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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Guatemala

Historic Diet

Guatemalan Food - Fried chicken
Fried chicken

Guatemala's present menu offers numerous dishes based on local fruits, vegetables, along with meats and seafood. Thousands of years ago, the historic diet was not that different as far as ingredients are concerned, although the spices and cooking techniques have changed significantly.

Among the numerous local fruits and vegetables that can be found in present day Guatemala are avocados, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, pineapples, melons, peaches, guava, and papaya among many others. However, it is the beans and the maize (corn) that are the most prevalent today and the ancient people ate these foods regularly as well, although historically the root crops like cassava (yucca) and plantains were more popular.

In addition to the many fruits and vegetables seafood made up a significant source of protein along the coast and along lakes and rivers, while land animals gave the people food inland. Among these food sources were conch shells, numerous fish, rabbits, turkeys, and other small mammals.

Culinary Influences

The historic base was exploited by the Mayans and other indigenous people in the region as they ate beans regularly and found numerous ways to use maize, including through the use of tortillas and as a dough to make dishes like tamales. The Mayans also made heavy use of chili peppers and added some spice to many dishes.

The next change came with the arrival of the Spanish, but the Spanish settlers adopted many local foods and took on the historic dietary base. The Spanish brought with them new spices and ingredients, including cattle, which provided both meat and cheeses. They also used the local ingredients to make new dishes, such as guacamole and empanadas.

In more recent times influences from all over the world have arrived to Guatemala as American and Chinese restaurants are a common sight in most medium to large sized cities. The people have also adopted influences from their neighbors, most particularly from Mexico.

Staple Foods

Beans: red and black beans are popular and are sometimes served pureed as "refried beans"; beans are sometimes mixed with rice
Maize (corn): usually served in the form of a flat bread called a tortilla, but also used for tamales and other dishes
Plantains: a very common side dish or ingredient, but not as common as rice, beans, or maize
Rice: sometimes cooked in coconut milk, rice can be served alone, or mixed with beans and served together

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Empanadas: similar to tamales, but wrapped in dough rather than in a corn, rice, or potato encasing
Tamales: thick corn, rice, or potato casing enclosing meats, nuts, vegetables, and other seasonal foods; cooked in maxan leaves, banana leaves, or corn husks

Dining Etiquette

Dining with others in Guatemala is all about the socialization aspect of the event so be sure to bring conversation and a small appetite as meals may not begin for well over an hour. Generally, the Guatemalans arrive to events after the set meeting time and for meals, arriving 30 minutes late is not unusual.

Once everyone finally arrives drinks are usually served prior to eating. This generally begins with a toast of "salud" then followed by drinking and lively conversation. After drinking for some time the meal will begin. Be sure to let your host seat you and expect to be separated from your significant other if eating together; this encourages meeting new people and greater socialization. Generally the men and women will eat on opposite sides of the table and this sexual division continues in other ways as well as men are expected to stand when women enter the room.

With the arrival of the food, you may be asked to join in a short prayer if dining in a local's home; after this the host will generally invite everyone to begin eating with the words "buen provecho." Although the Guatemalans are fairly forgiving in your dining habits, they do expect you to keep your hands in sight by resting your wrists on the table and you should eat in the continental style (fork in the left hand and knife in the right). In some cases you may eat with your hands, generally when tortillas are involved; break off enough of your tortilla to take as a single bite, then scope some food and eat it. If in doubt, follow the lead of the locals.

As you finish eating, eat everything from your plate. If at a local's house, asking for additional food is a great compliment so try to take small portions at first. After you can take no more food, eat all the food then place the knife and fork together on the right side of the plate.

If dining at a restaurant, summon the server by making eye contact (don't wave or call his/her name). The inviter generally pays for everyone and a tip of up to 10% is appreciated. In more rural areas tips are not expected at all, but rounding up is still a required gesture.

Celebrations & Events

There are a number of foods associated with holidays and celebrations in Guatemala, including most of the country's religious holidays. All Saint's Day (November 1) which is filled with homemade candies and snacks often decorated to look like skeletons and skulls; a meat salad dish called fiambre is also common on this day. On Easter, cod and numerous Spanish seafood dishes are traditionally served while other religious holidays are generally celebrated with tamales, including Christmas (December 25) and the Three Kings Day (January 6).

Tamales are popular at other celebratory events as well, including birthdays, anniversaries, and other gatherings as this food is most closely associated with being a celebratory food.

Drinks

Guatemalan Food - Coffee beans
Coffee beans

Nearly every international beverage is available in Guatemala, but the local favorites are coffee and fruit drinks. Most of the coffee is locally grown and is typically served with milk and sugar. Among the many fruit drinks, licuados is the most common, which is essentially a fruit smoothie.

Guatemala's favored alcoholic beverage is beer and the locally brewed "Gallo," "Dorada," and "Moza" are among the most popular of these beers. Among the local liquors, "Quetzalteca" is a sugarcane liquor that is best mixed with juice, but is also served as a shot. Numerous other hard liquors and wines are common, but not too popular; rum is perhaps the most common hard liquor with both "Ron Zacapa Centenario" and "Zaya Gran Reserva" being the most popular local varieties.

The tap water in Guatemala should not be consumed. Be sure to also avoid anything with ice as it may have been made from the tap water. Salads and fruits could have also been washed in the tap water so be careful with those foods as well.

This page was last updated: March, 2013