijoles are eaten on their own, with rice and as an accompaniment to any meal. They are filling and can easily turn a regular meal into a full affair. You will often find them mashed into a puree and served alongside rice or plantains.
Breakfast in Guatemala
Breakfast in Guatemala is a hearty affair but also one which leverages the country’s bountiful gardens with colorful fruits, eggs and the staples of frijoles, tortillas, bananas and cheese. Works for me!
Two types of tamales
So I did not want to repeat items at each of the meal times, which is why I had tamales all on their own, but there are two specific types of tamales that make for great breakfast items in Guatemala.
Tamales colorados are named this way because of their color, red/orange, which comes from the achiote seed, a plant native to Central America used for coloring across countries. Tamales colorados are usually eaten with Guatemalan coffee.
Tamales negros get their name also from their color which is given by the use of mole or chocolate in the masa dough and are preferably eaten with hot chocolate.
Desayuno Chapin, or traditional Guatemalan breakfast
The most traditional breakfast in Guatemala is called Chapin as this is how the locals are amicably called. It also refers to anything from Guatemala so it is a synonym for the word Guatemalan.
Chapin originated in the type of sandals worn by the Guatemalan people in Medieval times and has remained a nickname for the country. I couldn’t help but laugh at a radio ad in Guatemala that was played on repeat as I was driving and which made fun of people who were not authentically chapin.
So on to the specifics. A Chapin breakfast includes scrambled or fried eggs, mashed fried frijoles beans, slices of fresh cheese, fried plantain and warm tortillas. It is all served on a plate and eaten together, the tortillas serve as the vessel on which everything can be placed (as if you were to make a taco) or you can roll them and use them like bread to dip into the egg yolk.
Like in Mexico, Guatemalans also consume generous amounts of pastries and sweet breads in any shape or form, from doughnuts (donas) to bread buns covered in sugar to biscuits, you will find bakeries selling to-go versions of breakfast that complement the local coffee.
Lunch or dinner in Guatemala
Guatemalan meals are informal, more of a social affair than a sit down formal event. People get together at mom and pop restaurants called comedores and share a meal which can consist of several sides and mains.
Most of the food in Guatemala is served with one or several of the main starches, rice, frijoles or tortillas, oftentimes all three are offered, and it is difficult to have any space for dessert after that.
Although tamales are the most loved Guatemalan food, Pepian is informally considered Guatemala’s national dish and is available throughout. It is almost impossible to sit down to eat in Guatemala and not find pepian on the menu. I ate it several times during my time in the country.
Pepian is a hearty stew made with vegetables and meat (chicken, beef or pork, sometimes all three) and thickened with pumpkin seeds, hence its name (pepita = seed). It is usually served with tortillas and rice, because one carb is never enough, and makes a meal in itself.
The type and amount of vegetables included varies by recipe but there will almost always be squash, potatoes, carrots and then some other seeds and nuts. A bit of chilli also adds some heat although pepian is not traditionally very spicy.
Originally pepian was a traditional Mayan ceremonial dish from the Chimaltenango area of Guatemala and it was eaten during celebrations and important occasions.
Kak’ik is another Mayan dish, this time from the Q’eqchi people that lived in the south eastern part of the country.
Traditionally, this Guatemalan dish was prepared for special occasions and ceremonies, hence its red color for the blood, but is today found in menus across the country. The words kak and ik are Q’eqchi for red and spicy.
Kak’ik is made with turkey, tomato, spices, chilli and cilantro and the red color comes from the use of achiote, the coloring seed. Unlike pepian, kak’ik can be quite spicy.
To accompany it, you should get tamales, but can expect a generous serving of tortillas and rice in addition or instead.
More a sauce than a Guatemalan dish in itself, jocon is made with tomatillos, cilantro and sesame seeds and used to pour over any meat, particularly chicken. The ingredients, especially the cilantro, give it a green color similar to pesto sauce.
The most common dish featuring jocon is the chicken version, jocon de carne de gallina, which is the one that has been nominated intangible cultural heritage by the Guatemalan government and the is most common Guatemalan dish made with jocon.
Spanish for small dog (chucho) is the Guatemalan snack version of a tamal traditionally made with corn dough, smaller and firmer than a regular tamal and generally topped with tomato sauce.
This Guatemalan version of a hot dog is a common street food found everywhere because they are easy to prepare and easier to eat.
Shucos are toasted, long, soft bread buns, like the one used for hot dogs, filled with boiled cabbage, guacamole and a meat of your choice, then topped with sauces like mayonnaise, tomato sauce, chilli sauce, mustard, etc.
Shuco is the name of the bread itself so what goes inside really depends on each person which is why it is best to ask what is in it before ordering it.
A staple of the diet in Guatemala as well as in Mexico, these stuffed peppers filled with pork then breaded and deep fried are super delicious. They are usually served with rice and often covered in tomato and onion sauce.
Another Latin American food, ceviche can be found everywhere on the continent and makes for one of the healthiest Guatemalan foods and a break from the stews and corn dishes.
Ceviche is the national dish of Peru, but its origins probably go back to Spain’s Arabic influences which in turn come from their trade with Persia.
The ceviche recipe involves a way of “cooking” fish with citrus juice, lemon mostly, to break down the components of the fish in a similar way as heat without any cooking involved. The word ceviche comes from the word for escabeche, pickling in Spanish, which comes from the Arabic iskebêch.
When the Spaniards brought it to Peru and South America, the vinegar used for the pickling process was replaced with lemon juice which was more commonly available and cheap. That gave birth to ceviche.
Other possible explanations of the dish link to the indigenous population who had a similar dish of raw fish cooked in orange.
Either way, ceviche is a great dish to try in Guatemala and one you should be able to easily find by the coast.
A particularly important dish during All Saints Day (1st November), this salad with lots of ingredients and color is made with cold cuts, hence the name, fiambre, which also means a dead body in Spanish. How interesting right?
You can’t really go wrong with corn on the cob, especially if it is topped with delicious sauces and grated cheese. I guess the word crazy (loco) here is asking you to go crazy with the condiments.
When you buy it you can choose what you want to top it with and it will then be skewered on a stick to take away and eat as you go.
This grilled steak dish that is so typical of many countries is also commonly found in menus across Guatemala. Like in El Salvador, grilled meats are commonly found as they are easy to prepare.
Churrasco is most traditional of Argentinian food where grilled meats and parrillas are the star food. In Guatemala you can expect them served with some sauce and with rice.
Guatemala is home to lots of avocado trees and although the fruit is not as widely eaten as it is in Mexico, the world’s largest producer and exporter of avocados, it makes its way into Guatemalan cuisine in the form of guacamole.
Guacamole is usually eaten as a side dish to accompany anything, from breakfast eggs to tostadas, crispy fried tortillas, and is one of the nicest creamiest side dishes.
Enchiladas or Tostadas
Enchiladas in Guatemala are not like the Mexican version, where they are called tostadas, a crispy fried tortilla topped with anything and everything but usually minced meat, egg, lettuce, curtido and cheese.
The best part is to try to eat them without making a mess, without it all the ingredients fall on you. I tried this while standing at the night food market in Antigua and failed miserably.
The Guatemalan version also includes cabbage, a very popular condiment in the country.
This most traditional Salvadorian food has also made its way into neighbouring Guatemala and can be found for sale in streets and fairs. It makes sense since corn masa is already used for tortillas.
Pupusas were commonly available during the Easter markets in Antigua and while at first I thought they were the result of cross-pollination, they are in fact quite a well established traditional Guatemalan food too.
This shredded beef stew dish translated as shredded thread or as old clothes, is a comfort dish in Guatemala that goes down well on a cooler day.
The beef is shredded and cooked slowly on a primarily tomato based sauce with potatoes until it is soft and tender. Rice and tortillas are usually served with hilachas and the best way to enjoy it is by soaking the rice into the sauce, as if you were eating curry.
When I ordered this at a restaurant near Antigua I was expecting a Spanish flauta, a thin baguette type of sandwich, but instead I got a pair of rolled tortillas, a sort of rolled tacos, because that is what a flauta is in Guatemala.
Even though I know that so many Spanish words don’t mean the same in Spain as they do in Latin America I still occasionally fall for it when I subconsciously assume that something is what it is in my mind. Needless to say, the Guatemalan flauta was equally as good as the one in my head.
The local version of a crispy taco that is perhaps the easiest to find and most economic street food in Guatemala. These larger-than-tacos tortillas are filled with meat and vegetables then fried. They are filling and affordable and make for a good to-go Guatemalan dish.
This creole fish and seafood stew typical from the Caribbean coast of Guatemala is more reminiscent of the South of India or Sri Lanka than of Central America and is a testimony to the country’s influences that came with the slave trade.
Guatemalan desserts and sweets
Guatemala does not have a lot of desserts or sweets, like other Central American countries, and the majority of them are Spanish desserts brought over. But luckily, they picked the best ones!
Platanos en mole
I put this under the dessert section because it is a banana covered in mole, which is made with chocolate, however don’t expect this to be sweet. I was a bit disappointed when I ordered it and then realised it was lacking the sweetness I expected.
The bananas used are more of the plantain type and are not fried, just raw, and the mole sauce, whole made with chocolate, is not sweetened so the combo is rich and creamy but not sweet.
Platanos en mole are rather hard to find in menus but more common from street vendors and from the ladies who make them at home and sell them at fairs and markets. A portion is very filling so make sure to share.
Guatemala teems with fresh fruits and vegetables and the local markets will sell you an explosion of seasonal items all year round.
You can find common fruits such as various types of bananas, pineapples, mangos and guava, and also more exotic and unusual options like the dirty, soily looking zapote (brown outside, bright orange inside), the sweet orange looking jocote common in the Autumn season and also found in El Salvador, and purple caimitos which look like mangosteen inside and out.
The most interesting of all the fruits in Guatemala is the jocote de maranon which is the fruit cashew nuts come from, in fact the nuts are the small branch that holds the fruit to the tree.
These fried mashed plantain balls stuffed with frijoles, chocolate and cinnamon so they have a mildly sweet taste and a mushy texture.
Guatemalan cocoa is grown in the area around Antigua, in the volcanic soils that give the crop this amazing taste, and it has been for centuries, even millennia, which is why the country is considered the birthplace of chocolate.
However, despite its origins, production declined following the expansion of the crop down south by the hands of the Spanish and the competition in other countries (today most of the cocoa beans are grown in Africa) that ensued, cocoa is booming again in Guatemala.
It is thought it was the Olmecs, not the Mayan, who domesticated the cocoa crop, but the Mayans are better known for it and more famous because of their many depictions of the tree, the bean and the drink which was considered a gift from the gods.
In fact, their gods and rulers are known to have drunk chocolate widely and murals and paintings of rulers with a glass in hand are common in Mayan sites.
At the Anthropology Museum in Mexico City, you can see many paintings of the Mayan Emperor Moctezuma drinking cocoa, he was known to love the drink.
I bought some Guatella (the local version of Nutella minus the palm oil plus more peanuts) and chocolate nibs from the ChocoMuseo that were absolutely amazing and much less bitter than the supermarket organic version I buy back home.
This quintessential Spanish egg and dairy dessert is a wonderful end to any Guatemalan meal, or any Central American one I should say since you will find it across the continent.
Flans are made with egg yolks, caramel sauce and milk cooked in a bain-marie. It is as simple as it is pervasive, commonly found on Guatemalan menus.
Pastel tres leches
Another usual suspect in the dessert list in Guatemala, similar to Mexican tres leches cake, pastel tres leches is a popular cake made by soaking a sponge cake in three types of milk then topping it with cream. The cake can be totally delicious and lusciously silky, and it does not necessarily have to be super sweet, depending on how sugary the covering cream is.
Arroz con leche
I love flan and I love pastel tres leches, but one of the desserts in Guatemala I can never resist is arroz con leche, another Spanish recipe that was brought over by the Spanish.
Arroz con leche is literally that, rice cooked in milk, sugar and cinnamon, something so simple yet so tasty.
A sort of biscuit sprinkled with sesame seeds that makes for a great afternoon coffee snack that is not super sweet. This is the Guatemalan answer to cookies.
I love banana bread and it is great that since the fruit is grown in so many countries around the world, the cake that is made with it is also widely available. Banana bread is for sale from street vendors, at bakeries and at cafes and goes great with the local coffee.
There are a lot of local drinks that are typical of the country and which pair perfectly with food in Guatemala.
Atol de elote
Like in other countries where the Aztecs and Mayans inhabited, one of the most prevalent drinks in Guatemala is atol de elote, a drink made by boiling corn masa.
Pinol is the most recently nominated intangible heritage food to be included in the list by the Ministry of Culture. This is a drink made with toasted corn flour and looks similar to atol de elote but it is more commonly drunk cold with ice cubes.
These fruit shakes generally made with water or ice but also possible with milk are the best way to tackle the heat after a day out and about. You can find licuados made from pretty much any fruit in season and sold from street vendors and at restaurants.
Beware. If you are prone to upset stomachs, you are probably better off not trying licuados unless they are from a hotel or a place where you can trace the safety of the water.
Agua de Jamaica
Agua de Jamaica is a tea made from the red hibiscus flower that is common in the Middle East. I used to love drinking it in Sudan, but in Central America, agua de Jamaica is usually served cold, with ice.
Agua de tamarindo
Like agua de Jamaica, agua de tamarindo is a tea made by boiling tamarind in water. It is usually drunk cold and with ice.
Above all other foods and drinks, Guatemala is best known for its coffee, brewed across the world even at Starbucks. Plantations can be found in several parts of the country but are more easily explored from Antigua.
Coffee originated in Ethiopia and plantations started to flourish in Guatemala after the collapse of the indigo exports towards the end of the 19th century when the government pushed to plant the crop, but fell again with the Great Depression.
The dramatic variation of global coffee prices put the country and its farmers at the mercy of markets. Today, Guatemala is the second largest producer of high quality coffee after Colombia and visits to coffee plantations have become a major draw.
No matter where you are in Guatemala, good coffee is never too far. In Antigua, the capital of specialty coffee, you will find many coffee shops with trained baristas telling you all about their coffee, with many a mean latte.
Any breakfast food in Guatemala is best enjoyed with a cup of hot coffee, but coffee is also a valid reason for a break on its own.
Beer is widely drunk in Guatemala and makes for a great companion to the rich Guatemalan food. There are several brands, even a host of small batch micro breweries that compete for attention vis a vis the coffee craze that fills the streets of Antigua.
Of all the beer brands, Gallo is the most commonly available found pretty much on every menu. Produced by Cerveceria Centro Americana, a beer company founded at the end of the 19th century, Gallo is a pretty easy to drink beer.
The same company also produces other brands like Dorada and Cabro.
Quetzalteca is a locally made sugar cane spirit, a bit like rum, but stronger like an aguardiente, drunk neat, the local Guatemalan version of tequila if you like.
The spirit is manufactured by Industrias Licoreras de Guatemala, founded by a group of Spanish migrants at the beginning of the 20th century, and comes with a nice label with a picture of a colorful local Mayan woman wearing the traditional dress.
The same company that makes Quetzalteca also produces Ron Zacapa, a fine line of rums made with sugar cane grown at high altitudes in the volcanic areas of Guatemala. There are several rums produced, white and aged, as well as premixed drinks.
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