Everybody knows that grandmothers like to feed you. They say, “you’re too skinny,” and stuff you ’till you literally can’t stomach any more. Due to the fact that my abuelita (grandma) lives in Guatemala, she has been robbed of this grandmotherly right. So you can imagine her delight, and my impending weight gain, when I showed up at her doorstep in San Pedro Pinula to visit for three whole weeks.
The following is an account of the delicious, incredible, and sometimes downright shocking foods I had the privilege of consuming during my stay.
Cafe de Maiz (corn coffee)
Visiting my Tía Mirian (keep in mind, everyone is either aunt, uncle, or cousin, and trust me, it’s a lot easier than second cousin once removed or great aunt in law), I politely declined the funny smelling coffee. I was full, and well, I already don’t even really like the smell of Starbucks coffee. But “no” means nothing to a grandma, and I was quickly given a cafe de maiz and what I thought was an overcooked sweet tortilla. I was told it wasn’t regular coffee, and far from Starbucks, as it was made from dried and ground corn. It smelled like popcorn and tasted like burnt sugar. My grandma then proceeded to break up my tortilla and unceremoniously toss it into my corn coffee. The stiff tortilla suddenly made sense, because as I had discovered earlier, and will discuss later, Guatemalans love soggy bread.
Breakfast in Guatemala is not like the typical Western make-up. A smoothie or bowl of cereal would be seen as starvation to my family. It was always a feast, with tortillas, beans, cheeses, and most importantly: meat. I quite literally woke up one morning to my grandma barbecuing steaks. Protesting was futile, I ate or… I ate. Now, she was probably going a bit overboard for my visit, but I was generally given a three course meal. I made the early onset mistake of exclaiming my love of tamales, a corn dough with a little meat and sauce at the centre and wrapped in a banana leaf. I started most days eating one of these. A dish that used to be an entire meal had become my morning appetizer. Another interesting thing about latin culture is that anything goes for breakfast. There are no light breakfast specific foods; dinner leftovers are perfectly normal breakfast fare.
Near the end of my visit, my Tío Virgilio decided I had to try a popular seafood restaurant in Zacapa. A winding two-hour drive through unpaved mountains from our town. We piled into my uncles car with his wife, twin daughters, mother in law, and my grandma. As you probably surmised, it was a cozy fit. We passed lush coffee farms and stunning aerial views of the wild valleys. Some of the roads were smooth, with plumes of dust following in our wake, others felt like sitting on a jack hammer as we drove over recently cleared landslides. I was carsick by the time we arrived at Marea Roja, yet eager to eat seafood.
The meal started with a small bowl of a tomato broth, a big juicy shrimp inside, and a healthy squeeze of fresh lime. We each ordered a separate dish, but my family loves to share, so it was more like a buffet. We had a buttery herbed lobster, a seafood soup, garlic shrimp, and a giant shrimp ceviche. The meals came with buttered vegetables, rice and beans, and crispy plantain strips. Also, special mention to the pickled onions, as I ended up eating them out of the bowl with a fork because they were so damned tangy and addicting.
One of my favourite meals was at my madrina’s (godmother’s) summer home. A ginormous estate with fields of roaming cows, a large pond, and towering trees. It had a large porch that wrapped around the entire house with hammocks and chairs looking out on the distant surrounding mountains. For dinner, a long table was set on said porch of paradise. Appetizers of chips and dips were passed around, as well as yummy toasted chicken empanadas. My padrino (godfather) was all too happy to inform me (after I ate it, of course) that it was made of chicken guts. I was, naturally, mildly horrified, but respected that they used the whole chicken. I would live to regret that statement.
The main course then began with soup, rice, and tortillas – you won’t find a meal in Guatemala without tortillas. The soup was delicious and hearty, and I easily avoided the chicken bones and skin (the shock and horror yet to come). I set it aside for some steak, chimole, a salsa of tomato, onions and chives, and fresh cream from one of my uncle’s farms. Clearing a few dishes, I stood in the kitchen about to empty my soup bowl. Noticing a red piece of meat, I gingerly picked it up. Pressed between my thumb and forefinger was a tiny chicken heart.
I actually gasped.
My first thought, truly one of the stupidest things I’ve ever thought, was: it’s so anatomically correct.
Dessert was a welcome distraction of unknown substances and textures.
There was turrón (a meringue) which tasted like Fluff (marhsmallow in a jar), chilacayote, which was a strange gelatinous sugar everyone loved, but I couldn’t get on board with. Then there was torreja. I had my reservations. It looked like a mushy wet pile of bread. I had a tentative bite and my face must have bloomed like a cartoon character. I loved soggy bread. A bread covered in egg in a pool of honey. I had three helpings. Later on I ordered it at a restaurant and was dismayed at the neat and orderly dish. It still tasted fabulous, but had nothing on my Tía Aurita’s cooking.
So Guatemala ended up being an adventurous culinary wonder. I had so many spectacular meals. From traditional home cooked labours of love to beautifully prepared restaurant dishes. I am so grateful to my family for giving me such a tasty and soulful experience. Probably could have done without the chicken heart though.