The Spanish Side of Guatemalan Cooking

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Published on Revue Magazine (page 54), February, 2015 -articleIngredients and recipes by Amalia Moreno-Damgaard.   Prior to Spanish colonization, Guatemala had cuisine consisting of only native ingredients. With the arrival of the Spaniards, and subsequent waves of immigrants, came not only new ingredients and cooking techniques, but also their food culture.

I can think of plenty of unfavorable things that came with colonization, but I rather concentrate on the fusion of flavors that elevated cooking in the New World as a whole. I cannot imagine making delicious refried beans, stews, soups, sauces and many more dishes without onions and garlic. Yes, they were part of the exchange, as were spices and herbs, such as the trio of bay (laurel) leaves, oregano and thyme, that are native to other parts of the world and now also Guatemalan cooking staples.

Saffron is used in some Guatemalan cooking. The most common use is in paella, although because of saffron’s high cost, achiote or food color is often used as a substitute to give rice its yellow hue. Fats and oils came with imported pigs, cows and olives. As a result, the sofrito (quick-fried sauce)
also became accepted and basic in the preparation of just about every type of cooking that requires braising, stewing, pureeing and more. As a result, butter, lard, milk and cheese gained popularity and this along with many other new ingredients merged with the original food to form a new cuisine.

Guatemalan cuisine is simple and mild, and so is Spanish cuisine, thus the mix was practical. It is fairly easy to give a Guatemalan dish Spanish (or Mediterranean) flair by using the basic olive oil sofrito as a base, saffron and a splash of wine, which by the way, did not gain popularity in Guatemala (or other Latin countries) despite its Spanish tradition. However, wine is gaining popularity today in Guatemala because it is also a growing “foodie” interest in other parts of the world.

revue mag logoWhether Guatemalans like it or not, Spanish cooking is a part of our lives. In fact, everyday food in most homes is based on Spanish replicas with injections of native herbs, vegetables and other flavors. Rice, another import, is the perfect pairing for stews, beans, soups and many other dishes.
When I think of rice, I remember my mom’s delicious and fancy arroz con espárragos (asparagus rice), which she made for special occasions to accompany her pollo con Pepsi (chicken with Pepsi-Cola sauce). My grandmother made rice with onion, garlic and tomato sofrito, along with julienne carrots and peas, to go with her famous caldo de gallina (hen and vegetable soup).

The recipe that follows is a good example of flavor fusion and is representative of what happened in Guatemala and in other parts of Latin America. Many Spanish originals were adapted in each Latin country according to local cultural tastes, as in the case of hilachas (spicy shredded beef and potato stew). This could be a Mayan stew if we took away the Old World ingredients (onions, garlic,
bay leaf, thyme, beef and others) and it resembles a Cuban ropa vieja (“old clothes” stew) or the Venezuelan carne mechada (shredded beef stew). Coincidence?

As an adult, my interests in all types of cooking were awakened when I attended Le Cordon Bleu. I realized then that I came from a part of the world rich in so many things, but that there was a bigger world out there in terms of culinary discovery. So my studies today take me beyond Guatemalan and Latin cooking and during research I connect the dots and keep finding new ingredients, even from Guatemala. So I approach every country that I visit with an open mind realizing that I may encounter similarities in cooking techniques, styles and flavors, but that there is always something that helps in the differentiation and identification each cuisine: terrain, climate, culture and so much more!

View Recipe: Guatemalan Hilachas