Guatemala: Home of Hass and birthplace of chocolate

Palate-pleasing dishes have history

By Lucy Sherriff, CNN
Copyright 2019 CNN

A cornucopia of fruit is displayed at a stall at El Mercado in Antigua, Guatemala.

(CNN) - Not many people know it, but the Hass avocado, favorite of Californians, has its humble beginnings in Guatemala.

Introduced to the Golden State by chief agronomist of the United Fruit Company, Wilson Popenoe, the Hass avocado has now been dubbed the "Californian avocado," leaving many of its consumers in the dark with regards to its true origins.

But venture to Guatemala and you'll discover so much more than just the home of the Hass. It's also considered the birthplace of chocolate -- Mayans called the cacao plant the fruit of the gods -- and it produces some of the world's best coffee.

Thanks to rich volcanic soil, the country is able to grow every vegetable and fruit imaginable, and as a result, the food is spectacular -- some of the best in Latin America.

Most traditional Guatemalan food is based around Mayan culture, with a heavy dose of Spanish influence.

A myriad of spices, deep blue corn, tangy chiles, rich beans and, of course, avocado, make up the cacophony of dishes Guatemala boasts on its résumé.

In 2007, Guatemala's Ministry of Culture designated a handful of dishes as "emblematic" of the country: jocon, a green, rather acidic sauce traditionally served as an accompaniment to meat; pepián, a tomato-based stew with meat; kak'ik, a Mayan spicy turkey soup; platanos en Mole, sweet plantains with a spicy, sweet chocolate sauce; and pinol, a drink made from corn and spices.

Visitors to the Central American country will be wowed by the abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables on offer, and it's well worth checking out a local market. Exotic fruits such as níspero, jacote, mamey and caimito are all available in markets, street stalls and in juice form.

Street cooking rivals the restaurants; you'll often see plastic chairs set up on street corners, or cobbled squares serving as makeshift restaurants for food stall merchants cooking up hot chorizo or stuffing a pupusa.

Mealtimes are a big deal in Guatemala. Make sure you don't miss out on a traditional breakfast -- desayuno chapín (chapín is the self-appointed nickname for Guatemalans) -- scrambled eggs, avocado slices, mashed beans, plantain and tortillas.

Guatemala has plenty of its own native dishes, but it has also borrowed from its neighboring Central American countries, and added its own unique takes, so whether you're a sucker for street food, a chocolate devotee or a coffee addict, Guatemala has something for everyone.

Here are some of the highlights:

Pepián

This spicy stew is typically made with chicken, beef or pork. A thick, rich and slightly bitter sauce made of sesame seeds and pepitas coats a medley of vegetables and is usually served up with freshly made tortillas -- and topped with avocado.

Kak'ik

A sweet-sour broth with a tangy taste, Kak'ik is packed with tomatillos, tomatoes and garlic, pureed and served up with turkey. A traditional recipe of the Q'eqchi' Maya community, eat it like the locals with a side of chile paste (and a wedge of avocado).

Empanadas

From the verb "empanar" -- to coat or wrap with bread -- these stuffed pastry snacks are common all across Latin America. In Guatemala, however, it is the empanada de leche that takes center stage -- a buttery dough infused with achiote paste, filled with creamy milk custard and then baked.

Hilachas

This is slowly simmered shredded beef stewed in a mildly spicy tomatillo sauce with chunks of potatoes, and normally paired with rice.

Rellenitos

It's hard to tell whether this should be eaten as a dessert or an appetizer, but luckily they're good enough to be eaten as both. Rellenitos are made from mashed platano maduro (sweet plantain) and stuffed with sweet black beans. And if that's not sweet enough, there's the option of having them dusted with sugar.

Pinol

A hot drink made from roasted ground maize and mixed with spices, including cocoa, vanilla, cinnamon, chia seeds and agave.

Granitas

Essentially a snow cone, mixed with basically whatever fruit the vendor has. A necessary refreshment in the hotter regions of the country.

Tamales

There are numerous types of tamales, including potato-based paches. Other types are made from corn or rice dough, and they are stuffed with meat, often some hot chili pepper, sauce and wrapped in corn husks or green maxan -- also known as "cigar plant" -- leaves.

Paches are commonly eaten on Thursdays, although the reason behind this cultural tradition appears to have gotten lost through the years.

Chiles rellenos

Originally a Mexican dish, these are bell peppers stuffed with pork, potatoes, onions, carrots and beans, slapped in egg batter and fried. And if that's not decadent enough, chiles rellenos in Guatemala are usually served on the street with a bread roll for ease of eating, or if you're eating at a home or in a restaurant, with rice.

Tortillas

Guatemala will unfortunately ruin your expectations of tortillas forevermore. It's hard to turn a street corner without passing a woman kneading dough or shaping it into the circular disk patties.

Pupusas

A great, cheap way to fill up on the go, pupusas originated in El Salvador, but have been adopted by neighboring Guatemala and can be found everywhere.

Thick corn tortillas bursting with a variety of fillings, from refried beans and cheese to pork crackling chicharrón, and then fried to crispen the outside. They're served up with salsa and cabbage on the side.

Atol

There are a number of versions of the creamy atol, which can be made either with corn or rice. The one you're most likely to see on the streets is the warm atol de elote, a sweet corn smoothie-like drink, made with pulverized corn kernels, milk, sweetened with sugar, with an optional dash of cinnamon or vanilla.

Caldo chocolate

You can't visit Guatemala without trying what the Mayans considered to be food of the gods. And the best way to sample it is in traditional Guatemalan hot chocolate.

Criollo is the finest grade of chocolate, so keep an eye out for stores cooking with it. Melted into cream, and infused with cinnamon, this will be the best hot chocolate you'll ever have.

Lucy Sherriff is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Bogotá and covers environment, travel and gender issues.

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