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Apr 8, 2010 01:59 PM

Living and eating in Guatemala

This isn’t about eating in restaurants. It is about the every day food.

I just moved to Guatemala with my husband for a few months Although I knew my husband’s family since the 1990’s and have eaten with them many times, I could not figure out exactly what was Guatemalan cuisine.

Web searches were not that helpful.

So I thought I’d write about what I’m eating here so others could get a feel for the every day food. I’ll report weekly or monthly … I’ll see how it goes.

Any recipes I get will be here

Living and eating in Guatemala – recipes

If anyone has Guatemalan recipes, I hope you will add to that thread. I also welcome any food experiences others have had in Guatemala added to this report. If I can find it, there is a great blog with photos of living in a bigger city.

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    It took a few days to clear customs. I’ll write about the Mexican part of our stay elsewhere.

    I’ve traveled a bit … a half dozen European countries and Canada. I worked a year in Mexico City and a few months in Taiwan.

    However, never have I felt so profoundly that I was in a foreign country as when I crossed that border into Guatemala.

    It was like stepping into the past. A good percentage of people were still in native costume. Even the ladies who wore more contemporary clothing, had frilly aprons and baskets balanced on their heads filled with everything from laundry to food.

    In the morning women in native dress balancing straw baskets on their head were selling fruit from those baskets such as bags of cut watermelon, papaya, pineapple and mango. Vendors in red three-wheeled carts (some powered by motorcycles, others bicycles) sold all sorts of food items. It is a bustling entry point with people crowding the streets.

    My border food was fast food because if we got clearance we had to leave NOW. So my first taste of Guatemala was a torta of sorts. It was a soft roll stuffed with chopped hot ham, chopped hot dogs and lots of oozy cheese. It was a good intro.

    That was washed down with a can of Central American Coca Cola, which like Mexican Coke uses cane sugar rather than HFCS. It gives it a more balanced, mellow taste and is not as overly sweet and cloying as Coke in the US.

    Sitting in the truck and continuing to wait, it got dark and my friend bought a Guatemalan-style hamburger. I couldn’t see what I was eating but it was small beef patty with fried egg and maybe bologna. There was also lettuce, tomato and mayo.

    In the morning we had fresh orange juice and a sweet roll with a lardy edge to it. It was sprinkled with sugar. Customs cleared us and we had to leave NOW … NOW!!! My understanding is the agreement to enter the country can sour if one lingers.

    I thought maybe the dress at the border was a tourist show … but no … as the miles passed there were still ladies in native dress or with frilly aprons balancing stuff on their heads. It is usually not a straw basket, but a round black plastic tub. My husband’s family dresses only in contemporary fashion … no frilly aprons or baskets.

    I only saw one guy in traditional Guatemalan clothing. Mainly men wear t-shirts and ¾ length pants or jeans. Everyone wears sandals. The fairly frequent rain bursts during the day would ruin other shoes

    The roads are lined with people selling chicharrons, carnitas, coconut juice in plastic bags, fresh pineapples, mangos, papayas and bags of peeled oranges.

    As in Mexico, there are topos (speed bumps) in towns. They are nasty, unmarked things and you must stop to drive over them. I guess they are a version of a traffic light.

    Vendors stand next to the bumps with all sorts of food, so as you stop for the bump, you can hand some money over and buy a snack … so much more convenient than a drive thru … you don’t need to leave the road. .

    On the way we pulled over to a stand and got carnitas, tortillas, limes and salsa. The big hunk of pork was just ok. My friend said other vendors were better than that.
    The landscape in Guatemala also changes dramatically from Mexico. It is lush and green. The sign at the border reads “Bienvenudos a Guatemala, pais de la eterna primavera” … Welcome to Guatemala, country of eternal spring.

    We passed sugar cane fields which look like marsh grass. Big trucks passed filled with cut cane. It is not green like I saw at SF farmers markets. The trucks looked like they were filled with brown branches or twigs.

    My friend said there was the scent of sugar cane in the air, but it was subtle because I didn’t detect it.

    Next to one cane field was a Pepsi plant. Since I am more of a Pepsi person than a Coke person, I thought “Great … Pepsi with sugar instead of HFCS”

    Mango trees had branches bent under the weight of the fruit, the red and geen fruit like Christmas ornaments at the end of a branch that are too heavy.

    We passed banana plantations and cool, shady rubber tree groves. I know the latter isn’t about food, but they reminded me of maple trees in New England with containers attached to catch the sap.

    I’ll keep these reports about food, but in order to give a sense of place, I’ll briefly describe the town of Escuintla where I’m staying.

    At this point I really can’t describe much. I was truly played out and exhausted by the nine day drive from San Francisco, CA… the extreme heat doesn’t help either to remain awake

    It is a step back in time There was a little… and I mean little … panaderia in town. There’s maybe a largish market, but I’m not sure. Many of the streets are unpaved.

    There are raging floods in the winter (and winter starts soon). The bridge to my husband’s home was washed out … to say that is an understatement. It looks like the apocalypse hit it. It is surreal. It is like something chewed up the bridge and landscape and spit it out. Children in school uniforms climb along the rocky mess on their way home. My stepdaughter said she first saw us there.

    Finally we get back to a cobblestone street with little red taxis (?) traveling along it. They are about a fifth of the size of a VW Beetle and look like they are held together with scotch tape and hope. Other carts, some motorized, peddle food.

    I was told that houses look awful on the outside but once inside they are very nice. I’m glad I was warned because when I saw the place, I wondered what I got into. Once inside it IS very nice and modern … except for the tin roof.

    Those roofs are nice when it rains. I like the sound. Some sort of animal ran across it last night, a scary sound … iguana on a hot tin roof? More likely a cat … seriously … as a group of them were having … well … a cat fight.

    Out back there are about a dozen chickens, ducks and geese. There are no windows, only open spaces in the walls to let the air circulate. So there is always a rather pleasant background sound of clucking and other poultry-related noises … except for the rooster … which even for a rooster has an overly-assertive crow.

    That’s it for the color commentary

    10 Replies
    1. re: rworange


      My husband said I would get bored with Guatemalan food because it is too simple.

      After my first few meals, though I doubt I will get bored, I understood what he meant.

      It is like America in the 50’s … but with tropical ingredients. The family sits down the dinner table for all three meals. There is no TV blaring. They sit, eat and talk.

      My first meal was a dinner of chicken in a soupy red sauce with a bowl of rice to add to it. A stack of thick hot tortillas was wrapped in a towel. There was a pitcher of melon aqua fresca.

      I was exhausted, so I skipped breakfast and just had a bowl of boiled plantains in light syrup which was good … and a cup of coffee … instant Nescafe. What is it about Nescafe that they have such presence in countries outside the US?

      Anyway, I didn’t come to Guatemala to drink instant coffee. First order of business when I get to Guatemala City, a big city near us, is to buy some real beans and a coffee brewer.

      One of my stepdaughters asked if I’d like a sweet bread from one of the street vendors passing by, but I was still more tired than hungry. Later they made me a fresh papaya liquado.

      Lunch was a thin fried steak topped with grilled onions and tomatoes along with a salad of cucumbers dressed in vinegar, sliced tomatoes and a few thinly sliced onions. Hot tortillas and black beans rounded out the meal. There was some sort of red aqua fresca and a bowl of fresh, ripe papaya for dessert.

      Dinner was scrambled eggs with black beans, fried plantains sprinkled with sugar, tortillas, toasted bread with butter like garlic bread without the garlic and aqua fresca.

      I asked if the eggs were from the chickens in back, but my husband said no, the flat on the counter was from a local farm.

      Breakfast this morning was a fried egg topped with crushed tomatoes, black beans with crema pura, or as the squeeze bag says ‘heavy cream’. Why these two lonely English words on the packaging that was otherwise all Spanish …no clue. There were fresh soft rolls, tortillas, orange juice and Nescafe

      Some items, like the beans can be salty. Salt is sprinkled at the end after cooking. The salt itself is saltier, if that makes sense.

      Lunch today was a bit different. There was quilete soup, home made chicken chow mein, horchata and tortillas. Quilete is a brilliant emerald green leaf which was in a clear chicken broth.

      I’m having problems setting up my internet and borrowing the house computer. So can’t spend any time searching info on the web about quilete

      At the end of meals, someone says muchas gracias and everyone picks up their plates and leaves. This morning, though no one said anything, I think I made an etiquette error. Papa eats first and I grabbed a roll first. I’ll leave the woman’s lib in the US for this particular etiquette thing.

      Substitute potatoes (mashed, fried, etc) for beans, white bread for tortillas and lemonade for agua frescas … it is basically American 50’s food.

      Meals are served later in the day. Breakfast is about 9am, lunch at 2:30 and dinner about 8:30. People really do take siestas in the middle of the day due to the intense heat. Today it was so hot that all surfaces in the house, counters, tables and other furniture were not only warm to touch but actually hot.

      As my husband said … the food is simple … but honest, fresh, tasty and good.

      1. re: rworange

        This is great reading. I've always been interested in Guatemala, and you're giving me a good flavor--so to speak--of the place. Thanks. And after you're through with Guatemala, I suppose you wouldn't mind popping over to Paraguay? That is another Latin-American country that interests me. ;)

        1. re: rworange

          Thanks for the interesting food notes! Quilete is a species of amaranth, which is one of the Andean "ancient grains" (along with, e.g., quinoa). Here's a link with a bit of info:

          1. re: Caitlin McGrath

            Thanks for the info.

            I thought of you in Texas when I had some proper biscuits with white gravy

            you were one of the many chowhounds who taught me what to look for in good food and your posts came in handy in texas. I never would have otherwise walked into coopers but an open pit and all that wood required investigating

          2. re: rworange

            First time checking this thread - I have to comment on the coffee - Nescafe - Which is WHAT UP WITH THAT?? Isn't coffee GROWN in South America? I remember having it down there (in Mexico) and I was so shocked! Fer reals? There's gotta be better coffee there and I think you'll find it. I hope.

            1. re: JerryMe

              It seems like everyday drinking is Nescafe. I found this all through Greece, for example. Yes, I am shocked by this in Guatemala. I have not had a decent cup of coffee since I left California. Vera Cruz Mexico had some promising places.

              I am hoping that in Guatemala City I can find some good beans and introduce my Guatemalan family to good Guatemalan coffee ... though in the US my husband hated any quality coffee and treated it like poison. Still ... I have hopes.

              1. re: JerryMe

                I suspect that the boutique coffee craze is rather an American and Western European phenomenon. Your average Jose in Latin America is unlikely to give a dam' if he's drinking Jamaica Blue Mountain or Kenyan dark roast, and he's probably never heard of a mocha frappaccino.

                PS--Guatemala is in Central, not South America.

                1. re: Perilagu Khan

                  I know. I think you may be referring to a little digression about continuing on from Central America to South America

                2. re: JerryMe

                  hmmm ... I may be replying to an old post that reopened when I looked at this thread. I am going to leave this, but it may be redundant. I have the flu ... in this heat ... and I'm too sick to figure it out

                  You have to go to the tourist towns to get good coffee. The good stuff gets exported and is more than the average working man can afford. To put this in perspective, most people here can not afford McDonald's ... and it is not any more expensive thand at the US.

                  What people do ... when and if they must eat out ... is go to the zillion food stands or the restaurants with the meal of the day special wich is at least half the price of McDonald's and comes with soup, an entree, tortillas, rice and an aqua fresca.

                  I am in a small town. I checked out the coffee in the nearest big market that is comparable to a US supermarket. It was mainly instant coffee. There were some bags o beans, but they were three times the price of a jar of Nescafe. which is abut $4 for the large size jar. When you can probably buy a week's groceries with the difference between Nescafe and beans ... guess what the decision will be.

                  Also, people LIKE Nescafe. When we were in the US, my husband always reactied to my artisan coffee like it was poison ... I probably never should have started him on Graffeo dark roast.

              2. re: rworange

                I love your reports, and eating vicariously! Thanks so much for keeping us posted.

              3. Very enjoyable read. You write well. Keep it up!

                1. This is going to be great. I thoroughly enjoyed your reports as you trekked across Texas and will look forward to keeping up with this. Are there going to be pix?

         is a blog I like for Guatemalan food. We have a lot of restaurants here and neighborhood where about a dozen Guatemalan taco trucks hang out but I've never seen anything like the foods on that blog.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: dexmat

                    Thank you. That was the site I referenced in my OP post. I found it a few days before I left so did not read a lot but it is a wealth of info about Guatemalan cuisine with gorgeous photos

                  2. Reading your post was such a pleasure. Thank you for taking the time to write it. I will stay tuned.

                    1. Folks, please keep the focus of this thread on finding great food and drink in Guatemala, posts about general travel in Central and South America or personal anecdotes that do not focus on food are out of scope for this board.


                      1 Reply
                      1. re: The Chowhound Team

                        Thank you Chowhound Team for moving this back to General Topics. Will stay on topic.

                        Had some Granadia juice or passionfrut juice for breakfast this morning. This was the yellow passion fruit which I never tried. I liked it better than the purple version

                        Granadia (or Granadilla) is this the same as passion fruit

                        Food continues along the lines of 50s food and always some variation of beans, rice, tortillas, eggs and white rolls in various shapes.

                        This morning with the passion fruit juice we had Kellogs cornflakes with tiny finger bananas that had a hint of a strawberry taste to them. On the side were two pancakes with artifical maple syrup ... with sugar instead of HFCS ... so even though it was phony it was better.

                        Yesterday was the big market day and they brought back a pound cake like you would get at any Safeway.

                        Some variation was once elbow macaroni mixed with mayo, a little fried steak, guacamole and a really good rabinos (radish) salad with the dice superfine. This was really good and I am going to have to keep my eyes open next time they make it.

                        Lots of the leftovers go to the chickens.

                        I had Pepsi with SUGAR !!! You know, I always said I was a Pepsi person, but I think I prefer Coke with sugar to Pepsi with sugar.

                        All the yelling I hear occasionally is food vendors in trucks. There was a fish vendor yesterday. The family was a bit distressed that these vendors pulling up to the house were not available in the US. Ah for the days when the milkman delived not only milk, but cheese and other dairy items to your doors ... as I said ... very fifties ... down to burning garbage.

                        Unfortunately that is the way trash is disposhed of here. No landfill issues. However, the smokey air can be a turn off.

                        It turns out the family are Evangilists religion wise. Just like the adjectives follow the nouns in Spanish ... grace follows the meal ... so the Muchas Gracias at the end of the meal is thanking God

                        Which gets me to a report I will be writing about a fabulous evangilical service in town ... lots of street vendors and any church that allows you to eat snacks during the service and bring your dog (it was outdoors) gets my vote.

                        Will not write that until I go to Mass tonight and see what chow is available there. Turns out there is more town and shops a half a block away from me ... and a street papas frites vendor.