Guatemala Feature

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Flavors of Guatemala

Guatemalan food will seem familiar to anyone who's been to Mexico—at least to a point. Like their neighbors to the north, Guatemalan cooks draw deeply on their indigenous origins. Maize has been the staple of the diet for millennia, and the Maya even believed that mankind was created from corn masa, or dough. Beans, tomatoes, chiles, squash, turkey, and tropical fruits are just a few of the other foods that trace their roots back to pre-Hispanic days.

As in Mexico, Guatemalan cooking also incorporates foods from Europe. Beef, pork, and chicken were all brought by the Spanish, and today these meats (along with the native turkey) are served in stews or grilled a la plancha. But in comparison to their Mexican counterparts, Guatemalan cooks tend to go much lighter on the chile. And if you order the Guatemalan version of Mexican standards like enchiladas and tacos, you may be surprised that they have little resemblance to their northern cousins.

On menus you'll often see typical Guatemalan food referred to as chapín. It's slang for "Guatemalan," from a type of sandal once worn by indigenous peasants; originally pejorative, it's now been co-opted as a badge of national pride. A typical chapín breakfast, or desayuno, is a feast of eggs, refried black beans, cheese (another import from the Spanish), fried plantains, a mild tomato salsa called chirmol, and tortillas. Lunch, or la comida, is traditionally the heaviest meal of the day, and might consist of a soup followed by a meat dish, rice and beans, and dessert. Dinner, la cena, resembles lunch but tends to be more modest, with fewer courses and smaller portions.

Here are some classic Guatemalan dishes to try. You might also want to sample the tacos, which in Guatemala are doubled over and fried, like empanadas; enchiladas, which are crispy tortillas topped with chopped meat and vegetables; gallo en chicha (rooster cooked in a fermented corn drink); puerco (pork) marinated in a spicy adobo sauce; sopa de tortuga (turtle soup); or if you're feeling adventurous, maybe tepescuintle, a type of rodent from the rainforest. ¡Buen provecho!

Chiles rellenos

Unlike their Mexican equivalents, Guatemalan stuffed peppers generally aren't made with the spicy poblano chile but with sweet bell peppers, filled with a mixture of chopped beef and vegetables. The peppers are then battered in egg and deep-fried, and often bathed in a mild tomato sauce.

Fiambre

Fiambre is a Guatemalan chef salad with up to fifty ingredients—cold cuts, sausage, cheese, carrots, corn, cabbage, cauliflower, beans, radishes, lettuce, boiled eggs, olives, and dozens of other vegetables and garnishes—all arranged on a festive platter and covered in a vinaigrette dressing.

Hilachas

The shredded meat in this mildly spicy beef stew is bathed in a sauce of tomatoes, tomatillos, and chiles, with potatoes and carrots generally included as well.

Jocón

A specialty of Antigua, jocón is a mild, slightly acidic green sauce prepared from tomatillos, cilantro, sesame, and pumpkin seeds, with soaked, ground tortillas used as a thickener. It's usually served over chicken, though pork or turkey is sometimes substituted.

Kaq-ik

Hailing from the area of Alta Verapaz, kaq-ik (seen with a variety of spellings, or known by its Spanish equivalent, chunto de pavo), is a savory turkey broth served with hunks of meat, often including a drumstick protruding Flintstone-like from the rim of the bowl.-Ik indicates that a dish includes chile peppers, but kaq-ik isn't particularly picante. Besides the chiles, the broth is flavored with tomatoes, tomatillos, onions, garlic, mint, cilantro, and other spices.Kaq-ik is generally served with white rice or occasionally with a plate of tamales.

Pepián

Also traditional around Antigua, Guatemalan pepián is a hearty stew. Pieces of chicken, potatoes, green beans, and carrots are served in a dense sauce of tomatoes, chiles, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, and other ingredients. Like Mexican mole, pepián comes in several varieties, ranging from colorado ("red") to negro ("black").

Pollo con loroco

From the eastern department of Jalapa, pollo con loroco is a stew, in this case chicken and vegetables served in a cream sauce seasoned with the flower that gives the dish its name. Native to central America and called quilite ("edible herb") in Mayan, loroco is a vine that produces flowers prized for their unique, pungent flavor.

Postres

The Spanish have exerted the strongest influence on Guatemalan cuisine in desserts, or postres. Some favorite ways to end a meal include: flan, or crème caramel; buñuelos, small balls of fried dough served with a sugar syrup seasoned with cinnamon and cloves; pastel de tres leches ("three-milks cake"), a wonderfully light, moist vanilla cake soaked in evaporated milk, condensed milk, and cream; and torrejas, a sort of "Spanish toast" made from sweet bread dipped in egg batter, then fried and served in a sugar syrup flavored with cinnamon.

Suban-ik

Originating around the town of San Martín Jilotepeque in the department of Chimaltenango, saban-ik is a mixture of chicken and pork (and sometimes beef), served in a delicious, complex tomato sauce seasoned with several different chiles, along with sweet peppers, tomatillos, and other condiments. Despite all thechiles, suban-ik, likekak-iq, isn't likely to trouble a delicate palate.

Tamales

Guatemalan tamales come in all shapes and sizes, including some you won't find anywhere else. They may be sweet or savory, stuffed with pork or chicken, flavored with seasonings such as loroco (a type of flower) or chipilín (an herb), and generally steamed in a banana leaf. Chuchitos ("little puppies") are small corn tamales filled with pork and wrapped in a cornhusk.

Tapado

Its name meaning "covered," tapado is a kind of tropical bouillabaisse from Guatemala's Caribbean coast. A specialty of the region's Garífuna population, descendants of African slaves, the dish is a seafood stew made with coconut milk, sweet peppers, and plantains. Other ingredients vary, but often include squid, crab, shrimp, snails, red snapper, and sea bass.

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