What I Learned in Guatemala
I just got back from my trip to Guatemala, which is also to say sorry for not posting in awhile. Aside from the Mayan ruins and other natural wonders (I saw my first wild monkey!), the food was worth the trip alone. My entire view of Latin American cooking was upended during my time there. I suppose that is why we travel though, to experience the unexpected. Having grown up in Texas, I though I knew a thing or two about Latin American cuisine. What I got in Guatemala was a pleasant surprise.
A mamba band was playing in the background as I sat down for my first meal in a little cafe at the heart of the labyrinth that is Guatemala City. I choose a traditional chicken stew with rice and tortillas on the side. The dish arrived and it looked delicious with pieces of chicken and various vegetables floating in a hearty yet delicate looking stock. Stewed herbs floated easily around the surface.
I used to labor under the delusion that all Latin dishes were spicy. So, dipping my spoon in and going for my first bite, I was ready for the expected onslaught of heat. My hand ready to grab the glass of freshly made aquas frescas to help squelch the flame.
But it never came. Instead my palate was greeted with a complex and savory flavor that lacked any spiciness to it, leaving me somewhat wanting. I spied some homemade hot sauce among the condiments on my table and added a couple dashes, bringing perfect balance to the dish. Later I was to realize this was their modus operendi, leaving the customer to add heat to their own taste and providing either hot sauces or pepper mixtures to do so.
There is nothing flashy about traditional Guatemalan cooking though it is always filling and satisfying. Almost every meal, including breakfast, comes with black beans. Handmade tortillas were in abundance and always freshly pressed and hot. Lightly seasoned chicken with a hint of salt, grilled or fried, seemed the standard protein though now and again I was treated to some beef. When I was lucky, my meals came with a fresh halved avocado shaped rounder than those in the States. Looking at the meals, they never seemed very large until I stood up to leave and felt astonishingly full.
In all of the places I have travelled to, breakfast is normally a small affair of a pastry or bread with coffee and maybe eggs. Few times in my life have I enjoyed as massive a breakfast as is typical in Guatemala. Not only were there eggs, but various fruits,black beans, potatoes, pancakes, bread and a stewed tomato. The perfect way to start a day after a night of cuba libres.
At many of the cafes and restaurants that I visited there would be little or barrier between the tables and kitchen. The scents and the sounds of the young and old women each at their appointed tasks left nothing secret about how my meal was being prepared as I watched with eager anticipation. Often I felt like I was a guest in somebody’s home. One girl was sweet enough to bring me back to the simmering soups and gave me a spoonful of each to help me make up my mind. Most places had a menu del dia, a prix fixe offering of a surprising amount of food for very little money. And all of it had a certain charm as if your grandmother whipped it up while saying, “You look too thin, eat!”