After a short break in the guest post series, due to my intense travels around Africa over the last three weeks, we’re back with a post by Trudy of The Innkeeper’s Tail, an American expat living and working in Guatemala City. Trudy takes us on a tour of Guatemala, for a look at the local food culture.
FOOD IN GUATEMALA
The dictum of the local foods movement, to eat only that which is produced close to home, is fairly easy to follow in Guatemala, since there aren’t many alternatives. It is a very small country, with terrain that spans coasts to highlands, so trying to eat foods grown, fished, or gathered within 250 miles or so is normal. Moreover, the varied terrain allows for many different types of local produce.
We manage an inn, Quality Service Hotel, in the historic center of Guatemala City. Since moving here, there have been a few things that took some getting used to. For somebody who has lived most of her life on the plains of Louisiana, Texas and Florida, the altitude means that one has to readjust baking times. The produce here is most often several times larger than the produce found in the US supermarkets and, due to the lack of preservatives, it lasts much less. This means that if one doesn’t allocate time carefully, one ends up with a fridge full of rotting veggies. It is also important to wash all fruits and vegetables very well before consuming.
The benefits, however, outweigh these minor issues. Food here is fresher and tastes much better. Flavors are earthier and more intense. There are delicious fruits to be found in Guatemala, the likes of which one has never seen before. I can imagine how the first colonizers from Europe must have marveled when faced with such goodies. No doubt it seemed they had found gastronomic paradise.
Does all this freshness mean that I’ve done away with processed or packaged foods? Not entirely, for sure, but compared to how much I consume it in the US, I would say that it has become a minimum percentage of the daily diet. One thing I’ve noticed is that all parts of an animal are used in local butchery. Not that I plan to taste all of them, but still… Awesome how everything is used, nothing wasted. Survival economy, I guess.
One of the best places to go for food is the Mercado Central in the historic center of Guatemala City. Definitely a must! The market, with three levels covering a full block behind the cathedral, was founded over 130 years ago. It offers an arts & crafts area, the produce section, the butchers-and-fishmongers area, a flower market, and so on.
Many of our guests have spent up to six hours in the market, even if they don’t purchase anything, just for the fun of it. You can sit in the diners’ area and have breakfast and lunch, and while the day away visiting the hundreds of arts and crafts stalls. The colors, sights and sounds are simply enthralling. Any day you can find a small United Nations sample among the shoppers: Mennonites from the USA, Israeli backpackers, European tourists, visiting Caribbean soccer teams, foreign academics, expats of all nationalities (such as yours truly) and, of course, Guatemalans from all walks of life. A great place to meet people from around the world!
Most of the sellers, however, are ethnic Mayan from rural areas. If you visit, you must go to Doña Mela’s food stall. Doña Mela, a veritable national icon, sells an excellent array of typical Guatemalan gastronomy, such as black beans and fried plantains, pork chittlings, stuffed chilies and tortillas, chojín (a pungent concoction of diced radishes with onions pickled in lots of lime), rice and beans, and much more. All of these are truly representative of the mixture of Spanish, Mayan, African and even Arabic cultures. Her stall is always crammed with buyers! You haven’t had real Guatemalan food ‘till you’ve visited Doña Mela’s place.
We can learn to use and enjoy these foods, whether we eat due to our ethnic traditions or a willingness and desire to try new flavors. For example, popular staples at the Mercado Central of Guatemala include shark fin (endangered, I know!), turtle eggs, chickens sold with half-formed eggs still in their entrails (considered quite a delicacy here), bulls’ testicles, and a huge assortment of fruit, vegetable, honey, grains, mushrooms, teas, spices, chilies, fresh and medicinal herbs, flowers, and more. Moreover, an amazing amount of food can be had for pennies on the dollar. It actually makes one – and trust me, a dedicated cook I’m not – want to learn how to cook it all at home. It’s actually fun. Okay, it’s fun most of the time. There is such a thing as misjudging the potency of a chile.
I have become so enthralled by the food culture here that I am getting ready to register in bread-making, cheese-making and sausage-making courses at one of the (impressively modern and hi-tech!) open vocational schools here. Unlike schools in the USA, which pose all sorts of impediments to foreigners, expats such as me are encouraged to register. That way I can ensure that, to a certain extent, I will take back with me the local flavors and tastes when I return to live in my country. That is … if I do return!