23 Traditional Guatemalan Foods to Try (by a Local)

A female chef and a female student in a Mayan cooking class kitchen

As a local Mayan Guatemalan chef, I’m going to show you the best Guatemalan foods to try that offer an array of regional flavors, showcasing our country’s culinary heritage from pepián to the tamales. 

I host cooking lessons about Guatemala dishes, as a valuable way to preserve my culture while connecting others to our people, history, and traditions and allowing you to explore new flavors, ingredients, and cooking techniques! And my favorite part? Exploring Guatemala’s culinary culture also gives us all the chance to connect with people on a more personal level.

If you happen to visit Lake Atitlan (a must-visit in Guatemala), you can join my Mayan Kitchen Cooking Class, where most of these Guatemalan cuisine gems are taught. We’ll start at a local market, cook together, and then sit down over a Guatemalan meal to get to know each other.

Here are some of the Guatemala foods and drinks I share with locals and foreign travelers during my classes for the ultimate authentic Guatemalan food experience.

Note: Today, our Guatemalan cuisine is predominantly a rich blend of indigenous Mayan traditions but also with some Spaniard influence due to the history of colonization. 

I. Guatemalan Dishes

1. Pepián

Pepián is one of the most popular dishes in Guatemala, normally reserved for weddings, birthdays, or other special occasions. It is a traditional stew with complex flavors. Layers of flavor are first enhanced by roasting each ingredient to bring out the full fragrance of each. 

The sauce’s bases comprises roasted ingredients like pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, tomatoes, chilies, onions, garlic, and cilantro.

Traditionally served with rice or tortillas, Pepián often includes meat like chicken, beef, or pork, making it a hearty and satisfying meal that perfectly represents Guatemalan cuisine.

2. Jocón de Pollo

Jocón is a thick spicy green stew that is often referred to as a soup. The base of the sauce is made up of tomatillos, green onions, cilantro, parsley, garlic, onion, green bell peppers, and green tomatoes. Jocón is delicious while quick and easy to prepare. 

This dish is a celebration of the rich agricultural produce of Guatemala, often served with rice or corn tortillas,

Celebrating Guatemala’s local agriculture, Jocón is commonly accompanied by rice or corn tortillas, and is known for its vibrant color and deep, herbaceous flavor.

3. Chiles Rellenos en Salsa de Tomato

Guatemalan chiles rellenos are different from the Mexican rendition. This Guatemalan specialty is made of chilies and is filled with a mixture of minced meat, carrots, green beans, and other spices. The stuffed chilies are then covered in an egg batter and fried. Guatemalan chiles rellenos are often served with a tomato sauce on top. 

The dish is a staple at family gatherings and local festivals, celebrated for its blend of textures and flavors and as a Guatemalan comfort food.

4. Hilachas

Hilachas, one of the most popular foods in Guatemala, consists of shredded beef and potatoes simmered in a recado (tomato-based) sauce. Typically accompanied by rice and tortillas, this dish is known for its tender and flavorful beef resulting from a slow cooking process, allowing it to absorb the rich and mildly spicy sauce. 

5. Frijoles Colorados con Carne de Cerdo

Frijoles Colorados con Carne de Cerdo is a typical Guatemalan household dish, featuring red beans cooked in a puree of tomatoes, tomatillos, chilies, onions, and garlic, usually prepared with pork and served with rice and tortillas. 

This dish is renowned for its rich, savory flavors. And the pork adds a depth of taste that complements the subtly spiced bean sauce. It’s a staple of Guatemalan cuisine, often enjoyed as a hearty main course, symbolizing the fusion of indigenous and Spanish (pork) culinary fusion. 

6. Tamales

Guatemala offers various tamales, differing in fillings and wrappers. Fillings include corn, rice, or potatoes, with additions like meat, fruit, or nuts. Wrappers can be leaves or corn husks. Specific types include:

  • Traditional Tamale: Corn masa and a red sauce in banana leaves.
  • Chuchitos: Firmer corn dough wrapped in corn husks.
  • Paches: Mashed potatoes with red sauce, folded into banana leaves.
  • Tamales Negros: Tamales with dark, mole sauce.

Guatemalan tamales have a rich history that dates back to pre-Columbian times, deeply rooted in the Mayan and Aztec cultures. They were traditionally prepared as an offering to the gods during festivals and were a staple food for soldiers during wartime due to their portability and ease of preparation. 

Over time, the recipe evolved with colonial-Spanish influences, but the core elements of corn dough and various fillings wrapped in leaves remain a symbol of Guatemalan culinary heritage.

7. Tamalitos Varieties (Seasonal)

Tamalitos are smaller and extra savory tamales that are often wrapped in banana leaves. I like them more than tamales because they have a higher filling-to-mashed corn ratio. Here are some variations of them:

  • Tamalitos de Elote: Made of fresh sweet corn kernels.
  • Tamalitos de Loroco: Made with corn flour and loroco.
  • Tamalitos de Chipilin: Made of corn flour and chipilín leaves.

II. Guatemalan Side Dishes

8. Tortillas

Small traditional flat corn-based wraps, a staple in most meals. And a common accompaniment to almost every dish. This is what rice is to Asia and bread is to Europe.

Bonus: Tayuyos is a special kind of tortilla with black beans.

9. Guacamole

Guacamole is now one of the most popular appetizers and sides around the world now. Using avocados, which are native to the Americas, the local Guatemalan style is to pair it with onions, lime, salt, mint, and cilantro. Traditional guacamole uses fresh and ripe local aguacates.

10. Picado de Rábano 

A radish salad with mint, salt, and lime juice, known as Chojín when chicharrones are added. This dish is crisp and refreshing with tortilla chips as an appetizer or you can add it to your food. It’s so flavorful and nutritious!

11. Chilaquilas de Güisquil

This is made from güisquil (aka chayote squash or tayota) that “sandwich” some cheese and are coated with egg batter, resulting in a crispy exterior that complements the soft, subtly chayote squash and melted cheese inside.

Fun fact: Chayote (aka tayota) is a super nutritious and popular dish for diabetics.

12. Frijoles Volteados

Guatemalan refried beans, a daily staple for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. These beans are a true labor of love, slowly cooked to perfection, and are a fundamental element in the Guatemalan diet.

13. Tortitas de Papa

Small fried patties made from mashed potatoes, eggs, and flour. A comforting and versatile side, these patties are a delightful example of the homestyle cooking found in Guatemalan kitchens.

14. Tortitas de Arroz

Similar to Tortitas de Papa, but made with rice. These rice patties, light and crispy, are a testament to the resourcefulness of Guatemalan cooking, transforming simple ingredients into delicious sides.

III. Guatemalan Drinks 

15. Ponche

A Christmas fruit punch made by boiling diced fruits like pineapple, apples, papaya, plantains, coconut, raisins, and prunes, spiced with cinnamon and ginger, traditionally served hot.

16. Horchata

In Guatemala, horchata is typically a sweet, creamy drink made from rice, water, sugar, and cinnamon. Sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, and peanuts can be added, too. It is enjoyed as a refreshing and flavorful beverage, especially during warm weather or alongside traditional meals.

Historians believe that this drink originated from North Africa around 2400 BC and then arrived to Spain via the Moors who occupied Spain for 700 years before the Spanish Inquisition. A couple of years later, the Spanish would invade and colonize the Americas, including what is today known as Guatemala and Mexican (where you can find horchata).

IV. Guatemalan Desserts

17. Rellenitos de Plátano

These are delightful treats where mashed sweet plantains, with their sweet, dense texture, encase a filling of sweetened refried black beans and chocolate. 

Once fried, the exterior becomes crispy and caramelized, giving you a textural contrast to the creamy, rich interior. 

The combination of plantain sweetness with the savory depth of the beans and the richness of chocolate creates a uniquely delicious bite.

18. Mole de Plátanos

In this dish, ripe plantains are fried until they achieve a golden-brown exterior, bringing out their natural sweetness. They are then bathed in a complex and aromatic Guatemalan mole sauce. 

This mole sauce combines pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, chilies, tomatoes, cinnamon, and cacao, creating a rich, nuanced flavor that complements the caramelized plantains.

19. Camote en Dulce

Did you know that potatoes are originally from the Americas? And for this pre-hispanic dessert, sweet potatoes are gently boiled in a syrup made of water, sugar, and cinnamon, infused with a spicy sweet flavor. The result is a tender, candied sweet potato, traditionally enjoyed from November to January. 

20. Buñuelos Rapidos

These are essentially deep-fried bread, light and fluffy in texture, served with a sweet syrup like chocolate. Buñuelos Rapidos are popular Guatemalan Christmas foods as they are a festive treat.

21. Arroz con Leche

Arroz con leche is rice cooked in sweetened, hot milk and flavored with cinnamon. The rice becomes creamy and tender, absorbing the flavors of the milk and cinnamon, creating a comforting, warm dish. It can be enjoyed as a sweet breakfast cereal or as a dessert.

22. Molletes Rellenos

Molletes rellenos consist of Guatemalan sweet bread filled with smooth, creamy custard and soaked in a sweet syrup. Traditionally savored during fairs or holidays like Easter Week and All Saints Day, they offer a delightful combination of soft, moist bread with the rich, sweet flavors of custard and syrup, making them a favorite festive treat.

V. Frequently Asked Questions: Guatemalan Food Traditions

What are Guatemala’s most famous foods?

Famous Guatemalan foods include pepián, a meat stew with roasted spices and seeds. For desserts, the most popular is rellenitos, a plantain pastry filled with sweetened black beans and chocolate. 

What is Guatemala’s national dish?

Pepián is Guatemala’s national dish and the food Guatemala is most known for. 

What is a typical breakfast in Guatemala?

A typical Guatemalan breakfast often consists of “Chapin,” featuring eggs, black beans, cheese, plantains, and tortillas.

Breakfast in Guatemala is often heavy for a full day of energy! It is referred to as  “Desayuno Típico,” which means, “Typical Breakfast,” or “Desayuno Chapins,” which means, ”Breakfast of Champions.” It often consists of scrambled or fried eggs, refried black beans, cheese, plantains, and tortilla. Some add avocado slices or sausages. Yum! And of course, the accompanying drink is coffee. 

Are pupusas a Guatemalan dish?

No! Pupusas are thick flatbread made of cornmeal or rice flour. And they are originally from… El Salvador! Nevertheless, given the Central America proximity to El Salvador, you can find restaurants serving it in some parts of Guatemala.

Is Guatemalan food similar to Mexican food?

Guatemala and Mexico are geographically close, both are the land of the Maya with deep pre-Hispanic and historical connections. So it is no surprise that the cuisines of both countries have some similarities. Beans, corn, and rice are key ingredients to both. Nevertheless, they are distinct!

VI. Related Guatemala Blog Posts

VII. About Anita of Mayan Kitchen Cooking

Anita is the famous Guatemalan creator of Mayan Kitchen Cooking Class. She takes travelers to local markets and hosts hands-on Mayan cooking lessons in her Lake Atitlan kitchen. But most notably, Anita’s powerful story continues to inspire other local indigenous women today. And currently also runs community projects for other single Guatemalan mothers, artists, and entrepreneurs. You can check her Instagram page here where she continues sharing her ancestral knowledge about food from Guatemala!

Sharing is caring!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *