Native products of Guatemala that you should know about
One of the most obvious qualities of the new continent is, that due to its late involvement in global trade has made it possible for a cultural development at a different pace. This development implies the trade of ingredients, transmission of knowledge and domestication of crops.
by André Schrei
A diet that little is known
Mesoamerica is an area that stands out for its biodiversity with a density of 200 to 300 plant species per square kilometer. In this case, plants took a particular priority in the local diet: on the one hand, as basic foodstuff and caloric intake and, on the other, for their medicinal properties. Beyond what was maintained as oral tradition, there are few vestiges of the pre-Hispanic diet. Due to the lack of written documentation, it is difficult to define at what time some dishes started. Furthermore, it is difficult to define if there was any subsequent syncretism between traditional gastronomy and new ingredients, as it happened with sugar or with some African ingredients that are now known in traditional dishes (such as banana or plantain).
Cocoa and pineapple, international products
Two obvious pre-Hispanic ingredients in the region are cocoa and pineapples, both of which are evident in hieroglyphics and in Mayan sculptures. One originated from the Amazon basin and the other from the Peten region of Guatemala. In addition to the ingredients that are known worldwide, there is a plethora of ingredients that are traditionally consumed in the region, even if not being cultivated for consumption and being less known around the world.
Maya nut is a high protein seed that was consumed in seasons of scarcity. According to some anthropologists, it was even used as a substitute for corn. Its consumption occurs mainly in the Peten area, although the tree grows widely in the country. Due to its nutritional elements and for being an organic and ancestral product, this seed is currently becoming popular again as food. Its consumption varies. As a seed, it can be dried and used to produce flour or be cooked in a stew. Its flavor is slightly sweet. Due to the amount of starches and proteins, it has interesting rheological (viscoelastic) properties, so that it can be used as a thickener or partial substitute for flours.
In addition, the bark and leaves of the tree are used for tea. According to popular belief, since they provide energy and are easy to recognize, they are a mean to survive in the jungle, if you get lost in it.
Prehispanic food was full of edible herbs and flowers that we can probably recognize as some ornamental plants, but nowadays we do not consider as food. One of the most appreciated flowers in gastronomy is the chufle (calathea macrosepala). The flower is used in soups and their roots are also consumed. The roots maintain their consistency after being cooked and have a nutty flavor. The leaves are eventually used to wrap tamales.
Toquilla palm (carludovica palmata) is a plant that Guatemalans have utilised in a number of different ways since ancient times. Its blades are used for the elaboration of ranchos, while the flexible fibers of its stem are used to make hats, baskets or even paper. Finally, the tender fibers of the stem are consumed. Its flavour is subtle but its texture makes it interesting to eat.
Spathiphyllum phryniifolium is another flower that is known more for its ornamental use, but is still consumed as a traditional ingredient. Similar to most ancestral edible flowers, its flavour is bitter. Usually only tender shoots are used to avoid the very bitter flavour. Among its nutritional properties, it has zinc, magnesium and iron.
The Hoja Santa (piper auritum) is possibly the best-known ancestral Mesoamerican plant around the world. This leaf stands out for its aniseed notes that differ from the European anise. Although it is a mainly aromatic herb, it possesses medicinal properties. In Guatemala, the Garífuna ethnic group adopted the plant the best. They used the leaf to wrap products in long cooking or to cover certain soups. The piper genus is 50 million years old and its species have varied medicinal qualities.
Mayan tree spinach
It is a nine-pointed leaf with high iron content and high protein content. It is traditionally consumed in regions with cloud forest or rainforest. Owing to the large size that it usually reaches, it is used to flavour or cover food in the form of a veil.
The ancestral cuisine stands out in the consumption of stews, with most of the served dishes being cooked in ashes (bacha en q’eqchi), clay pots (apaste) or wrapped in a mashan sheet. All are characterized by slow cooking, with the exception of the tortilla.
Other products of interest
Ancestral meat ingredients are consumed in smaller quantities because of endangered species. The exception is turkey, which is still traditionally eaten. Prehispanic ingredients are mainly known in regions, far from cities, which have preserved their traditions. An example is miel de doncella (the maiden’s honey), a honey from melipona bees (a species similar to the bee, but without sting, domesticated by the Mayans) characterized by a more acid taste. It can be bought in the regions of Verapaces and in Petén.
Edible flowers and plants
Its consumption is maintained in sectors far from cities. There, it is believed that food should be consumed from private gardens and home-grown. Most of these species are obtained through friends or relatives who grow them in their gardens.
Among the most valuable species of flowers and edible herbs are:
- Amaranthus hybridus
- Cnidoscolus aconitifolium
- Crotalaria longirostrata
- Solanum nigrescens
- Lycianthes synanthera
- Solanum americanum
- Dysphania ambrosioides
- Sechium edule
- Solanum wendlandii
Edible ancestral flowers:
- Fernaldia pandurata
- Chamedorea tepejilote
- Yucca elephantipes
- Gliricidia sepium
- Erythrina berteroana
- Goeppertia macrosepala
- Spathyphyllum phrynifolium
- Cucurbita maxima
- Bromelia pinguin
- Carludovica utilis