7 Appetizing Guatemalan Tamales You Have to Try
Guatemalan tamales are one of the most popular dishes in Guatemala.
The word tamal comes from the nahuatl tamalli, and it usually identifies a pre-Columbine food, whose ingredients are masa de maíz (corn dough) or rice dough, meat (beef, chicken or pork), vegetables, sauce, and even fruits.
Most tamales use natural leaves as wrappings—such as dried corn husks, or leaves from banana, avocado or maguey trees.
Keep on reading to learn why tamales are such an important food in Guatemalan culture!
Let’s explore the history behind some of these dishes, and then get to the good stuff: the recipes!
Why Are Tamales So Important?
Tamales are a traditional food that connects several generations of Mesoamerican people. These traditional delicacies are a reflection of all the different cultures that make up the region, their needs, and their ways to overcome adversity.
Guatemalans prepare tamales with local produce—they use meat or vegetables and mix them with la masa (dough) to make them as hearty as possible. They’re not expensive to buy and they’re sure to satisfy whoever eats them.
In Guatemala, everyone takes pride in preparing delicious food for their guests, friends, and families since cooking is a way to show affection and care (which is an essential characteristic of Guatemalan culture).
Tamales are a perfect example of the food that makes them especially proud. This deep connection between food and culture is no surprise, given that traditional dishes are a reliable way to retain ethnic and cultural identities.
The tradition of making tamales in Guatemala is the result of teaching techniques across generations. Getting together to prepare the tamales as a family is part of the fun and celebration on special occasions.
Guatemalans make tamales not only to delight in their taste but also to keep alive one of the oldest traditions of the country.
Are you ready to try some?
7 Delicious Guatemalan Tamales You Have To Try
Tamales are a fundamental part of the culinary culture of Guatemala, but that doesn’t mean Guatemalans keep this information to themselves! So check out this list of seven of the most delicious tamales you have to try when you visit this beautiful country!
1. Red Tamal (Tamal colorado)
El tamal colorado is the most common and popular kind of tamal in Guatemala that people typically eat on Saturday nights. These tamales are a perfect meal for celebrations like birthdays, weddings, engagements, and quinceaños—a celebration to mark a girl’s 15th birthday.
Los tamales colorados get their name from the red color of the achiote, a natural food-coloring agent called “annatto” in English. El recado is a kind of thick sauce with several kinds of chilli, tomatoes, and pepitoria (a native seed in Guatemala).
The base of these savory tamales is a soft rice or corn dough—or a combination of both—known as masa. The consistency of this masa is almost mushy, unlike that of Mexican tamales, which is firmer. You can add a piece of whichever meat you prefer (the most common being chicken or pork), a red chilli pepper strip, and one green olive.
People wrap tamales with a plantain leaf and tie them up with cibaque, a vegetable fiber. They are usually not spicy, but spice-lovers like to add chili to it.
Los tamales navideños (Christmas tamales) are a variant of the tamales colorados, and besides the meat and the recado, they include raisins and prunes, and you eat them during the Christmas and New Year celebrations.
A lot of people like to add lime juice to their tamales colorados, and accompany them with pan francés—Guatemalan bread rolls.
It makes me hungry just thinking about it!
Do you want to try making tamales colorados at home? Check out this recipe in Spanish!
2. Black Tamal (Tamal negro)
Los tamales negros are a variant of the red tamal, but they are sweet instead.
Their name comes from the black recado, which includes tomatoes, lard, sugar, champurradas (a kind of sweet bread or Guatemalan cookie), handmade chocolate, clove, pasilla chili, pepitoria, sesame seed, cinnamon, and salt. Some people like to add a coffee sauce to this mix, too.
You can also add a piece of meat and decorate with almonds, raisins, and prunes.
It may sound like a strange combination of flavors, but this particular mix of sweet and savory makes the tamal negro a beloved favorite among Guatemalans. You can also top your tamales negros with some lime juice and a side of pan francés.
Here is a recipe in Spanish you can use to share this tamal with your friends and family.
3. Chipilín Tamal (Tamalito de chipilín)
El chipilín is a perennial legume native to Central America, and is the most important ingredient of the tamalito de chipilín. Tamalito means “little tamal,” which is a fitting name considering its smaller size.
Unlike the tamales negros y colorados, the tamalito de chipilín has a heavier consistency. The masa is more compact and firmer, and it doesn’t have recado or meat of any kind. People usually eat it as a side dish, and sometimes with tortillas, or with a chirmol, a traditional tomato sauce.
Los tamalitos de chipilín are easy to prepare, inexpensive, and perfect to eat during breakfast or as a midday snack.
Are you interested in learning how to prepare them? Here is the recipe in Spanish!
4. Corn Tamal (Tamalito de elote)
El tamalito de elote is different from other authentic Guatemalan tamales due to their sweet, unique flavor.
El elote means “corn” in Spanish, and these little tamales are prepared with the tender kernels of sweet corn. To elaborate the masa you have to grind the kernels, making it a bit firmer and stickier than other tamales.
You can eat these Guatemalan tamales as a snack, especially on the weekends, topping them with cream and cheese—which make a delicious contrast with the sweetness of the masa. They taste better hot than cold.
Want to try this delicious tamal? Here is the recipe in Spanish with all the ingredients you may need. Enjoy!
5. Traveling Tamal (Tamalito de viaje)
El tamalito de viaje is a small, corn-based tamal that once formed part of the daily diet of the Xinca (an indigenous group of Guatemala), who ate them at the end of their working day. Because the Xinca carried these tamales with them wherever they traveled, they earned the name “small traveling tamal.”
Also called tamal blanco, you prepare the masa from white corn. It has a hard and firm consistency that serves as the perfect side dish (replacing bread or tortillas) to traditional dishes like el pepián and el revolcado, two traditional Guatemalan stews. It also goes nicely with el fiambre, a traditional cold meats and vegetables dish that commemorates the dead on November 1st.
The tamal blanco does not include recado or meat, and people wrap it with la tusa, the dry corn husk.
Here is the recipe in Spanish if you are interested in preparing these simple and delicious tamalitos.
6. Los paches
Los paches are potato-based tamales that Guatemalans traditionally eat on Thursdays.
The name pache alludes to its shape, since pache literally means “flat” in Guatemalan slang. This dish is originally from Quetzaltenango, one of the 22 departments of Guatemala, but is now popular throughout the country.
Los paches are similar to tamales colorados in that they share comparable recados and meat options, but the ingredients of the masa are completely different. Instead of corn, people use potatoes, which they then wrap in a plantain leaf and tie up with cibaque.
Additionally, paches sometimes include a piece of chili (and if you ask me, they taste better when you eat them with pan francés!)
Of all the Guatemalan tamales on this list, these are my favorites. Their consistency is a little firmer than other traditional Guatemalan tamales, and the potatoes provide a delicious texture and flavor.
Here is a simple recipe in Spanish if you want to try to make this delicious traditional Guatemalan dish.
7. Los chuchitos
Chuchitos is a funny word because it means “little dogs.” But fear not, this traditional Guatemalan tamal has nothing to do with a dog in the culinary sense.
Los chuchitos are small balls of thick and heavy corn masa, pretty similar to los tamalitos de viaje, filled with recado and a piece of meat. They are packed in a tusa wrapping that looks more like a little pouch or bag, unlike the traditional Guatemalan tamal wrapping of plantain leaf.
You can eat chuchitos as a main dish, but also as a snack during the weekends. People usually serve them in a traditional salsa, a really liquid tomato sauce. You can also top them with heavy cream and queso seco—a salty and dry cheese.
FUN FACT! There is a marimba song by the name Chuchitos calientes (Hot chuchitos). If you’re lucky, you’ll hear this song while savoring a delicious chuchito on market day in Guatemala.
Would you like to try and prepare some chuchitos? Here is a simple and easy-to-follow recipe in Spanish so you can do so!
Prepare for a Guatemalan Culinary Tour By Learning Spanish!
Guatemalans are notably friendly and hospitable people, and they are highly appreciative of any effort from visitors and foreigners to learn about Guatemalan culture and language. Naturally, Guatemalans prize the interest in communicating effectively and easily with one another.
If you plan to visit Guatemala to indulge in traditional foods, be sure to enhance the quality of your trip by learning some Spanish beforehand!
Learning Spanish before or while you travel will lift the language barrier and enable you to connect with native Spanish speakers and facilitate meaningful conversations. This leads to great experiences and opens unique opportunities to you while visiting any country in Latin America.
Make life-long relationships by experiencing Guatemalan culture and become a part of it through Spanish fluency! Sign up for a free one-on-one class with our certified Spanish teachers from Guatemala and practice your conversational skills in real time! Start your journey to fluency today.
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