Fiambre in Guatemala: What Is It and Why Do We Celebrate It?
Fiambre is truly the mother of all salads.
This unique dish is prepared and eaten each year for Día de Todos Santos (All Saints Day) on November 1 and Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) on November 2. It is a time for family and sharing. For Guatemalans, fiambre symbolizes both of these essential values.
Served chilled, it contains a smorgasbord of ingredients. A variety of vegetables, meats, cheeses, and pickled relishes galore compose this salad. The dictionary meaning of el fiambre is “cold cut,” but it’s also a notably unappetizing colloquial word for “corpse,” used in reference to the cold, stiff state in which you’d find a lifeless body.
You either love fiambre—or hate it with a passion.
Although most Latin Americans celebrate these holidays, fiambre is unique to Guatemala. More than a mere salad, it is a symbol of love and community as well as a melting pot of Arabic, European, and Mayan cultures, traditions, places, and people.
A Brief History of Fiambre
Many people consider fiambre to be a terrific expression of Guatemalan tradition. According to historian Celso Lara, it represents the country’s multiculturalism. You can see diverse cultural influences in fiambre, from longaniza sausage to Spanish olives to pacaya palm flowers.
Spanish colonizers brought the custom of eating cold dishes, having adopted the habit themselves from the Arabs. Friar Tomás Gage wrote about eating fiambre in his Chronicle of Travels to Guatemala published in the mid-17th century. Cuban poet José Martí also wrote about fiambre in 1876.
Fiambre is more than a meal; it also symbolizes kinship. Recipes specific to an individual family are passed from generation to generation. Fiambre is deeply rooted in history and continuously adapting to modern times.
The legend of fiambre involves families visiting the cemetery and tending their ancestors’ gravesites on November 1 and 2. They would bring food that their departed loved ones had enjoyed and share a meal together. They believe this reignites a connection with those on the other side of the veil. Guatemalans are warm and friendly, so each family shared their dishes with folks at the neighboring gravesites. Eventually, all these dishes combined into one: fiambre.
Popular Opinions on Fiambre
Considering that people’s opinions of this dish are as colorful and varied as its ingredients, I decided to survey my Guatemalan friends. Here’s what they had to say:
- A mí me encanta, tantas verduras y embutidos todos juntos con el aderezo ideal. – I love it, so many vegetables and sausages all together with the perfect dressing.
- El vegetariano lleno de verduras en conserva, ¡delis! – The vegetarian [fiambre] full of preserved veggies, delicious! (Delis is a shortened/slang version of the word delicioso.)
- Una combinación increíble de verduras, diferentes tipos de carne, memorias, cuentos, historias, y almas. – Amazing combination of vegetables, different kinds of meats, memories, stories, history, and souls.
- Me encanta el perfil del sabor y el concepto pero preferiría menos carne y mariscos y más verduras. – Love the flavor profile and concept but would prefer less meat/cold cuts/seafood and more veggies
- La verdad; no me gusta mucho. Carne barato y un sabor acido. Y está frío. – The truth is I don’t like it much. Cheap meat and a sour taste. And it is cold.
As you can see, the love-or-hate theme continues. I personally fall into the latter camp, but I admittedly only tried fiambre once, several years ago. I plan to give it another shot this year.
Surprisingly, fiambre contains an average of 40 ingredients! The most common types include steamed vegetables, hams, sausages, and cheeses. Guatemalans like to serve it with olives, lettuce, more cheese, and a sour, spicy dressing called caldillo.
The first step in preparation of this special dish is an early-morning trip to the mercado to buy fresh veggies and meats. Then, it’s time to go home and prepare the ingredients by grilling, boiling, pickling, and/or chopping them. Next, it’s all mixed together with the dressing and left in the refrigerator overnight. Finally, the familia eats it for lunch the following day (or the following several days)!
Despite the wealth of variety in ways to prepare fiambre, a pattern of “types” has emerged over time. Several popular categories of the dish include:
- Fiambre rojo, which has beets that dye all the other ingredients pink or red
- Fiambre blanco, a common version without beets
- Fiambre verde, which is vegetarian
- Fiambre desarmado, which presents the ingredients separately, allowing the consumer to mix and match
Bilingual Fiambre Recipe
To jumpstart your journey with fiambre, I’ve assembled a simplified version of the traditional recipes for you to try on your own. Feel free to add or remove ingredients as desired. The meats in this salad are cooked, chilled, and served cold-cut style. Traditionally, the vegetables are cooked separately and marinated ahead of time.
Ingredientes del aderezo
- 3/4 cup chopped parsley – perejil
- 1/2 cup white vinegar – vinagre
- 2 tablespoons capers – alcaparras
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard – mostaza
- 6 green onions, chopped – cebollas
- 1 clove garlic – ajo
- 1 piece fresh ginger (1 inch), peeled and chopped – jengibre
- 1 tablespoon honey – miel
- 1/2 teaspoon salt – sal
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper – pimienta
- 1 cup olive oil – aceite de oliva
Ingredientes de la ensalada
- 1 pound chicken breast, poached and cut into bite sized pieces – pechuga de pollo
- 1 pound medium shrimp, cooked – camarones
- 3 ounces Spanish chorizo (cooked and uncured) sliced into strips – chorizo
- 3 ounces salami, sliced – salami
- 4 ounces ham, sliced into strips – jamón
- 1 small round of fresh cheese, crumbled – queso fresco
- 1/2 pound Parmesan cheese, shredded – queso Parmesano
- 1 head of lettuce – lechuga
- 1 pound small golden potatoes, diced – papas
- 1 head cauliflower, cut into florets – coliflor
- 1/2 pound asparagus, chopped – asparragús
- 12 ounces pickled beets, drained – remolachas
- 4 hard boiled eggs, sliced or wedged – huevos duros
- 5 radishes, cut decoratively for garnish – rabanas
- 3 ounces Spanish olives – aceitunas/olivas
- 3 ounces mini gherkins – pepinillos
- 2-3 pacayas, cut into pieces – pacayas
- 3 bay leaves – hojas de laurel
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme – tomillo
Primero: Heat a large pot of water with 2 teaspoons salt over a high flame. Once boiling, poach the chicken with bay leaves and thyme, until cooked through (about 15 minutes). Meanwhile, prepare any meats that need cooking or slicing and then chill them.
Segundo: Refill the pot of water, add more salt, and bring it to a boil. Cut the potatoes into bite-sized pieces and boil for 10 minutes. Add in the cauliflower florets and boil for 3 minutes. Finally, toss in the asparagus and simmer 1-2 minutes. Drain all vegetables. Prepare all remaining vegetables and chill.
Tercero: Puree the dressing ingredients—except the oil—in a blender until smooth. Then with the blender still running, drizzle in the oil slowly until emulsified.
Cuarto: Marinate any meats or vegetables in 1 cup of dressing for at least 30 minutes. Remove and save dressing for salad.
Quinto: On a large platter, arrange the lettuce leaves, and half of the meats, cheeses, and vegetables. Repeat with a second layer. Garnish with sliced gherkins, olives, radishes, eggs, and pacayas. Drizzle with dressing.
Fiambre is traditionally accompanied by a traditional Guatemalan dessert, such as dulce de ayote or jocotes en miel. Check out our list of 10 Mouthwatering Spanish Desserts and How to Make Them!
What are your thoughts on fiambre? Do you love it or hate it? Have you tried it? If not, I hope this blog post has inspired you to make a version of your own. Let me know in a comment!