Mamma Maya! Old-World Eats in Guatemala

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Heart of Sky, Quetzal Serpent and several other Maya gods wanted to create life that could worship and revere them, but they needed to find the right material for their creation. Per the 16th-century Popol Vuh, the first attempt at human life involved earth and mud, but the divine creation quickly crumbled. The second attempt involved carved wood, but the wood beings lacked the hearts and minds to remember their creators. In their third attempt, the gods finally triumphed by making man out of yellow and white corn.

The Guatemalans, like their Maya ancestors, made corn the center of their culinary culture, and the grain represents a sacred connection with their ancestors and creators. This type of culinary reverence helped Maya cuisine survive into the present and provides unique opportunities for food-centric tourism. While contemporary foodie trips typically involve Catalan molecularism, pan-Pacific Peruvian or New Nordic reinvention, a gastronomic adventure in the former Maya Empire is the culinary opposite. Guatemalan cuisine is about well-preserved tradition, not innovation, served in a pure and unadulterated form.

Forget the farm—Monsanto-rejecting Guatemala offers yard-to-table cuisine grown naturally a stone’s throw from the kitchen table. In villages, travelers can enjoy fresh eggs and chicken soup from poultry raised naturally in the home and cooked on wood-fire grills. Even the tortillas are made fresh with dough from sun-dried corn that is soaked/cooked in lime water, put through the communal village grinder and heated on a comal griddle. For certain dishes like pepián stew, cooks macerate the ingredients by hand on lava stone devices that families pass down through generations. Yes, travelers must get outside Guatemala City and the standard restaurant setting, but those who break the big-city bubble can experience authentic small-farm meals with a taste of centuries past.

The Maya Empire

To appreciate Maya-influenced cuisine, one must start by appreciating the Maya. As one of the longest-lasting civilizations, the Mesoamerican tribe existed for more than 3,000 years. The tropical lowlands of northern Guatemala served as the center, but the Maya Empire at its zenith included Belize, western Honduras and El Salvador, the Yucatan Peninsula and the Mexican states Tabasco and Chiapas. Around 1800 B.C., the earliest settlements emerged as an agricultural society growing corn, beans and squash, and they later excelled at advanced farming techniques like irrigation and terracing. During the Classic Period (250 A.D. to 900 A.D.), the Maya established dozens of cities with impressive stone constructions in places like Tikal, Copán and Palenque. It is unclear what prompted their decline—catastrophic drought, over-farming, tribal infighting—but the Maya slowly dissipated in the ninth century. In the Yucatan highlands, some Maya lasted until Spanish colonization, but they had long since left the stone cities for small farming villages.

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Maya Temple Photo: Guatemala Tourism Board

Though the Maya Empire came to an end, many of its agricultural foods survived and flourished. For example, Guatemala is the birthplace of chocolate. The Maya were the first to roast cacao-fruit seeds and make hot chocolate, and cacao beans doubled as currency for several centuries until the Spaniards introduced coins. The tribes sometimes added chilies and cornmeal to the chocolate, but it was the Spanish colonists who added milk and sugar. Another important Maya food is the avocado, which originated in Guatemala and southern Mexico. Even the Hass avocado, which was first cultivated in California in the 1920s, came from Guatemalan seeds.

As for its most famous crop, the Maya culture has more corn-based foods than an Iowa Caucus campaign rally. The first tortilla, per Maya legend, was the creation of a peasant seeking to feed a hungry king, and the earliest known use is often associated with the Olmec, a predecessor of the Maya in southern Mexico. The tamale is yet another food staple arguably developed by the ancient Maya as a portable foodstuff for warriors to take into battle. In northeast Guatemala, the Maya archeological site San Bartolo contains painted murals (currently on the UNESCO tentative list for Cultural Heritage status) that include a woman kneeing before the Maize God with a basket full of tamales. The tamale mural, dated to 100 B.C., is one of the earliest references to the corn dish, which modern Guatemalans serve in many variations, wrapped in cornhusks, banana leaves and plantain leaves.

The Kingdom of Guatemala

Though Spanish colonialism officially ended the Maya in the early 1500s, it expanded the role of Guatemala in modern-day Central America. Spanish rule quickly established the Kingdom of Guatemala (or the Captaincy General of Guatemala), which eventually included present-day Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Chiapas. The colonialists, who united the nation with a common tongue, introduced new food items like wheat, olive oil, citrus fruits, grape vines and cane sugar while replanting Guatemalan staples like squash, chilies, tomatoes and corn in Europe. Despite the culinary exchanges, the indigenous Maya embraced Spanish culture to a lesser extent than many other Latin nations. Among the contributing factors, the tribes possibly envisioned the first failed attempt at creation when the missionaries declared that God made man from earth (Genesis 2:7).

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Antigua Photo: Guatemala Tourism Board

The capital moved several times due to natural disasters, but Antigua (then called Santiago de los Caballeros) claimed the longest reign at more than two centuries (1543 to 1773). Spain ended its three-century rule in 1821, and modern Central America formed with various border disputes. The newly independent Guatemala had a larger territory, in theory, than it possesses today, but the country got the short stick on territorial disputes that included Southern Mexico and British Honduras (i.e., Belize). Regardless of latter-day politics, Maya culinary traditions still exist in southern Mexico and Central America with Guatemala as the heart and soul. According to the Food Cultures of the World Encyclopedia, up to 60 percent of Guatemalans still identify themselves as Maya.

The Modern Maya

Guatemala’s temperate climate inspired its “Land of Eternal Spring” description, and the ash from its 33 volcanoes helps make for very fertile soil. Agriculture and farming still make up more than half of the country’s workforce, and 70 percent of the exports are agricultural products like coffee, palms, sugar, bananas, cotton and cocoa. The Caribbean coast specializes in ceviche, coconut milk-dishes and African-influenced Garifuna cuisine, while the sailfish-rich Pacific stacks plates with tuna, dorado and other catches from its world-class fishing waters. Coastal trips should focus on seafood shacks along the water, but the farm- and agriculture-based interior is where Maya culinary influence really thrives. Corn and beans dominate the dinner table, and many homes raise chickens for eggs and poultry dishes and grow herbs in their gardens to avoid GOYA-style flavoring. Beef and pork follow chicken in consumption rates, and roadside signs warn drivers to watch for passing cattle. Epitomizing the extent of homegrown agriculture, a 2007 study published in the Antipode journal found that 98 percent of households in Tecpán (the country’s first capital) grew personal plots of corn and beans.

When seeking Maya-influenced dishes, travelers should head to cities like Chichicastenango (the discovery place of the Popol Vuh) or smaller villages like those that circle Lake Atitlán. Villagers in places like San Juan la Laguna typically work on cooperative farms where a full-day’s labor nets the equivalent of $5. Many such homes welcome travelers who wish to take cooking classes, enjoy a garden-fresh home-cooked meal or even stay with a family. What are relatively inexpensive activity costs (especially compared to expat-promoted equivalents) benefit the families tremendously. San Juan is a village with an English-language website that helps coordinate such experiences, but travelers can find such experiences in much of the country with a little effort and ideally a little Spanish. Speak with someone at the hotel, hostel or homestay, or recruit (and tip) a bilingual local to connect you with welcoming homes and traditional restaurants. Organic farm-to-table is the norm, not the exception, but the most authentic places commonly involve rustic settings that might lack electricity and modern plumbing. Embrace it. An old-world setting often corresponds to old-world eats. Just remember, the food is pure, but the water might not be, so bring bottled drinking water.

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Ingredients for Pepián Stew Photo: Guatemala Tourism Board

What should a culinary adventurist try in the modern Maya nation? Start with the basics, like chicken, eggs, beans and tortillas, understanding that similar farm-fresh eggs might sell for $7/dozen at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market. From there, seek out traditional stews and sauce-based foods made by grinding ingredients into a powder or paste on a lava-stone slab (metate). The aforementioned pepián, which likely originated with spiritual ceremonies in the mid-16th century, is the quintessential metate classic, but other traditional lava stone stews include the wild turkey- and chile-based kakik and the tangy chicken-based jacón with tomatillos, cilantro and ground sesame and pumpkin seeds. Guatemalan guacamole is another must-try dish, and since refrigeration can be unreliable, it is typically made fresh adding only lime juice and salt so as not to dilute the creamy local avocados.

The Maya Future

Diego Telles, the Noma- and Mugaritz-trained chef behind Flor de Lis in Guatemala City, leads the charge for Nuevo Guatemalan applying elite gastronomic technique to local ingredients. The only option is a tasting menu that typically changes each night (sometimes in the same night), and the restaurant exemplifies the standard idea of gastronomic tourism. In the next few years, Flor de Lis could become the first Central American restaurant to make Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list, and Chef Telles certainly provides a striking contrast between Guatemala’s past and future.

“We present Guatemalan food without being traditional,” explains Telles. “For example, you don’t find a kind of pepián here because a lot of people do this better, like my grandma for example. You see Guatemala influences, but we give the food a little bit of a twist. At Noma, they do not use anything that they cannot find within 60 miles from the restaurant, and when I came back to Guatemala, I realized there is no restaurant in Guatemala doing this. I wanted to do this and see what happened. The [mushroom] morels that most people think are from Mexico are actually from Guatemala, but you cannot find them here, which makes me mad. Guatemalan people do not know what they have, so I have been exploring Guatemala to find new things and work with them.”

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Flor de Lis Chef Diego Telles Photo: Guatemala Tourism Board

Still, the forward-thinking chef is the first to acknowledge the country’s strong embrace of tradition. He continues, “We are doing more crazy stuff but just a little bit at a time because the Guatemalan people are not that open-minded. My mom thinks [my restaurant] is strange. My dad, I don’t know, he is polite, but he is very traditional. Every time they come to the restaurant, he asks, ‘Can you just make a fish?’”

The term foodie is now cliché, but a foodie in the positive sense of the word must be more than a Top Chef fan who owns a Ferran Adrià cookbook and Instagrams every meal. A true culinary connoisseur, one might argue, should appreciate the future and the past, innovation and tradition, experimentation and purity. Elite restaurants exist in Antigua and Guatemala City—and visit them by all means—but also embrace the farm-fresh cuisine of a long-lost empire whose agricultural influence still circles the globe. Such opportunities are becoming increasingly less common, but right now they still exist in Guatemala.

David Jenison is a Los Angeles native and the Content Editor of PROHBTD. He has covered entertainment, restaurants and travel for more than 20 years.

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