A Delicious Starter Guide to Guatemalan Food

If you want to try the best dishes in Guatemala, this starter guide to Guatemalan food is for you! I compiled a list of the best Guatemalan recipes you must try. From classic tamales to decadent desserts, you’ll find all my favorite Guatemalan dishes. Therefore, if you crave traditional Guatemalan foods, add these delicious recipes to your foodie bucket list!

Ingredients for pepian chicken from Guatemala recipe

Guatemala, The Land of Eternal Spring

Thanks to its tropical rainforests and fantastic weather, Guatemala earned the nickname “El país de la Eterna Primavera.”  You can see its diversity in many ways, and its food is no exception. From slow-cooked stews to tamales and desserts, Guatemalan food is a pleasure to all senses. 

Guatemalan Christmas dinner with tamales

When visiting Guatemala, sampling the delicious local cuisine is a must. The gastronomy is far more flavorsome and complex than in any neighboring country. Of course, I might be a little biased, as it is my hometown. But trust me when I say you don’t know what you are missing!

Ancient Roots: Guatemalan Food and History

To get to know Guatemalan food, you must learn a little about its history. Guatemalan recipes are a blend of Mayan culture with Spanish influence. While the Mayans grew corn as a food source, it became more than just a crop. It was part of their spiritual way of life, playing a huge role in their gastronomy.

Ingredients for making Guatemalan Fiambre

Then, Guatemala was under Spanish rule from 1524 to 1821. Consequently, the ingredients and cooking techniques merged together. Nowadays, Guatemalan dishes are a mixture of the two cultures. For example, classics like empanadas and recado, are some of the legacies of the colonial era. This delicious fusion is part of everyday life in Guatemalan homes today.

Discovering Traditional Guatemalan Food

Guatemalan cuisine is full of life and flavor. So I decided to compile my all-time favorite recipes to prove it! You’ll find traditional Guatemalan food (plus a few must-try street foods) that make Guatemala a unique culinary experience. Thus, to enhance your foodie list, try these Guatemalan dishes that will melt your heart away:

Soups and Stews

Tapado

Guatemala’s Tapado seafood soup is a legacy of history. It is an explosion of flavor, a taste of the Caribbean flavor. Besides, its harmonious mixture of luscious seafood cooked in savory coconut broth and plantains will make your mouth water.

Cocido de Res

El Cocido de Res is the ultimate Guatemalan comfort food. It is a simple beef stew with corn on the cob, carrots, potatoes, pear squash, and acorn squash. You serve this delicious Caldo over white rice, garnished with avocado, and fresh cilantro. And with freshly made tortillas, this beef and vegetable stew tastes like home!

easy slow cooker Guatemalan cocido recipe

Pepián de Pollo

Pepián de pollo, or chicken pepián, is one of the oldest Guatemalan recipes. This chicken stew is rich in flavors and roasted spices. You can make it with chicken, beef, or pork (or a combination of all). You stew the meat in a tomato-based sauce with roasted seeds and peppers. Adding potatoes and carrots, with white rice as a side dish, makes this recipe a complete meal.

Guatemalan pepian chicken stew

Pollo en Jocón

This easy chicken stew is one of the most traditional Guatemalan dishes. Delicious and easy to make, it’s the perfect cold-weather comfort food. It consists of chicken simmered in a sauce made with tomatillos and cilantro. You thicken it with toasted sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, and tortillas.

Chiken Jocon recipe from Guatemala

Hilachas

Hilachas is a traditional Guatemalan dish similar to the Mexican Ropa Vieja recipe. It is a flavorful, shredded beef stew simmered in recado sauce. The brisket shredded into fine strips gives this Guatemalan dish its raggedy consistency. It is one of the most delicious Guatemalan foods you’ll ever taste!

easy hilachas from Guatemala shredded beef stew

Appetizers, Salads, and Snacks

Fish Ceviche(or Seviche)

If you’re looking for a delicious and easy fish recipe, I recommend starting with ceviche. Marinated in lime juice and seasonings, it’s a Guatemalan recipe that requires no cooking. It is a seafood dish similar to a shrimp cocktail. Ketchup, a dash of Worcestershire sauce, and fresh veggies create a tasty appetizer, perfect for a hot day.How to make Guatemalan fish ceviche

Fiambre

The mother of all salads, Fiambre is a dish prepared once a year for the Day of the Dead. It is a traditional Guatemalan cold salad with veggies, cold cuts, cheeses, and a delicious caldillo. There are various kinds of fiambre: white, red, and divorciado (where you serve the ingredients separately, and each person picks what they want).

photo credit: [nelo] via photopin cc
On November 1st, for Day of the Dead (called All Saints Day in Guatemala), families visit the cemetery. They bring flowers, incense, and fiambre to their dead. Nowadays, you share this delicious dish at home in a more private celebration. Each family has its recipe, passed on from generation to generation. It is a traditional Guatemalan dish you must try at least once in a lifetime!

Enchiladas o Jardineras

Guatemalan enchiladas or jardineras are traditional Guatemalan dish that is easy to make. They are simply delicious, made with flavorful ground beef and veggies piled high onto a toasted corn tortilla. Incredible flavors and textures make this a must-try dish, from the crunchiness of the tortilla to the tangy taste of the beet salad!

The best recipe of Guatemalan enchiladas

Tostadas

Tostadas are deep-fried or oven-toasted corn tortillas with different toppings. It creates a delicious concoction of flavors! You typically spread recado salsa, refried black beans, or guacamole. Then, top them off with crumbled cheese, sliced onions, and fresh cilantro. Finally, this crunchy dish is ready, the perfect finger food!

Salpicon de Res

Salpicón de Res (o salpicon de Carne) is a shredded beef salad loaded with citrus flavors. It is full of fresh vegetables and a delicious marinade! It is so versatile you can serve it over crispy tostadas as a tasty appetizer. Or better yet, eat it as a stand-alone main dish with a side of rice!

Guatemalan salpicon de carne

Chilaquilas

Chilaquilas are like a tortilla or güisquil (pear squash) grilled cheese. This Guatemalan staple dish is simply a corn tortilla filled with queso fresco. Then, you soak it in in battered egg, fry, and finally, serve with a recado sauce. They are perfect as a snack! 

chilaquilas Guatemala

Tamalitos de Chipilin

Simple yet delicious, these Tamales de Chipilin are a traditional Guatemalan food you must try! A smaller variation of the larger Guatemalan tamales, they are made from corn dough and chipilin leaves. Chipilín has a distinctly earthy flavor that, when cooked, turns mild and pleasant. Drizzle them with a bit of recado and Mexican crema, with guacamole on the side; Yummy!

Guatemalan tamalitos de chipilin recipe

Shucos

Shuco is a popular Guatemalan street food sold on carts and fairs. It is a Guatemalan-inspired hot dog with delicious toppings. It usually has guacamole, repollo (sauerkraut-style cabbage), and meats (sausages and chorizo are the most common). Add hot sauce, chimichurri sauce, or anything you like. And if you ever visit Guatemala, look for a Shuco cart on the street and try one!

Mains & More

Tamales Colorados

Tamales colorados (red) are considered by many to be Guatemala’s national dish. The authentic tamal colorado is a savory tamale made of corn dough and meat. Then wrap them in large banana leaves and steam them to perfection!

Guatemalan tamal colorado recipe

The “masa” dough comes from dried corn, ground into fine flour, and mixed with water. The filling is chicken or pork, drizzled with savory recado sauce. You typically serve this banana leaf tamale at midnight during Christmas Eve dinners and other Guatemalan festivities like Independence Day.

Chuchitos

Along with the legendary tamales colorado, chuchitos are one of the most popular Guatemalan tamales. They are a small tamal filled with pork or chicken and a tomato-based recado. Serve them with refried black beans and the classic Guatemalan “Pan Frances,” and enjoy!

best Guatemalan Chuchitos recipe

Paches

They are a traditional Guatemalan dish similar to tamales colorados. However, Paches are potato-based dough mixed with bread crumbs to achieve the right consistency. You usually stuff them with meat and recado sauce, then steam them in banana leaves.

Pache Guatemalan potato tamal recip

If you visit Guatemala, you will hear the famous “Jueves de Paches” (Pache Thursdays). It is a popular tradition, a Guatemalan version of “Taco Tuesdays.” But of course, once you try these delicious tamales, you’ll probably end up craving them on Saturdays and Sundays, too!

Chiles Rellenos

A sure crowd-pleaser, this traditional Guatemalan dish is fun to make and delicious to eat! It is made with roasted sweet peppers and stuffed with a mixture of beef and veggies. The peppers are then dipped in beaten egg whites, pan-fried, and topped with a homemade recado sauce. Guatemalans like to eat them inside a tortilla, ending the need for cutlery; Heavenly!

Guatemalan chiles rellenos

Delicious Desserts

Buñuelos

Buñuelos dulces are the quintessential Guatemalan comfort food. They are a traditional Guatemalan dessert served on numerous occasions: from Christmas to baptisms and birthdays. They are balls of fried wheat-based dough, crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. The dough is flavored with anise seeds and fried in hot oil, akin to doughnuts. And finally, soak the buñuelos in a golden syrup made from brown sugar and anise.how to make Guatemalan buñuelos

Rellenitos de Plátano

If you have never tried plantain rellenitos, you might think it is a strange combination: mashed plantains stuffed with black beans. They are a dessert/side-dish combo rolled in sugar and fried till golden. You’ll be surprised at how amazing it is! They’re also popular street food you can eat with your fingers… and it is perfectly fine to lick them afterward!

Rellenitos de platano recipe
Guatemalan rellenitos de platano.

Canillitas de Leche

The classic canillitas de leche is a traditional Guatemalan candy with milk and sugar. Slightly harder on the outside, they are smooth and soft on the inside. Their sweet flavor will leave your taste buds wanting more! they are artisan candies made from scratch using simple ingredients. When you pop them in your mouth, they melt like magic!

Guatemalan canillitas de leche recipe
Group of typical Guatemalan sweets on a light wooden background, with an orange napkin with kitchen containers

Tamalito de Cambray

This delicious Guatemalan tamal is a meatless variation of classic tamales, but with a unique taste and shape. Families usually prepare this traditional Guatemalan dessert solely for special occasions. This sweet tamal is a traditional Guatemalan dessert native to the department of Guatemala. It differs from others by its red coloring and distinctive sweet taste. guatemalan tamal de cambray

Tamal de Elote

A delicious sweet corn tamal perfect as a dessert or treat at any time! Soft, sweet, and fluffy, these meatless tamales have fresh corn kernels instead of corn flour. Brown sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla give it a sweetness, setting it apart from other tamales. The rich taste will have your kids asking for seconds!

Guatemalan tamalitos de elote

Torrejas

If you crave something sweet, Guatemalan torrejas should be at the top of the list. They are sweet bread or brioche soaked in a milk and egg mixture before you fry them in oil. Then, bathe them in golden brown syrup and spices. It is a versatile dessert that doesn’t have an overpowering taste, the perfect ending to any meal!

Torrejas Rudy A. Giron Antiguadailyphoto.com Creative Commons License

Molletes

Guatemalan molletes are similar to torrejas, but the main difference is that you stuff the bread with milky custard. They are a popular holiday dessert, especially for the Day of The Dead festivities. After the tanginess of the traditional fiambre, the sweet taste of the molletes brings the perfect balance to the meal.

Guatemalan Molletes recipe torrejas

Jocotes en Miel

Jocotes en Miel is also a typical dessert for the Day of the Dead celebrations. It not only goes great with Fiambre but with everyday meals! You cook these juicy jocotes (hog plums) in a bubbling sweet syrup and heavenly spices. This deliciously decadent dessert is one you sure need to try!

Guatemalan jocotes en miel recipe

Ayote en Miel

Similar to jocotes, ayotes en miel (or ayote en dulce) is a popular traditional dessert for Día de Todos Los Santos and Lent. It is a delicious squash dipped in a sweet syrup of panela (unrefined cane sugar) and spices. You typically eat this mouthwatering dessert at ferias, or along with Fiambre on November 1st.

Ayote en miel recipe

Empanadas de Piña

The empanadas are a delicious dessert you usually eat during Lent and Holy Week. Similar to hand pies, these empanadas are a great dessert or a sweet snack. This delicious treat has fresh pineapple and sugar wrapped in flaky sweet dough… MMM Good!

Pineapple empanadas

Bocado de Reina

Bocado de Reina (or Queen’s bite), is a traditional Guatemalan recipe that transforms stale bread into a dessert fit for kings! It is a Guatemalan cake made with leftover bread, milk, and cinnamon, similar to bread pudding. This bite-size treat will satisfy any sweet tooth out there!

Bocado de reina Guatemalan bread pudding

Champurradas

Guatemalan champurradas are delicious cookies with just the right level of crunch to dunk in your coffee! It is a Guatemalan recipe perfect for Guatemala’s Independence Day or Hispanic Heritage Month. These traditional Guatemalan cookies feature the creamy taste of butter and the sesame seeds’ nutty flavor.

Best recipe for Guatemalan champurradas

Guatemalan Drinks and Beverages

Atol de Elote

Atol de elote (or atol de maiz) is one of Guatemala’s most famous hot drinks. Atole is a corn-based drink with freshly ground kernels, milk, cinnamon, and sugar. It is a traditional Guatemalan beverage full of comforting flavors! On the whole, you serve it during cold weather months.

Atol de elote recipe Guatemalan traditional drink

What’s more, you’ll find street vendors selling this delicious drink to people on their way to work. It takes the place of coffee since it is more filling. With its thick consistency, it almost counts as a full breakfast. And it is the perfect hot beverage for those late-night walks singing the cantos de posada at Christmas time.

Ponche de Frutas

Guatemalan ponche de frutas, or Christmas fruit punch, is the ultimate holiday drink! Families prepare this traditional Guatemalan recipe with dried fruits, sugar, and spices. It is full of warmth and a fragrant aroma, perfect for those cold winter nights.

Guatemalan ponche de fruitas Christmas fruit punch

Michelada

This list wouldn’t be complete without a cold, refreshing drink. If you’ve never tried a Guatemalan Michelada, you are missing out. This refreshing alcoholic drink has beer, tomato juice (or Clamato), and lime. In my opinion, it is the best way to have a beer, the ultimate thirst quencher on a hot day!

Michelada recipe

Guatemalan Food and Traditions

Food and traditions go hand in hand. Preparing a meal and eating it together with your family provide us with more than just nourishment. It ties us together, connecting us and our roots. Since I live in the US, our traditions and recipes are a blend of the old with the new. So here are a few traditions you should learn if you are traveling to Guatemala:

Easter In the USA And Semana Santa in Guatemala:

Holy Week is a holiday taken quite seriously in Guatemala. Massive wood floats bearing statues of Christ make their way through the streets. As a Guatemalan tradition, families cover the passways with intricate carpets. Besides, we get to eat delicious Guatemalan food made for the occasion.

Happy Independence Day, My Guatemala!:

On September 15th, Guatemala celebrates its independence from Spain in 1821. In the United States, it marks the start of Hispanic Heritage Month. For example, we honor our Latino roots through food and making fun crafts with the kids. What’s more, it is the best time to show how proud we are of our culture that has much passion, warmth, and the best grub!

Day of The Dead Traditions in Guatemala:

All Saints’ Day is one of the most important holidays in Guatemala. It is a time to remember loved ones. Guatemalan traditions include visiting the cemetery and eating amazing Guatemalan food. Plus, the flight of giant kites and a unique horse race make it an exciting time to visit.

Day of the Dead traditions in Guatemala

La Quema del Diablo:

This strange tradition involves burning the devil (usually a piñata), in a bonfire on December 7th. Meanwhile, most people ignite fireworks, sometimes throwing them into the bonfire. Along with the devil, people usually burn rubbish, paper, and other old things. They believed the devil could lurk in places full of old and unwanted items.

Children burning "estrellitas" at the Quema del Diablo. Photo by Pedro Pepió. All Rights Reserved.
Children burning “estrellitas” at the Quema del Diablo celebration in Guatemala’s Hacienda Nueva Country Club. Photo by Pedro Pepió. All Rights Reserved.

Christmas Traditions in Guatemala:

Are you wondering what Christmas is like in Guatemala? Let me tell you that it is full of holiday traditions and delicious food. From las posadas navideñas to mouthwatering tamales, Guatemalan holidays are full of tradition. The holiday season is truly a magical time of year!

Guatemalan nativity scene and other Christmas traditions in Guatemala
Photo: Roberto Urrea on Flickr. Creative Commons.

Sharing El Día de Reyes:

Three Kings Day (Día de Reyes Magos) is a Christian holiday celebrated on January 6th. It commemorates the Three Wise Men bringing gifts to the newborn Jesus. From leaving your shoes out to enjoying Rosca de Reyes, I love sharing this day with my kids.

Baby Jesus in Rosca de Reyes

My most treasured memories include the time spent enjoying our family’s traditions. After all, sharing Guatemalan dishes is my way of keeping those traditions alive. Ultimately, I hope this post helps you connect with your roots or an old recipe your Abuelita made. And this starter guide to traditional Guatemalan food will let you know the best dishes!

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