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Guatemalan traditional food .. Part 2 PDF Print

By Valeria Cerezo Mack

A very expensive meal ... (granpa cooked Valeria's pet rooster)
The lid on the pot is shaking and making a metallic trembling noise, burning with the hot aromatic steam which is trying to escape, like a playful faun …   

There is little girl sitting at the kitchen table begging “mami” to hurry up! There is a busy aged woman going back and forth, with hands smelling like fresh herbs, with a colorful apron stained with juices and sauces.

Those gentle and experienced hands grab the little girls face as a loving voice whispers: ya va a estar listo su pepian mi’jita … mejor aprenda
como se hace…

Valeria Cerezo Mack

And the lecture starts on how important this ingredient is and how you prepare it before it blends in with the rest, how important it is to cook so and so ingredients well or it will give you a tummy ache …  always pay attention to this or that on the meat to make sure is fresh and tender …    same as the aromatic steam, most of that conversation fades but leaves behind a trace that is impossible to forget or ignore. 

Food is part of identity and also a part of our story, that’s why I enjoy writing about it, in Guatemala is particularly important as a way of communicating our feelings. recipes are passed through generations and our ingredients tell a story of their own about our dear country.

Comal y tortillas

Typical food is difficult to talk about if we really try tracing it back to its roots.

Before the Spanish came, we had no chickens! or cows …  or other things that are part of the ingredients we use today in “typical “ food.  

So  I guess we can call typical food the result of the fusion of native ingredients with the ones the Spanish brought from Europe which at the same time, had Arab influence. Wow! Are we international or what!

White, yellow and black corn

Centuries have passed and now we have a nice blend of very exotic flavors.The main ingredients these lands produce and are a base for most typical dishes are: corn, achiote, cacao, potato, pumpkin and squash, ample variety of chiles, yucca, avocado, tomato, turkey and large variety of herbs and mushrooms (such as anacates) and edible flowers.Image

The Mayan diet was mainly vegetarian according to some studies, and still is with the contemporary indigenous. The base of this diet is corn plus beans, herbs and legumes.

Some people say that this is because of the poverty that they cannot afford meat, which is true in some cases, but not entirely. They like home grown hens, duck and fish mostly and they still hunt in areas where there is still something to hunt.  

Meat is not a part of their day to day diet; it is used mainly for rituals and celebrations. The main dishes where meat is used (pork, chicken, turkey) are the ceremonial dishes such as kak’ik and pepian. These two were declared cultural patrimony.

Tomatillas, sesame and pumpkin seeds roasting

Well, before we had chickens and cows, we had iguanas, deer, wild hogs and tepezcuintles. Some dishes that today are considered exotic. 

Growing up in modern times I was raised in a very special household; I was allowed to have unusual pets such as golden pheasants and pure bred roosters. Add to that a couple of emerald green iguanas.  

Sadly, most of my pets ended up in the pot, including my favorite rooster from Jerez, Spain who I used to take walking on a leash.

Both my grandparents grew up in farms in the pacific coast, where they have the idea that everything is edible once prepared. Turtles ended up in the pot too. Luckily the cats and dogs were safe from my grandparents’ exotic appetite. 

My grandma went to the market every day for fresh ingredients; she thought supermarkets made no sense unless it was an emergency.

My neighborhood growing up was the old fashioned kind, where there was a bakery and a tortilla place and a small market at hand, so you didn’t have to travel too far. There was also a charcoal guy and three or four tiendas where you could get together and learn all about home remedies and who was dating who.

Famous chuchitos

Now that I have given you a background, lets get back to the food. My grandma loved to cook. We had an indigenous maid who brought all her knowledge from typical cuisine into the house.  Rosa hardly spoke Spanish and refused to use the stove.

We had a poyo (concrete stove fired with wood or coal) in the backyard, where she fixed meals with wood and charcoal. Every procedure was followed from step one. No such things as pre cooked this or that, or instant gravies or sauces or canned broth. So cooking took hours.

One of the characteristics of some of our dishes is that part of the ingredients has to be grilled, roasted or burnt first. 


Pepian, for example: this ceremonial dish is prepared with burnt plantain peeling or burnt bread or tortillas. Then you crush them.

The tomato and onion have to be grilled too until they’re dark, the pumpkin and sesame seeds have to be roasted and ground too, along with cinnamon. It gives the dish a bitterness that you can hardly tell is there but mixed with the sourness of the tomatoes and the freshness of the cilantro it comes out irresistible.  

There are at least three versions plus ten ways to prepare, but they are all good. They sell it now in powdered mixes, but they cannot fill the shoes of the real deal! Watch out for this. If you go out to eat typical food, be very careful of the place you choose or otherwise you will have the absolutely wrong impression of what a dish should taste like.  

Base ingredients for typical dishes, kak'ik and pepian

Kak’ik comes from Coban and the original recipe is only for the brave! It is a turkey soup with a base of cobanero peppers. These are not burnt but smoked. It tastes delicious. They also use mil tomate (green small tomatos), garlic, chile pimiento, chile guaque and other ingredients that have to be roasted to. 

Back to exotic dishes, Iguashte is based on roasted pumpkin seeds and tomato. It is a delicious thick sauce used on vegetables, chicken guts and iguanas. 

Iguana eggs and turtle eggs are considered a delicacy as well. Although it is outlawed these days, some people still sell them in a sort of black market. 

Tepezcuintle is medium size rodent which meat is considered a true pleasure to eat. The muscle pattern is very different from the rest of the edible mammals we are used too. It also tastes very different, something between pork and beef but not quite all the way; it has also a wild flavor.  

You know how with sea food you can almost taste the ocean? Well, with tepezcuintle you can almost taste the jungle. I’m not kidding.  The meat is usually very tender too. That one goes mostly on the grill or in stews.  In Rio Dulce you can find it at the market sometimes, although we avoid consuming it since it is becoming endangered species, not only because of human consumption, but also their natural habitat, the jungle, is being destroyed or invaded; which is very sad. 

Same goes for the turtles. I have never tasted turtle, but it has a good reputation here. The other day I went to the fish market and saw 5 turtles in a bucket. I negotiated. It was fierce! At the end I started walking away which was the definitive point where I got a better price. 

Luckily, I have a very supportive husband who thought it was money well spent if it meant saving these creatures. I came home with a box full of terrified turtles which later that day were released into the water.. If grandpa was here it would have been the water in the pot instead of the water in the river… 

Speaking of Rio Dulce, pachay is a very typical dish from around here. Usually they use fish and stuff it with tomato and onions and samat, a wild variety of cilantro we call culantro. Then it is wrapped up in a banana leaf and placed on the grill. You can also put it in the still hot ashes and allow it to simmer for a long time in which case it tastes better. 

Burnt fish is famous too. You clean the fish and spice it up and put it on the grill and let the scales and skin burn, then you peel it up and you will find juicy white flesh inside. 

Another Guatemalan special treat are Chuchitos (little mutts). These are something like tamales but wrapped in dry corn leafs. These are the ones I have told you before in other stories, which we eat for every special occasion in Guatemala. Marriages, births, funerals, birthdays, holydays …   this are made out of corn dough.  Tamales are made with mixed corn and rice dough, but chuchitos is only corn. Before you cook them, you put a piece of hen, duck or pork in the middle, bath it in a yummy tomato and achiote sauce; they are dry and firm and absolutely delicious.  

Tortillas are as typical as we can get. We have 3 kinds: white, yellow and black. The color is based on the type of corn, creole corn we call it. Black ones are rare, as rare as black corn but they taste like heaven. The yellow ones are pretty good as well. And of course you know the white ones.

A lot of people don’t like them, but that’s because they have not had the good stuff. That’s why I’m telling you, you have to be selective. You might get the bad stuff and you know how first impressions last forever.

The crap you buy at the street are not real corn tortillas, they are made with flour that you buy at the supermarket. A lot of tortilla makers buy it because it is cheap and easy.  The real corn kind takes a lot of time and effort but they taste like heaven. Especially when they are just coming out of the comal!

I dare you to go to the San Felipe cross roads, like a block or two from the turn, on the right side, they make them. It is a small wood shack where you hear the happy clapping of the ladies as they shape them and gently place them on the hot comal.  My husband’s appreciation from the tortillas changed completly the day he had one of those. And I bet all those who don’t like them, will. 

Tortillas play a huge role in the guatemalan diet. People eat them by the bunch. You can soak them in soups, beans, sauces, add salt, put a jalapeno in the middle, add pork cracklings, guacamole, chojin, fish, rice, noodles, meat, chicken, zacapa cheese, fresh cheese, capas cheese (this one melts better than mozzarela and has avery fresh flavor) …  whatever you like, and they will always taste good. I like them with butter. My son likes them with salt or plain.  

There is actually a joke which is based on true facts: how can you tell somebody is Guatemalan? Because they carry a box of pollo campero with a huge stack of tortillas. At least we get a good laugh out of it because it’s so true. We love them. I don’t think there is a true Guatemalan who doesn’t like them.

But the real deal, stay away from that supermarket dough mix, it sucks! Also, they are meant to be thicker and a perfect circle, if you find the thinner kind with the irregular edges it’s because they are adding too much water to the dough. Yuk! 

Well, one of the kinds of corn we have, the yellow one is used to make “fresco de suchiles” a fermented fruit drink used to cook the “gallo en chicha”. Oh, and guess what, the corn has to be roasted … 

I will finish this story the same way my $600 pure bred rooster ended his life: With a typical chicha pot!  

Chicha or fresco de suchiles is made with pineapple peeling, raw sugar, roasted yellow corn, pepper, ginger and anis. All the ingredients are placed in a clay pot and left to ferment for at least three days. It is better if it’s buried in the ground. 

The Gallo en chicha is prepared with this fermented drink plus tomato, garlic, onion, chopped raisins, clove, cinnamon, salt and pepper. At least my rooster ended up his brief journey in a delicious pool of aromas and exotic flavors. Better than a boring soup, like a chicken!  

Our typical dishes reflect in some way I think, our idiosyncrasy, our vision of the world, the way we embrace life: somewhat complicated, a mix of different cultures, spiced up in a very exotic mixture of shades and colors. We have 23 different cultural groups, with different customs and habit each one of them. We are a very exotic country, with exotic flavors.

Don’t miss the opportunity of tasting Guatemala. 

An easy recipe for Pepian

Even if I hate having to use prepared mixes, sometimes they are such an easy way to put together a meal. Well, we have 2 brands for pepian mix, both “okay” but what I do is “improve” them by adding natural ingredients… if you want the recipe from scratch for this dish or any other e-mail to: This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it  So, buy a box of pepian mix and smile 


1 ½ pounds of chicken, beef or pork (In Despensa here at the Rio Dulce you buy beef bones, which add a superb flavor for the broth)

Add the usual ingredients: salt, pepper, garlic, maybe a small bunch of celery leaves. Add at the very end some string beans, potato and Guisquil. Since this will have to simmer again, make sure the vegetables don’t cook thoroughly.  


Dry ingredients
1 ounce of sesame seeds1 ounce of pepitoria (pumpkin seeds)
1 quarter or less of a stick of cinnamon1 small dried chile pasa1 small dried chile guaque1 corn tortilla 

2 tomatoes and/or a small bunch of tomatillos
1 small onion cut in thick slices
2 cloves of garlic 

In separate pans, roast the dry ingredients until they reach a healthy dark tan (only the tortilla has to get darker) You can replace the tortilla with a plantain peeling (the best) or with a piece of bread (functional). 

On the other pan, (if you can grill them is even better) place tomatoes, onion, garlic and let them get blackened on the outside. 
Put the dry ingredients in a blender or food processor until they become powder; after that, add the tomato, onion, garlic and tomatillos and some of the broth to turn it into a paste.

You can add a pinch of salt but be careful since the mix already has salt of its own.
 Having done this, mix 3 to 4 cups of the broth you prepared with the package of pepian, mix thoroughly and then add the paste.

Bring it to boil and then let it simmer for aprox. 10 minutes with the meat an vegetables.

If you want it to be more like a sauce add less broth;  Taste to see if you need salt… at the very end, add some minced fresh cilantro. If you cook the cilantro for too long it will loose its flavor and aroma.

Serve hot with white rice…   add avocado slices, a few drops of lime juice, chile coban if you like it spicy or dip a corn tortilla for an extra yummy effect! 

TIP: The best way to disinfect the cilantro,(or any other vegetables in any case) is to put them in a bowl (do not use aluminum) and add a ½  tea spoon of regular house hold Clorox by every liter of water. Dip the cilantro until it is completely submerged and let it sit for 20 minutes. After, rinse it thoroughly with potable water.

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