Food Culture in Guatemala

Written by Simone Riddle, La Salsa Inglesa

Over this past summer I spent three months back in Guatemala undertaking an action research inquiry with the Asociación de mujeres del Altiplano (AMA) looking at how food sharing and storytelling could facilitate empowerment processes as part of my Masters programme, Participation, Power and Social Change. In this post I want to reflect on what I learned about Mayan food culture and how this culture reflects the wider principles of Mayan cosmovision (the way Maya see the world). I propose that these principles could provide us with a guide to leading a more ethical, fulfilled and balanced life.

Contrasting food cultures

One can understand food culture as the purchase and consumption of food to meet our physical needs or the wider culture that incorporates the cultivation, harvest, production, preparation and act of eating food. Esteva and Prakash (2014) who discuss this distinction in their book, ‘Grassroots Post-modernism Remaking the Soil of Cultures’ compare the industrial process of buying and consuming food common in many globalised western cultures (defined as ‘alimento’) with ‘comida culture’, which encapsulates the holistic culture around food found in many indigenous cultures like the Maya. It was this holistic, indigenous food culture I uncovered as part of my inquiry with AMA and would like to share in this article.

working-in-the-corn-fields(Photo credit to Pauline Zalkin, Fineas Media)

What’s mine is yours

‘No me vas a depreciar Simone’ (you’re not going to refuse me are you Simone?) was the response on the rare occasion I turned down someone’s offer to share the food they had brought. Trying to uphold my British politeness I had tried to refrain from taking from those that I assumed had the least to offer. However, I came to learn that refusing food offered in Guatemala was actually one of the worst kinds of cultural offense. No matter how small the offering it would be divided up and passed around by colleagues for ‘la refa’ (break time) whether it’s a glass of blended fruit, a sugared toasted bread or simply a slice of orange.

cook-making-chilaquiles(Making chilaquiles, a vegetarian dish made with güisquil, a common vegetable in Guatemala. Here it’s boiled, sliced, stuffed with cheese then fried in an egg batter)

Another example of the food sharing culture took place at lunchtime in the AMA office. Women working in the textile workshop would habitually file out one by one into the kitchen at the same time every day to eat together. Huddling around the microwave as if it were an open fire they would reheat the food prepared that morning or the leftovers from the night before, always accompanied by freshly made tortillas. If there had been a family celebration homemade corn tamalitos or chuchitos (corn balls stuffed with meat stew) would be proudly distributed like wedding favours, individually wrapped in dried corn leaves and steamed over a wood-burning stove. If it were midweek or approaching payday more humble vegetarian dishes would appear, sopa de arroz (rice soup), torta de huevo (egg flan) or verduras envueltas (vegetables fried in egg).

fried cauliflower and pasta(Cauliflower cooked in egg with a pasta and radish salad)

Before sitting down to eat everyone would systemically hand out morsels of their serving to the others present and make space on their plate in anticipation to receive the reciprocal gifts; ‘aunque solo tortillas y queso’, ‘even if it’s only tortillas and cheese’ as Guadalupe Ramirez, the Founding Director of AMA would say.  I saw the same custom in the rural communities I visited over the years, where I was always offered a drink or snack upon entering a home.

This culture of food sharing is symbolic of the Mayan philosophy ‘Yo Soy Tú y Tú Eres Yo’, ‘I am you and you are me’, where there the individual self does not exist, only the collective (Matul, La Cosmovisión Maya). This principle says that I am okay when you are okay, if I eat, you will eat. It illustrates the inherent interest in collective wellbeing over individual wellbeing. Indeed, it demonstrates empathy at the most profound: we are each other. Contrast this with the English phrase, ‘what’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine’. Although at first the distinction may appear nuanced, unpack this a little further and the phrase, although generous in its intention, reflects the (capitalist) notion of ownership. This juxtaposes the Mayan worldview that everything on this earth is in fact on loan. We do not own land or the earth’s resources but must care for them respectably, only taking what is essential. Things are no more mine than they are yours. This comparison left me pondering how different our world might look today if we had adopted indigenous food practices rather than the encroachment of western fast food culture around the globe.

The communality of eating

eating lunch together in AMAClosely linked to this sharing culture is the notion that eating is a communal ritual in Guatemala. ‘Donde comen dos comen tres’ was the phrase I learned at the beginning of my four years living in Guatemala. If there’s enough for two there’s enough for three, meaning there’s always sufficient food to go around, be it with family, friends, neighbours or even strangers. This was something Guadalupe recounted during our interview (July, 2016). She recalled her father’s occasional dismay when returning home at the end of a working day to find a horde of children squeezed around table at dinnertime, ‘how many children do I have today?!’ he would exclaim. Indeed, I learned far too late that if someone asks you to stay for dinner you must never refuse the invitation. In Guatemala, the pleasure of food comes from the act of sharing so there is always room for one more.

In my childhood home dinnertime was typically a family affair. Indeed, dinnertime was family time. Invitations were offered to guests but at planned and specified times rather than spontaneously. As many family customs, this sacred space of family meals was something I came to value as an adult. This time opened up a space for dialogue, to share and connect as a family, something many of my peers never had and would later reflect that they had envied. Those mealtimes, which later would tie the delicate threads of our incomplete family together contributed to my love of cooking and my ongoing inquisitiveness of food. However, living in Guatemala I saw a different perspective: that the pleasure of food often comes from the act of sharing so there is always room for one more. Incorporating this into my future family food rituals I shall leave the door ajar so visitors know they are always welcome, cooking large quantities of food ready to set an extra space for dinner, and serving whatever I have prepared: ‘aunque solo tortillas con queso’, even if only tortillas and cheese.

Eating together(There’s always room to feed one more in Guatemala)

Space and time: add two essential ingredients and stir 

pouring-hot-chocolateSpace and time are both essential ingredients of a healthy ‘comida’ culture. In western fast food culture we have become accustomed to eat lunch as quickly as possible. During workdays we are constantly rushing, often eating standing up or while travelling to save time; at best sat down but in front of an electronic device multitasking. Food thus becomes merely a consumptive process rather than a ritual to nourish the body, mind and spirit. In Mayan food culture the act of eating is inseparable from the ritual of making time to sit down to eat together in the kitchen: the heart of the home as Guadalupe describes.

Space to reflect

Food carves out a reflective space within the daily grind. In Guatemala this space is centred on one of three things: the fire, the stove or the table.

cat on a stoveIn most rural areas it will predominantly be the fire. Indeed, most women’s days are planned around food, beginning at the crack of dawn to light the fire to prepare the ‘nixtamal’ (the mixture where corn is soaked with water and lime before grinding to make tortillas) or the morning coffee, staying attentive throughout the day to add more firewood when needed, often fetched by hand from the surrounding mountainsides. Olivet Lopez (2015) in her article ‘Life Around the Firewood Stove: The Impact of Price Volatility,’ discusses how stoves or fires in the Highland areas of Guatemala not only provide the family’s sustenance but also keep family members warm on the cold Highland evenings. Thus the fire acts as a unifier, bringing the family together. Family members huddle around in a circle to share events from the day, news from the community or stories from days gone by. It is the place where family decisions are made, and household customs such as cooking or weaving are passed down from mother to daughter. Learning in this space is based around the oral tradition of storytelling to transmit knowledge from one generation to another through the maternal tongue where mysticism and history intertwine to ground children in ancestral wisdom while guiding them towards the uncertain future.

Time to Prepare

bowls filled with spicesMany of the typical dishes here in the Guatemalan Highlands require hours of careful preparation. Yet cooking is considered, by most, a labour of love rather than a fastidious chore. This was confirmed by several of the AMA’s team members who expressed to me their joy in having time to cook at the weekend in the comfort of their own kitchens when the process of cooking transformed into a leisure activity.

Much to my dismay, cooking processes cannot be rushed nor short cuts taken. Take the preparation of tortillas in an indigenous Highland community for example. To make tortillas using the traditional method one must first ask God’s permission to harvest the corn; this may involve prayer, candles, incense and song.

(Corn growing in the Western Highlands – photo credit to Pauline Zalkin, Fineas Media)la-milpa(Corn growing in the Western Highlands – photo credit to Pauline Zalkin, Fineas Media)

Corn kernels are skilfully plucked off the husks one by one then laid out ceremoniously to bask in the sun like adorned yellow tapestries until dry. The dried corn must then be soaked in an alkaline solution (to unlocked essential nutrients) before being ground into a pulp. This is then mixed with water to form ‘la masa’ (tortilla dough) ready to mould into tortilla-shaped circles that are toasted directly on ‘la plancha’ (stovetop). This elaborate process provides spiritual, emotional as well as nutritional sustenance. As my palate grew attuned to the subtle differences in tortilla types, I realised the taste of homemade tortillas is incomparable to the packet flour variety.

corn being poured into a potHence, mealtimes are sacred spaces. Lunchtimes at AMA parted the never-ending busyness of the workday into two, relieving the stress that had crept up over the morning’s hours. Lunchtimes were never forfeited, no matter how late in the day it arrives. Hence for the staff that eat in the office lunchtime was nonnegotiable; it was a time that could never be rushed. Observing through a western lens many have assumed this was a sign of laziness but this would be a misjudged assumption. Lunch is probably the most important meal of the day in Guatemala where some of the most effective learning and communication take place whether at home or at work over lunch. At AMA it was a space where colleagues caught up on one another’s working days, their experiences out in the community or particular exchanges. They told stories, shared recipes or reflected on philosophical life questions, probing into others’ thoughts and feelings about the particular theme of the day or inquiring about the current status of their family’s harvest. When I accompanied the lunchtime posse there were always inquisitive questions exploring my life, background and country’s customs and comparisons made with their own; it was a cultural exchange. I probably learned more at the table than anywhere else in my inquiry.

A A takeaway of a different kind

I have always been aware of how important food and food practices are in my life. I looked to food to express love for family and friends growing up, organising countless dinners since a young age and baking cakes for family and friends’ celebrations or work events. Birthdays and Christmas gifts are still generally food themed. Despite these gestures I knew that I could also be selfish when it comes to food. I would joke that what’s on my plate stays on my plate, and I could never successfully share a dish at a restaurant, sometimes even gleaning the plates of others due to my insatiable appetite. While still undecided as to whether these habits are due to personal greed or my cultural heritage, eating alongside people in Guatemala I became aware of the difference between their food practices and my own. Since this realisation I have actively tried to change my mentality and approach towards food and food sharing, to open my heart a little wider and share what I have on my plate or in my lunchbox, fridge or pantry. Upon leaving Guatemala this time people commented that I had lost weight and probed as to why. Indeed, this was possibly the first in all of the last seven years that I had returned from Guatemalan slimmer than I had left. This could have been a coincidence or that perhaps the good example the kind and generous Maya women in AMA had rubbed off on me. Time will tell if new the habits stick.table set to eatTo conclude, it was a love of food that led me to focus my research around the culture of food sharing and how this could facilitate organisational change processes. Yet through the medium of food I unexpectedly discovered a more profound ontological lesson: a blueprint for living a more fulfilled, peaceful, and balanced way of life. A blueprint founded on the principles of reciprocity that emphasizes giving rather than taking and puts others’ needs before our own. In a food culture where there is always room to feed one more, and enough time to sit, be still and chew the fat. Here, the space to eat, carved out by a fire, a stove or a table becomes sacred: a time to connect – physically, emotionally and spiritually with those with whom we share the space thanks to the food that brought us together.  This discovery has made me contemplate not only what I am eating but also how my food has been grown, harvested and prepared. It has inspired me to begin to reflect and give gratitude, not just for my food but everything I am lucky to have or have experienced in my life. It has helped ground me in the joy of simple yet profound everyday rituals, strengthening my connection to the earth and what the Maya call ‘the cosmos’ through reflection and reverence in my daily routine.

AMA's women's group (Photo credit to Pauline Zalkin, Fineas Media)

AMA is an indigenous women’s association working to empower communities in the Highlands of Guatemala. Simone worked with AMA between 2011-2013 and returned to undertake an action research inquiry with AMA as part of a Masters programme at the Institute of Development Studies in the UK. She supports AMA´s sister organisation, the Highland Support Project based out of Virginia who offer meaningful and highly recommended service learning trips to Guatemala where volunteers can contribute to AMA’s stove building programme. This article along with other Guatemalan-inspired recipes can be found on her Latin American food blog:

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