The country of Guatemala has 19 departments or administrative zones, and Antigua Guatemala happens to be the capital of the Sacatepéquez department. Though there are dishes that are familiar in all of Guatemala, there are also many regional variations to traditional Guatemalan food.
In 2007, Guatemala’s Ministry of Culture designated the following dishes as the Guatemalan food most emblematic of the country – the fifth dish was added in 2015:
- Jocon: a distinctive green sauce, slightly acidic, served with pork or chicken
- Pepian: reddish, mildly spicy stew with chicken
- Kaq Ik: reddish spicy turkey soup that predates the arrival of the Spanish
- Platanos en Mole: dessert made with sweet plantains, covered in a spicy, sweet chocolate sauce
- Pinol: made from corn and spices, it can be consumed in different ways – cold, hot, as a drink, or as a stew with meat. It also predates the Spanish.
Most of these dishes can be found throughout Guatemala, though pinol (or pinole) is specifically from the Sacatepequez region.
Here is a list of local dishes you should give a try if you’re in Antigua Guatemala to enhance your understanding of the local culture:
There are hundreds of types of tamales in Guatemalan cuisine. Guatemalan tamales can best be described as containing corn, rice or potato dough, sauce, some meat, and often hot pepper, all wrapped in green maxan leaves or corn husks. Some tamales are eaten once a year; others are available only during specific days of the week.
In Antigua, you’ll find “Tamales Colorados” (red tamales), a favorite local variation that has a unique tomato and achiote based paste called “recado” and filled with pork and a hot chili pepper inside. These tamales are available every Saturday, and if you don’t eat them that day, it’s very likely you’ll be eating a reheated dish.
Every local has their favorite tamale vendor, and tamales are purchased to either eat at home or to save them for Sunday morning’s breakfast. We can recommend tamales from Doña Chuz (corner of 7a Avenida Norte and 1a Calle Poniente), a grandmother who has been setting up shop at the same corner for over 20 years. She also sells paches (potato tamales, which others usually sell on Thursdays) and the hard-to-find Tamales Negros (black tamales); the latter made with a sweet corn dough, mole (chocolate sauce), along with raisins, prunes, and chicken. Tamales Colorados are eaten with coffee and Guatemala’s version of french bread, while hot chocolate is served alongside Tamales Negros.A tamale or a
A tamale or a pache is a filling, inexpensive meal, costing about Q6-Q10 each. If you want an authentic sit-down experience, La Canche (the hidden, hole in the wall restaurant on 6a Avenida Norte, in front of La Merced) serves up tamales every Saturday. For a more upscale – and expensive – presentation, visit Los Tres Tiempos (5a Avenida Norte #31) – a far better bet than other tourist traps in town.
Another item you can easily find everywhere is chuchito (also slang for “small dog”), made from the same dough as tamales, but firmer and wrapped in dried corn husks. They usually have a bit of pork or chicken on the inside and are topped with a tomato-based sauce and a sprinkle of hard cheese. You can substitute the tomato sauce for a spicy sauce at no cost.
Chuchitos a cheap, filling street breakfast, also available for lunch, but most commonly around dinnertime. We recommend the chuchitos sold near La Merced, on the corner of 1a Calle Poniente and 6a Avenida Norte.
This dish is a regional specialty that has become a national dish. This spicy and slightly bitter stew is a fusion between Maya and Spanish cuisine. What gives this stew its characteristic flavor are the toasted pumpkin seeds (called pepitoria), tomatoes and guisquil (a type of squash). It also contains corn, carrot, potatoes and other vegetables and the meat in it can be chicken, pork or beef, though there are versions with combinations of two or more meats.
This stew is available from the most humble of restaurants to the fanciest, and often offered as the meal of the day special. We recommend Rincón Tipico and El Portón, both authentic, inexpensive, and within a half-block, from each other (3a Avenida Sur & 6a Calle Oriente) though you may find a version that you like elsewhere.
Jocon is another traditional sauce – also a national dish, made from green tomatillo sauce, heavy on cilantro, and thickened with sesame seeds. Usually accompanied with chicken and white rice.
This pig head stew is one of those dishes that might take some time to get used to. It’s fine, as long as you’re not overthinking about the bits of pig’s heart, tongue, ears, kidney, brain, and liver you’re eating. Usually accompanied with white rice. If you can get past the squeamishness, it’s a tasty stew worth eating.
Chiles Rellenos (CHEE-leh re-YEH-no)
These pork-stuffed bell peppers are another popular street food item. The cooked pork is mixed with sauteed carrots, green beans, potatoes, onions, then seasoned, and stuffed into bell peppers. The stuffed peppers are then covered in egg batter and fried. Once you order them from your favorite street vendor, the peppers are placed inside a bread roll and garnished with onions and parsley. In a restaurant, they might be served with white rice.
This street-food item fits more in the dessert category and usually available at dinner time. Fried egg-shaped balls made with sweet plantains boiled in water along with cinnamon, filled with a sauce made from black beans, chocolate, cinnamon, and topped with sugar. Delicious stuff.
Another traditional dessert, this somewhat fluffy, fried dough balls are served with in a small bowl and covered with a light, anise-flavored syrup. Can be addictive.
This filling street food comes to Guatemala from neighboring El Salvador. It’s a tortilla filled with cheese or pork cracklings, fried to a slight crisp.
The Salvadorean version can include refried black beans, though this is not commonly seen in Guatemala. Pupusas are topped with curtido, or pickled cabbage, and are usually sold at dinner time. Though I prefer the Salvadorean version (with beans), I quite enjoy the Guatemalan ones.
Guatemala’s version of empanadas (meat or potato filled pastries). Topped with pickled cabbage, salsa, and grated cheese. A close variation is a Guatemalan taco, which is nothing like a Mexican taco.
Guatemalan tacos resemble small flutes, and their hard, fried corn shells are stuffed with either seasoned potato or a mix of beef and potatoes. Also, receives the same topping as dobladas. Hit or miss, but a well-made doblada (not chewy and greasy) is glorious.
Piloyada Antigueña (pee-loh-YAH-dah)
Piloyada is a dish that’s somewhat hard to find, even though it originated in Antigua. Usually offered as a special dish on Sundays. It’s not quite a salad, and it’s made with a particular type of bean, known as “piloyes,” hence the name. Once beans are cooked, then the rest of the ingredients are added: chorizo, sausage, “butifarra” (Spanish sausage), pork, farmer’s cheese, bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, vinegar, olive oil, garlic, among other things – some versions include chicken. A hearty dish – not the type of salad you’ll have to keep the diet going. Typically eaten cold.
Atol Blanco (ah-TOLL BLAN-coh)
One of the most popular drinks in Guatemala, which you’ll see being consumed in bowls. Unlike other atoles mentioned below, this white-corn based drink is not sweet, and it’s made with the same corn that’s used to make tortillas. More like soup, it’s served hot and consumed straight from the bowl. It has a bit of spicy chili pepper, black beans, salt, and lime. Sellers will dump a spoonful of cooked blacked beans at the bottom of the bowl, leaving a signature bean-colored streak.
Atol de Elote (ah-TOLL deh eh-LOH-teh)
A traditional yellow corn dough-based drink, with milk and sugar, added. Very sweet, available everywhere, and usually topped with a few corn kernels. Great drink on chilly nights.
Other drinks available are atol de plátano (plantain-based drink), atol de habas (lima bean drink), atol de arroz (like a more liquid rice pudding), and atol de arroz con chocolate (similar to atol de arroz, but with chocolate).
And of course, we can’t forget the ubiquitous corn tortillas, which are consumed for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Tortilla makers are a common sight throughout Guatemala, especially at noon time. Shaping the corn dough to a flawlessly round shape is a skill that takes a lot of practice to develop.
In fact, consuming tortillas is so ingrained into certain segments of the population (usually indigenous), that a meal served without tortillas is like a proper meal was never served at all. A tortilla made with real ground corn, not the commercial corn flour sold everywhere in the country, is sublime. I love black corn tortillas.
There are a lot more dishes to be found in Guatemala, of course, but this list is a good start, and the items are readily available in Antigua Guatemala. Bookmark it, as there are a lot of traditional dishes missing here I’ll be adding to this list in the future.
What are some of your favorite
Guatemalan dishes not on this list?