Customs and Cuisine of Guatemala
By Vinola V. Munyon
What’s in a Name?
The Republic of Guatemala, located in Central America, has neighbors aplenty, located as it is between Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Belize. Sandwiched between Honduras and Belize is the Caribbean Sea, and Guatemala has maritime claims for a short stretch of the Caribbean Sea’s coastline along the Gulf of Honduras. On Guatemala’s Southern border is the Pacific Ocean. Depending on the origin of its name, Guatemala is the “land of forests” and the “place of many trees” (“Quauhtemallan,” Aztec origin), or it is the “mountain of vomiting water” a reference to its many active volcanoes (“Guhatezmalha,” Mayan origin). Guatemala is in fact, both – a land of forests and volcanoes, although rapid deforestation is an ongoing environmental issue the country is facing. Guatemala is one of the countries located along the “ring of fire,” which is a region bordering the Pacific Ocean where 90 percent of the world’s earthquakes and 75 percent of its volcanic eruptions occur.
Guatemala has three regions: the mountainous highlands, the Peten lowlands, and the Pacific coast located south. These three regions are distinct and different in their elevation, landscape and climate. Despite it being in the tropics, the differences in elevation – from sea level to 13,000 feet – mean Guatemala experiences diverse climate and consequently, it has about 14 different ecoregions.
Guatemala’s history as the core of the Mayan civilization and its later life as a colony of Spain is reflected in the ethnic mix of its people. About 56 percent of Guatemalans are “mestizo” (also known locally as Ladino) which translates to Amerindian-Spanish, while 41 percent are Mayan. Other ethnic groups represented are an indigenous, non-Mayan tribe, the Xinxa (1.8 percent) and the Garifuna (mixed African and Caribbean descent, 0.2 percent).
Population estimates for July 2018 are 16.6 million, making Guatemala the most populous country in Central America. Guatemala’s population is skewed young with over half its population (55 percent) being under the age of 24. While Guatemala’s fertility rate has been decreasing it remains the country with the highest fertility rate in Latin America. Its predominantly young population, most of whom are reaching reproductive age, are expected to contribute to further population growth.
Spanish is the official language and is the dominant language in use with about 70 percent of Guatemalans speaking the language. Over 23 indigenous languages, including 21 Mayan languages and two non-Mayan languages, Xinca and Garifuna, have been recognized as languages of Guatemala per the 2003 Law of National Languages, a step taken to address concerns that Mayan and indigenous identity was being lost with Spanish increasingly becoming the lingua franca of the nation. English, French, German, and Chinese are other languages spoken, albeit among a far smaller percentage of Guatemalans.
Christianity is a way of life in Guatemala. While it is no longer assumed that Christian in Guatemala equals Roman Catholic, it remains the dominant denomination with over 48 percent of the population practicing Catholicism. About 38 percent identify as belonging to the Protestant denomination.
The Family Unit
Just a tad over half the population (51 percent) are urban dwelling with settlements mostly concentrated in the south. Of the urban dwellers, nearly half live in the metropolitan confines of Guatemala City, making it one of the most populous and population-dense cities in Central America.
The nuclear family is the dominant prevalent structure, although newly married couples might live temporarily with the in-laws until they secure their own housing. Marriages, be it among the Mayan communities or the Ladino communities, are rarely arranged. Marriages are more commonly love-matches with approval from the elders or an elopement when the match is met with disapproval and elders remain unpersuaded. Monogamy is the norm, although married men having a mistress is not rare. Despite the history of being a predominantly Catholic society, divorce has not been uncommon.
The role of men and women both in the family and the society is based on traditional gender-defined expectations. Women tend to the home and when they work outside the home it is in occupations that are considered “feminine.” However, women who do manage to secure higher education and or become business owners tend to be regarded with respect. Infant and childcare is, among the middle and upper classes, provided by female relatives. Among the less privileged, infant and childcare falls upon the mother and older female siblings.
The status of women and children is as lesser beings than men. In lower economic classes, this can frequently translate to spousal abuse.
The Food of Guatemala
Guatemalan cuisine is an ode to its history, geography and the richness of its natural resources.
History: Guatemala’s history is often seen as consisting of three periods, the Mayan Empire period, the Spanish colonial period, and the Modern Republic period. Corn, maize, and amaranth were staples in Mayan cuisine and that influence is still seen in Guatemala today where nearly every meal incorporates one of the three, with corn predominating, particularly of the blue corn variety. The Spanish influence is seen in dishes such as the ubiquitous tortilla, ceviche, empanadas, enchiladas, tamales, etc. – all dishes that are found in kitchens in Spain but with some differences in ingredients, preparation, and presentation. In the modern Republic period, there have been the entrance of Chinese food and western fast food influences, although these are confined to the urban areas.
Geography and Natural resources: The almost year-round temperate climate that Guatemala enjoys, the region’s highly fertile volcanic soil, and copious precipitation have guaranteed a cornucopia of vegetables, fruits, spices, and grains. Avocados (the Haas avocado), cacao beans that yields some of the world’s best quality chocolate, and coffee beans have been cultivated in Guatemala long before they became popular the world over. Mayans are rumored to have called chocolate “the food of the Gods,” and the cocoa bean is used as an ingredient not just in making chocolate but in savory (mole sauce) and sweet dishes (rellenitos). Criollo is the finest grade of chocolate and it is readily available in Guatemala. Traditional Guatemalan hot chocolate (Caldo chocolate) is made with pressed chocolate tablets that crumble when heated, cooked in whole milk and cinnamon. Befitting the claim that Guatemala is the birthplace of chocolate there is a Chocolate Museum in Antigua.
Consequently, perhaps of the wide variety of ingredients available, dishes in Guatemalan cuisine are elaborate in terms of ingredients used, method of preparation, and time taken. Conversely, despite how involved most dishes tend to be, very little equipment is used in traditional Guatemalan kitchens. There is the prevailing belief that food is best prepared with one’s hands.
Tourism is a major economic sector and a significant source of income in Guatemala today, and a large part of the influx of tourists has been attributed to the food scene. While there isn’t an official Guatemalan National dish, in 2007, The Guatemalan Ministry of Culture designated a few dishes as “cultural heritage” of Guatemala: pepián, kak’ik, platanos en mole, pinol, and jocon.
Pepián is a rich, spicy stew made with chicken, beef or pork. The base of the stew is made from a paste of ground pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds. The stew could be red or green based on whether tomatoes/tomatillos are used and the specific combination of chilies. (Recipe for red Pepián by former DFW recipe curator Linda McElroy https://diningforwomen.org/recipes/guatemalan-red-chicken-pepian-pepian-spice-mix/)
Kak’ik is a turkey meat stew braised with puréed tomatoes, onions, tomatillos, coriander, annatto, and lots of garlic. It is served with rice or tortillas, chile paste (to customize to one’s level of heat), and avocado slices.
Platanos en Mole (Plantains in mole sauce) is a traditional dessert purportedly conceived in the royal kitchens. Platanos en mole are fried slices of banana served in decadent mole sauce (chocolate, tomato spiced sauce).
Jocón or pollo en jocón is a chicken stew in a green sauce. The sauce is made with tomatillos and cilantro and thickened with ground sesame, pumpkin seeds, and corn tortillas that have been soaked in water.
Empanadas, Tamales, Enchiladas, etc. are Guatemalan dishes that sound like Mexican/El Salvadoran dishes but are often distinctly different despite bearing the same name. The Guatemalan empanadas are filled with achiote paste, creamy milk custard and then baked. Guatemalans maintain that there are more varieties of tamales in Guatemala than in Mexico. Some of the popular kinds of tamales in Guatemala are pache – a meat, potato and three chiles tamale, cheese tamales, or a mix of corn dough and red-colored sausage made with tomatoes and annatto. Some family recipes add izote flowers, loroco, raisins, olives, or sweet pepper to the tamale filling. Guatemalan tamales are wrapped in banana leaves instead of corn husks. Depending on the holiday, the type of drink that is served as an accompaniment varies. At Christmas time, the tradition is to serve tamales with fruit punch, while at the New Year they are served with rum.
The Guatemalan Way of Life
Food is a way of life in Guatemala, as is tradition, and there is immense pride in both. Food is tied to cultural celebrations, with specific dishes being made for specific holidays. For instance, Fiambre is prepared for Day of the Dead and All Saints Day. A salad that could contain up to fifty (yes, 50!) ingredients (cold cuts, cheese and beets dominate), Fiambre recipes are unique to each family. Members of a family gather and prepare Fiambre well in advance of the actual day.
Guatemalans, the ones who are financially able (about half of Guatemala’s population falls under the poverty line), eat three meals a day with lunch being the heaviest. A typical breakfast is refried black beans, fried plantain, eggs/chorizo, sauce, and tortilla. Avena, an oat porridge sweetened with honey and flavored with cinnamon, is also common for breakfast. “Refacción,” a midafternoon snack is a popular “meal” and consists of a pastry and coffee. Guatemalans drink their coffee light and creamy.
While half of Guatemalans are urban dwelling, there are few big urban centers in Guatemala. Much of the urban population is concentrated in just one city, the capital city, Guatemala City. Life in urban Guatemala is much like life in an urban area in a different part of the world, marked by traffic congestion and crowding and fast-paced. Life in the mountainous regions of Guatemala is a throwback to earlier times, simpler times. Men and women still dress in traditional garb, women in huipil (blouse) and cortes (skirts) that have colors and patterns specific to their clan. Men gather firewood, as the higher elevations translate to colder temperatures. Agriculture is the primary industry in the mountainous regions due to the prevalence of fertile volcanic soil. Life in the villages of Guatemala, however, is challenging. Infrastructure is lacking, access to healthcare and education is minimal, and poverty is widespread.
Being Guatemalan “ser Chapín” is to take whatever life has to offer and make the most of it. It is in the easy, unhurried way that Guatemalans like to get to know people and the overall kind and polite disposition they exhibit – then there is family, the ties that bind, and bind tight for Guatemalans.
View Recipes from Guatemala