Mayan and Spanish cultures have heavily influenced traditional Guatemalan foods and drinks. It has also received significant influence from the Caribbean, African, Chinese, and American cultures.
Currently, the vegetarian movement has also exerted some influence as well.
Food items such as pork, rice, beef, cheese, chilies, corn, tortillas, and beans are the primary ingredients of traditional Guatemalan cuisine. Certain Guatemalan foods are commonly eaten on specific days of the week. For instance, patches (Tamales) are typically consumed on Thursdays.
This article explores seven of the famous traditional dishes from Guatemala, their history, main ingredients, and how they are prepared.
Read on to learn more about these interesting Guatemalan food.
Guatemala doesn’t have a national dish, and pepian has almost taken that crown. It is among the oldest dishes in the country that combined the Mayan and the Spanish cultures in its preparation.
The chicken is the main ingredient, but pork and beef can be used.
All the variants will have vegetables and fruits such as carrots, squash, pear, corn, and potatoes. They feature a rich mix of spices. Pepian is typically served with tortillas and rice.
Pepian is Guatemala’s cultural cornerstone, and the country’s passion for the dish is so intense that the government declared pepian a national heritage in 2007.
The dish is a thick spicy stew with a deep red sauce. Although it’s spicy, it’s not tongue-numbing, and it’s savored by the citizens from all walks of life.
It is believed that pepian originated from the ethnic community known as the Maya-Kaqchikel that occupied the western part of the Chimaltenango long before the Europeans arrived in Central America.
It was popular in political and religious ceremonies. At the time, the dish was made from Pepitoria, tomatoes, and chilies.
In the subsequent years, the recipe incorporated ingredients originating from Europe. However, Pepitoria has remained the main component.
Spanish conquistadors brought sesame, coriander, cinnamon, and onions, which were incorporated in preparing pepian.
According to the Antiguena Spanish Academy, the following are ingredients required to prepare pepian dishes enough for four people.
- 4lbs (1.8kgs) of beef or five big chicken breasts
- Two onions or quartered onion
- Cinnamon stick
- 3 cloves of garlic
- 6 black peppercorns
- 1 tablespoon of coriander seeds
- 1 tablespoon of allspice berries
- 1 tablespoon of chili flakes
- 1 tablespoon of Pepitoria (pumpkin seeds)
- Dried oregano
- 1 tablespoon of oil
- 8 tomatoes or 500g of plum tomatoes
- 1 tablespoon of coriander seeds
- 2 peeled large potatoes cut into small pieces
- 1 tablespoon of cornflour
- Coriander leaves
- Chicken stock
Kak’ik is one of the popular dishes in Guatemala, and it’s another contender of the country’s national dish. Like pepian, Kak’ik was named in 2007 as one of Guatemala’s intangible heritage by the ministry of culture and sports.
It is a traditional turkey soup made with several spices. The word –ik in the meal’s name translates to spicy in Q’eqchi’ ethnic communities—who are associated with the dish.
Some of the popular spices used in the preparation of Kak’ik include chilies, achiote, and coriander.
Traditionally, Kak’ik was served together with rice and tamales steamed in banana leaves. The dish is garnished with chopped mint leaves before it’s served.
Kak’ik is an essential part of the Mayan cultural heritage that can be traced to the Q’eqchi’ ethnic community, who still prepare Kak’ik the same way they did thousands of years ago.
Q’eqchi’ live mainly in the central part Guatemala occupying mostly the highlands and lowland plains. They occupied the region that is now Baja Verapaz and Alta Verapaz.
The stew is prepared using turkey leg as the primary ingredient, and it’s so popular in Cobán, the capital of Alta Verapaz. Kak’ik can be found in almost all the restaurants in the region.
Traditionally, women prepared Kak’ik using native turkey, tomatoes, cilantro, achiote, and chilies. Achiote is a spice from a bright red plant and sometimes known as a lipstick tree.
According to Saveur, the following are ingredients that can prepare Kak’ik stew enough for six people.
- 3 turkey breasts cut into small pieces
- 8 cups of chicken stock
- 8 cloves of garlic
- 3 tomatoes
- 2 tomatillos or husk tomatoes
- 2 diced white onions
- 2 red chopped peppers
- 1 minced and dried guajillo chile
- 1 minced and dried pasilla chile
- 1-2 tablespoon of chipotle peppers
- ½ cup of water
- 1 tablespoon of achiote paste for seasoning
- 6 corn tortillas
- ⅓ cup of fresh cilantro
- ⅓ cup of mint
Tamales are a traditional Guatemalan meal, and they’re flavorful mixes of meat, dough, and other traditional sauces steamed in large leaves.
The dough is known as “masa,” and it refers to dried corn that has been ground into fine flour and mixed with water.
The type of corn used is not the typical sweet yellow corn common in the US, but rather a savory of non-sweet corn known as maize.
Types of Tamales
There are many variants of tamales found in different parts of Guatemala.
The main differences are found in leaves used in steaming, the size of Tamala, flavors of savory or sweet, and the ingredients used in making dough (masa).
Masa used in Tamales could be prepared using rice, potatoes, or corn. Savory tamales are typically made from meat and sauces, while sweet tamales have ingredients such as sugar, nuts, and fruits.
The traditional tamales were prepared by wrapping with banana leaves, but there are other variants prepared using corn husks to wrap them.
The popular types of tamales in Guatemala include Tamale Colorado, Tamale Chuchitos, Tamale Negro, and Tamale Tomalitos.
Tamale Colorado is the most popular in the country and is typically taken on Saturdays. Vendors would place a red flag outside the store to signal fresh Colorado tamales on sale.
Here are the popular types of tamales in Guatemala:
- Tamale Colorado, also known as red tamale, has a savory red sauce and contains beef, pork, or chicken alongside green olives.
- Tamale Negro is typically popular during Christmas time, and they are prepared with sweet mole sauce and chicken, turkey, or pork and raisins.
- Tamale Chuchitos refer to tamales prepared wrapped with corn husks. They have thicker masa, and they are filled with chicken and tomato sauce. These types of tamales are popular in the streets and are commonly smaller compared to other tamales.
- Tamale Tomalitos are smaller and used to accompany other meals. They’re used in place of bread and usually dipped into salsas or soups.
The history of tamales was part of the Mayan diet that can be traced back to about 7000 BC.
The Aztec women in the pre-Columbian era used to prepare tamales for the warriors.
They could be prepared ahead of time, and they were portable and sustainable food. It was packed and warmed as needed.
Initially, tamales were prepared by burying them in hot ashes that turned them to crispy with golden color.
Over several centuries the Aztecs introduced different methods of cooking as they interacted with the Spanish conquistadors. It was during this period that steaming, underground pits, or pots were used in cooking tamales.
During steaming, the tamales stick to the pot’s bottom, and they were believed to be a sign of good luck that would protect them from any danger or on the battlefield.
The Spanish also introduced new flavors and spices that were used in preparing tamales found today in Guatemala.
Over the long history, tamales have changed in shape, color, size, and filling depending mainly on resources available and region.
Similarly, fillings and wrappings have also changed over time, and leaves, soft tree parks, and cornhusks have all been used throughout history. Today tamales are filled with beef, pork, chicken, cheese, green chiles, and vegetables.
Hilacha is one of the famous traditional Guatemalan dishes.
The word hilacha translates to “rags.” It is also common in other countries in Central and South America.
In other countries, south of the US, it’s referred to as “Ropa Vieja,” which also translates to “old clothes.”
Hilacha is prepared using meat that shreds quickly like the flank or steak, and it’s simmered in a mildly spicy tomatillo (Tomato sauce).
In other places in Guatemala, hilachas are made by adding potatoes, while Chayote squash is added in other places.
Other regions add carrots, and others add all the three. Hilachas are served with rice or beans.
The stew is popular among the citizens and typically has a red color. It’s believed that it tastes even better when it’s reheated the following day.
According to food.com, the following are ingredients required to prepare a hilacha meal enough for 6-8 people and may take up to 3 hours and 20 minutes from the start to completion.
- 2 lbs. (0.9kgs) of beef, skirt steak, or flank
- 5 cups of water
- 1 cup of sliced onions
- 1 cup of sliced tomatoes or canned tomatoes
- 1 cup of sliced tomatillos or canned
- (Variation; add 2 teaspoon achiote for seasoning to the tomato-onion puree for additional flavor)
- 1-2 cloves of garlic
- 2-3 tablespoons of oil
- 2-3 Guajillo chiles that have been warmed over the flame and chopped. You can use pasillas or anchos instead of guajillo. Another substitute is 1tablespoon of paprika and ¼ teaspoon of cayenne pepper.
- Pepper and salt
- 1 pound (0.5kgs) of peeled and chopped potatoes
- 2-3 carrots
- ½ a cup of breadcrumbs
- 1 bunch of chopped cilantro
Preparation of Hilachas
Here’s how to prepare hilachas:
- Using a large saucepan and medium heat, put water, beef, salt, and boil on. Then diminish heat and simmer for 60- 90 minutes or till the meat is tender.
- Remove beef and set aside the broth to cool. Shred the beef with your fingers when it’s cool enough to handle.
- Place chilies, tomatillos, and tomatoes in a blender to make a puree, and add a little water if necessary.
- Using medium heat on a large pot, heat the oil. Add the tomato-onion puree and simmer until it turns slightly dark. It may take about 10 minutes and ensure it does not burn.
- Take 3 cups of the broth and your shredded beef and add them to the tomato-onion puree and season with pepper and salt. Then simmer for about 15 minutes.
- Add potatoes, carrots, onions, and some more broth or water if necessary. Continue to simmer for 15-20 minutes until carrots and potatoes are well cooked.
- Add breadcrumbs and stir to thicken the sauce.
- Add the chopped cilantro and stir for a few minutes.
- Adjust seasoning if necessary, and serve while hot together with rice or corn tortillas.
The alternative ingredients are listed below.
- You can choose to use 1 or 2 pieces of shredded corn tortillas instead of the breadcrumbs to thicken your sauce. Alternatively, if your sauce has thickened enough when simmering, the thickeners may not be necessary.
- You can choose to season your tomato-onion puree using two teaspoons of achiote for an added flavor.
- Carrots and potatoes may be eliminated if you prefer.
- Using canned tomatillos instead of tomatoes will work fine in preparation for your hilacha.
- If you want to eliminate tomatillos, you can use 2 cups of chopped tomatoes.
- Instead of using guajillo chiles, you can substitute with pasillas or anchos. Alternatively, you can use ¼ teaspoon of cayenne pepper or 1 tablespoon of paprika.
Empanadas refer to Guatemala’s specialty dessert, and they’re a favorite during Semana Santa, which is a week leading to Easter.
The dough used in making empanadas is made using the finest flour.
The filling is vanilla and cinnamon flavored pastry confection known as major de Leche. Manjar de Leche is also a popular dessert and can be used to fill other pastries.
Torrejas is a version of French toast common during the Christmas season in Guatemala and is typically filled with major de Leche.
The name empanada is derived from the word empanar, which means to coat or wrap in bread.
It is made by folding bread or dough around the stuffing that could be vegetables, meats, or fruits.
It’s believed empanadas originate from Galicia in Spain and Portugal, and may have first appeared in Iberia at the time of Moorish invasion.
In 1520, a cookbook published in Catalan mentioned empanadas filled with seafood among the Catalan, Arabian, French, and Italian food recipes.
It’s believed that empanadas and their closely similar calzones were derived from the Arabic meat-filled pies, popularly known as Samosas.
In Portugal and Galicia, empanadas are prepared like large pies cut into pieces making them a hearty and portable meal.
The Portuguese and the Galician empanada filling include sardines, tuna, and chorizo, and could contain pork loin or codfish.
Typically, the fish or meat is served with a garlic, tomato, and onion sauce inside a pastry or bread casing.
The Spanish colonists took the dish to Latin America and other regions, and they have remained popular to this day.
Besides, many people trace their ancestry to the Galician immigrants in Latin America.
According to The Spruce Eats, to prepare Guatemalan empanadas enough for 24 servings would take about 75 minutes to prepare and about 15 minutes to cook.
You will require the following ingredients:
- 1½ cups of fine cornmeal or cornflour
- 1½ cups of all-purpose flour
- ⅔ cups of sugar
- ½ teaspoon of salt
- ½ teaspoon of baking powder
- ½ teaspoon of baking soda
- About 2 sticks of butter (8 ounces/227 grams)
- 3 eggs
- Optional: 1 teaspoon of annatto powder or red food coloring
- ¼ cup of sugar
- 1¼ cup of whole milk
- 1 tablespoon of butter
- 2 tablespoon of cornstarch
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon of vanilla
- ½ teaspoon of cinnamon powder
- Optional: ¼ cup of raisins
- ¼ cup of icing sugar
Making Your Empanadas
Here’s the procedure on how to make empanadas:
- Using a large bowl, mix cornmeal, flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and sugar together. Cut butter into pieces of about 0.5 in (1.3 cm) and add into the mixed ingredients. Mix well, and you can use a food processor until they’re crumbly.
- Using a bowl, add 1 tablespoon of water and mix with annatto powder or red food coloring. Add eggs and mix well.
- Take the egg mixture and add it to your crumbly mixture. Mix them until it forms a shady dough. Knead the mixture to achieve a smooth dough that’s cohesive and not too sticky.
- Using plastic, wrap your dough and place it in a refrigerator for 1hour.
- Use a medium bowl to mix cornstarch and 1 cup of milk. Add salt and the egg and mix well, then set aside.
- Using a saucepan, put 1tablespoon of butter, ¼ cup of milk, and sugar, then simmer.
- Once sugar is dissolved in the simmering mixture, whisk the cornstarch/milk mixture into the saucepan and keep stirring until it thickens. Keep stirring for about 1 minute and remove from heat.
- Add cinnamon, vanilla, and raisins.
Shaping Your Empanadas
To shape your empanadas, follow these steps:
- Preheat your oven to 350 °F (176.7 °C).
- Using a flat board, roll half of the dough into ¼ inch thick and cut out about 4 inches (10 cm) circle dough.
- Take 1-2 teaspoon of filling and place at the center of the dough, and fold into half to close the filling.
- Press to seal the edges and use your fork’s tines to press the edges to seal further and crimp them. Do the same for the remaining dough.
- Bake your empanadas for 10 or 15 minutes until the edges turn brown.
- Using sugar, dust your empanadas while hot from the oven.
- Serve them when they are warm or at room temperature.
Revolcado is a curry stew famous in Guatemala. Traditionally it’s prepared using:
- A pig’s head entrails
- Bell peppers
- Tomatillos annatto
- Chiles guaques (Guatemalan chiles)
The sauce is thickened using cornflour. Revolcado is a reflection of the culinary combination between the Spanish and the indigenous cultures.
In the 16th century, the missionaries and the conquistadors introduced different culinary methods from Europe and Asia.
According to Miguel Álvarez Arévalo, Spaniards introduced the idea of cooking the pig’s head to the indigenous communities.
The recipe was adopted quickly, and local sweet peppers, tomatoes, and fruits were incorporated.
Revolcado is also common in other countries in Central and South America, such as Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, Nicaragua, Mexico, and El Salvador.
The name also varies from one region to another, and the most common is Chanfaina. Depending also with countries, pig or lamb is used, and it’s always accompanied by rice.
Traditionally, the revolcado is simmered in the morning and becomes ready by lunchtime for the family. Annatto seeds (roucou) seeds are used.
These seeds have an intense red color and are believed to be rich in carotenoids. They bring color to the stew and have a slightly sweet and earthy taste.
Similarly, cumin is also used to flavor the stew. Annatto seeds are popular in Guatemalan cuisine because they bring great flavor to offals such as the heart and liver.
According to 196 flavors, to prepare revolcado (Guatemalan curried pork stew) enough to serve eight people, you’d require the following ingredients:
- 1 pork’s head and cut them into two
- 1 pound (0.45 kgs) of pork liver
- 4 pig hearts
- 5 tablespoons of corn oil
- 1½ pounds (0.68kgs) of tomatoes
- 10 ounces (383.5 gms) of tomatillos
- 3 Guatemalan chili peppers
- 1 large onion cut into 4 pieces
- 7 cloves of garlic
- 1 large red pepper
- 1 teaspoon of annatto seeds
- ½ cup of boiling water
- Salt and pepper
Method of Preparing
To prepare revolcado, follow the steps below.
- You need to infuse annatto seeds for 24 hours in boiling water.
- Place the pork’s head in a pot and cover with water and salt.
- Cover and cook on medium heat for 2½ hours or until the skin and the ears are tender.
- You need to skim regularly and add boiling water if they evaporate.
- Drain and remove the meat from the head and tongue, and chop them into small pieces. Similarly, cut all the skin and the ears in the same way.
- Using a large volume of salted water, cook the pork’s hearts for about 15 minutes. Drain and chop them into small pieces.
- Using a large volume of salted water, cook the liver for 20 minutes.
- Drain and divide the liver into two parts and reserve one part for thickening the dish.
- Dip your corn tortillas in water and set aside.
For the other ingredients:
- Using an oven or griddle, dry-roast hot peppers, tomatoes, and bell pepper.
- Similarly, roast the unpeeled garlic cloves and the onion.
- Remove the blistered skin from tomatillos, tomatoes, bell peppers, hot peppers, and garlic cloves.
- Put everything in a blender together with the cumin and onion, and mix them thoroughly until you get a smooth texture.
- Pass the mixture through a strainer to get a smooth sauce.
- Squeeze the corn tortillas.
- Pour the infused annatto seeds (without seeds) into a blender and add the remaining part of the liver and mix them.
- Using a large pot, heat corn oil on medium heat.
- Saute your tortillas for about a minute.
- Add the liver mixture while stirring and allow to cook on low heat for about a minute.
- Add the previously cut meats and add salt and pepper and stir well.
- Cover and cook for about 20 minutes on low heat.
- Finally, serve your revolcado stew with rice and enjoy your meal.
7. Rellenitos de Plátano
Guatemalan rellenitos de plátano refers to sweet, fried, and mashed plantains stuffed with a mixture of cinnamon, chocolate, and beans.
They’re deep-fried and are egg-shaped, typically served with honey, powdered with sugar on top or dipped in ice cream.
Rellenitos are enjoyed when hot and can be taken with the unique Guatemalan coffee. However, you can take it as a lovely appetizer or snack.
If you want to prepare your own rellenitos then choose the ripe plantains, and the black ones are the best.
These types have a unique flavor and texture compared to the green or yellow plantains.
You may also want to cut them into pieces and cook them with the skin, and they’ll be easier to peel. From there, you can mash them.
Rellenitos desserts have a Spanish heritage with influence from the Afro-Caribbean communities.
Today, they’re part of the indigenous cultures in Guatemala and other Ladino and Garifuna tribes.
The word rellenito is derived from the word rellenar that means to fill or stuff. The word –ito is a diminutive term in Spanish.
Therefore, rellenitos de plátano could be translated to “little stuffed plantains.”
According to food.com, the following ingredients are enough to make rellenitos to serve 12 people and may take 1½ hours to prepare.
- 6 plantains broken into chunks
- 16 oz (454 g) of fried black beans
- 1 tablespoon (15mls) of white sugar
- 1 teaspoon (5ml) of salt
- 1 quart (946 ml) of oil for frying
Method of Preparation
Here are the steps on how to prepare rellenitos de plátano:
- Put your plantains in a large pot and add water to cover.
- Put them on fire and bring them to boil. After boiling, reduce heat and simmer until they are tender.
- Drain and mash them.
- Heat the fried beans on low heat using a small saucepan.
- Add sugar and salt and mix them well, then remove them from fire.
- Form a palm-sized ball using the mashed plantains.
- Flatten them and add about a teaspoon of the bean mixture at the center. Fold the sides around the beans to make an egg-shaped ball.
- Using a large skillet or a deep fryer, heat cooking oil to 375 °F (195.5 °C).
- Fry the rellenitos in oil and remove them when they turn brown.
- Serve with sugar on top or with sour cream.
Most of the traditional dishes in Guatemala are a combination of the Spanish, Mayan, and Afro-Caribbean, among other cultures.
Some of the dishes are still prepared as it was done several centuries ago.
Like other countries in Central America, the most popular meats in Guatemalan cuisine include beef, chicken, pork, turkey, and lamb.
They are mostly accompanied by frijoles con arroz (beans and rice).
Some of the favorite traditional meals of Guatemalan food include pepian, kakik, tamales, hilachas, empanadas, and revolcado.
- Inquirer.Net: Guatemala’s Mayan heritage lives on in spicy pepian
- Newcastle Herald: Mayan culture kept alive in pepian spices
- Atlas Obscura: Kak’ik, The ancestral soup of the Q’eqchi’ Maya packs heat and history
- Antiguena Spanish Academy: Pepian Recipe Guatemala
- Britannica: Kekchí
- Culture Trip: The 10 Most Traditional Dishes From Guatemala
- Saveur: Guatemalan Turkey Soup (Kak-Ik)
- The Austin Times: The History Behind Tamales
- CNN Travel: Guatemala: Home of the Hass, birthplace of chocolate
- A Harmony of Flavors: Guatemalan Empanadas are a Delightful Dessert
- Majura Primary School: History of Empanadas
- The Spruce Eats: Sweet Cream Empanadas – Empanadas de Leche
- 196 Flavors: Guatemala: Revocaldo
- Antigua Daily Photo: Guatemalan Cuisine
- Food: GUATEMALA – RELLENITOS DE PLÁTANO
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