When people ask me to describe Guatemala key flavors, I focus on what makes it stand out from the group of Latin cuisines.
All of them are delicious, but it’s important to know the nuances.
There are commonalities throughout Latin America, and this makes the cuisines easier to like but challenging to understand. One key ingredient is corn, which is not only a staple in Latin America, but the Americas too. Corn is a gift that Latin America gave to the world and today it is widely used in a variety of industries.
The triad corn, beans and squash, is well known in food anthropology. If we add tomatoes and chili peppers to this group, we realize that these ingredients are present in almost all Latin cuisines in one way or another. What really changes by country is the preparation technique and cook’s style.
Vegetables and fruits combined with herbs, spices and even condiments is where Latin cuisines diverge. Through my adventures in the Americas, I have taken to heart to really understand what these key differences are, and there are key seasonings per country and region within country. The deeper you dig, the deeper it gets.
In Guatemala, fresh herbs such as cilantro (referred to as culantro although this is a different plant), mint, parsley, zamat, epazote and many more are used interchangeably in numerous recipes. This wide spectrum of flavors complements sauces, soups and stews.
Spices such as canela, allspice berries, pepper, cumin, anis, sesame and pumpkin seeds, and others are what differentiate Guatemalan cuisine from other cuisines. Bay leaf, thyme and oregano are often present alone or together in one single dish. There are similarities with Mexican cuisine because of the common ingredients, but it is the unique preparation, style and culture that make it unique.
I can name star dishes in Guatemalan cuisine. I consider the Mayan stews, pepián, mole, jocón and overall Mayan stews, the very essence of our cuisine because the dishes and accompaniments allow us to showcase key ancient ingredients, seasonings and other flavorings blended with foreign influences from colonial times and beyond. When you enter the realm of tamales, you are entering a different dimension of the cuisine.
There are simple, medium and more complex dishes in every cuisine, and Guatemala has them all — from the very rustic and exotic to the refined. The cuisine varies from region to region and the reason is local culture as well as native ingredients and foreign influences through time. All cuisines are delicious yet different.
The more I learn about the cuisine, the more I discover there is to know and taste. And that is what makes it more fun and unique to me. Here is a recipe to celebrate Guatemalan colors, textures and flavors. ¡Buen provecho! Happy eating, indeed!
La Antigua Red Bean and Chorizo Salad
Piloyes are red beans native to Guatemala. They are rounder, flatter and bigger than black beans. Piloyada, a dish from La Antigua Guatemala, is beautiful and tasty fare that serves equally well as a main meal, a side or a snack. Some of the traditional toppings are the Guatemalan sausages chorizo and longaniza.
Serves 4 to 6 people
– 2 cups dried piloyes (or red kidney beans), free of debris and rinsed
– 1/2 pound pork loin, cut into 2-inch cubes
– 1 whole medium yellow onion, peeled and t-scored
– 1 whole unpeeled garlic head
– 5 cups water
– 1 ounce (1/8 cup) champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar
– 1 teaspoon minced garlic
– 1 whole bay leaf
– 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
– 2 ounces (1/4 cup) olive oil
– Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
– 1/4 cup Spanish chorizo, thinly sliced on the diagonal
– 1/4 cup strips (2 inches long) of boiled ham
– 1/4 cup bite-size pieces of Serrano ham (or diced boiled ham)
– 1/4 cup finely diced Roma tomatoes
– 1/2 cup crumbled Guatemalan queso seco (or Cotija cheese)
– 1/4 cup julienned red bell pepper
– 1 tablespoon julienned red onion
– 1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
Combine the beans, pork, onion, garlic and water in a medium Crock-Pot set on high. Cover and cook until the beans are tender, about 3 1/2 hours. (Alternatively, soak the beans in the water overnight, then cook them in the same water with the pork, onion and garlic on the stovetop over medium-low heat until tender, about 1 1/2 hours.) Discard the onion and garlic. Let cool.
Combine all the vinaigrette ingredients in a blender and process to a fine consistency.
Transfer the beans and pork to a serving bowl with 1 1/2 cups of broth. (Save the rest of the broth for another recipe.) Add the vinaigrette and mix well. Taste and adjust seasonings if needed. The beans are unseasoned, so you may have to work a bit to reach the right sazón with salt and pepper. Let the mixture stand at least 30 minutes to allow the flavors to blend.
Top the salad with garnishes in the order listed. Distribute the garnishes attractively and evenly over the dish.
This dish can be eaten either at room temperature or cold. A cold temperature can weaken the flavors, so when you serve it cold, taste and adjust the seasonings before garnishing. Eat with crusty French bread or corn tortilla chips.