Guatemalan Vegan Cuisine

The northernmost of Central American nations, Guatemala is approximately 42,000 square miles, making it about the same size as Tennessee. It is bordered by Mexico to its north and west, by the nation of Belize and the Caribbean Sea to its east, by El Salvador and Honduras to its southeast, and by the Pacific Ocean to its southwest. The terrain is predominately mountainous, with a tropical climate across the fertile coastal plains. These conditions contribute to the country's rich biodiversity and foster its production of bananas, cocoa, coffee, rice, and sugar.

Guatemala may be best known for its rich Mayan heritage, which dates back to at least 12,000 B.C. The Spanish began exploring what is now Guatemala in 1519 and claimed it as part of New Spain. In 1821, Guatemala and its neighbors El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica won their independence and formed the United Provinces of Central America shortly thereafter. However, civil wars contributed to the federation's collapse, and Guatemala became an independent republic in 1839. The country weathered dictators and coups well into the 20th century, but today, it is a constitutional democratic republic with an elected president and a unicameral congress.

Guatemala has a population of 14 million, and half of the country's citizens are Maya. In fact, there are at least 22 different Mayan groups with as many languages! Guatemalans who are not Maya are divided among Ladinos, who are descendents of Europeans and Indians; African immigrants; and a European minority, mostly from Spain.


Guatemala's many cuisines reflect the melding of very sophisticated pre-Colombian cooking styles with European influences, as well as the availability of manufactured food products from all over the world. It is not possible to capture all the color and variety of the vast array of Guatemalan cuisine in one article! However, here are some fundamentals.

Corn is king in this country, and beans are queen. Frijoles (beans) are served at almost every meal and provide much of the protein. Black or red beans are popular, slow-cooked all day with peppers or chilies, garlic, onions, and (traditionally) lard. It is common to mash beans into a thick paste and serve them with soft or hard (fried) corn tortillas. A more healthful way to enjoy beans is to use a small amount of vegetable oil for cooking and to steam or roast tortillas.

Many meals in Guatemala are similar to those in nearby Mexico, with corn, beans, rice, cheese, and tortillas as recurring ingredients. You'll encounter nachos, tamales, and enchiladas as street or café foods, especially in cities. In the country, you'll find vegetables roasted over an open fire and breads baked in large clay kilns. Guatemalan breakfast may be an assortment of tortillas, beans, and plantains, often accompanied by wonderful tropical fruits, such as bananas (so many different kinds!), papaya, mangos, and avocado.

Guatemala produces some of the world's tastiest coffee, but the best beans are reserved for export. Therefore, 'traditional' Guatemalan coffee can be weak, served with lots of sugar. Another popular drink is atol, a hot beverage made from mashed corn, cane sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, and optional chocolate or fruit. There are many versions of atol (or atole) in Central and South America, and ingredients and thickness vary across countries and regions. Atol is common for breakfast, but it is frequently served with tamales for dinner. It is particularly popular during the Christmas holiday season.


Some Guatemalan foods can easily 'translate' into meat- and dairy-free cuisine:

  • Kak'ik is a traditional Mayan soup made with turkey and seasoned with coriander, achiote or annatto (providing a brilliant orange-yellow color), and chilies. Smoked tofu or tempeh can easily be used to replace the turkey.
  • Chile rellenos are chilies stuffed with rice, cheese, meat, and vegetables. These do very well using vegan ground round or soy chorizo and vegan cheese.
  • Tamalitos are similar to small, steamed tamales, and the corn masa filling can be made without meat. Tamalitos are sometimes flavored with chipilin, a mild fresh mint, and served with sour cream.
  • Pupusas come in many varieties but are generally soft, thick corn tortillas filled with cheese or meat, folded and browned on a grill, and served with a tomato-based sauce. Squash and refried beans are also traditional fillings, so you can easily convert this 'fast food' to vegan without sacrificing its authenticity or flavor.
  • Elotes, or roasted ears of corn, are usually purchased on the street and topped with lime, chili powder, cheese, butter, or mayonnaise. Use vegan shredded cheese and a vegan mayonnaise, and you are in business!
  • If you can find green mangos in a local market, serve them as chefs in Guatemala would-sprinkled with chili powder and lime.
  • You are probably familiar with guacamole, ripe avocadoes mashed with lime or lemon juice and mixed with onions, tomatoes, cilantro, and possibly garlic. Guacamole is served as a snack with chips or used to top entrées.
  • The spicy pumpkin and sesame sauce that is traditionally served with Chicken Pepian is already vegan! The pumpkin and sesame seeds are ground into a paste and combined with water, cilantro, and tomatillos. This sauce can be served over grilled vegetables, grilled firm tofu or seitan, or rice.
  • Licuados are thinner versions of milkshakes or smoothies, made with fresh fruit and milk and served at room temperature. Licuados do very well with vanilla soymilk, rice milk, or almond milk, combined with fresh or frozen mango, strawberry, guava, pineapple, or banana.

And the list of tempting foods could go on and on! If your mouth was watering as you read about the dishes above, you may want to begin your Guatemalan culinary adventure with the ideas below.


(Serves 5)

For this recipe, you'll want 'solid' younger cucumbers. The fewer seeds, the better. If your cucumbers have great numbers of seeds, you may want to substitute 1/2 cup (or 1/4 pound) of diced fresh yellow squash for more texture. If pepino melons are available, they can be used in place of the cucumbers.

Heat a large pot and spray with vegetable oil. Add the onions and cook, stirring, over medium heat until soft, approximately 2-4 minutes. Add cucumbers and bell peppers, stirring and cooking until all of the vegetables are soft, approximately 10 minutes. Add the broth and black pepper, stir to combine, cover, and allow soup to simmer for 10 minutes.

Remove from heat. In batches, purée soup in a blender or food processor. Return to pot, bring to a simmer, and allow soup to cook for 5 minutes. Pour into individual bowls, top with vegan sour cream and cilantro, and serve immediately.

Total calories per serving: 71 Fat: 2 grams
Carbohydrates: 11 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 151 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram


(Serves 5)

This is a refreshing 'side' salad to serve as an appetizer with breadsticks or as an accompaniment to spicy menu items. Or create an entirely new salad by combining this recipe with some tossed greens, cooled cooked pasta, quinoa, brown rice, or barley.

  • 2 cups trimmed and thinly sliced red radishes (not daikon)
  • 3 Tablespoons chopped fresh mint
  • 1/2 cup fresh orange juice
  • 2 Tablespoons lime juice
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper

Combine all ingredients in a nonreactive bowl. Refrigerate or chill on ice for at least 30 minutes before serving. This salad can be made the night before.

Total calories per serving: 21 Fat: < 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 5 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 19 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram


(Serves 5-6)

Spicy, sweet, and creamy-all in one! Use this recipe as a side dish, as a condiment, or as an entrée paired with a cooked grain.

If there is a bit left over, it can be puréed and served as a dip with some corn chips.

  • 1 cup fresh or thawed frozen mango chunks
  • 3/4 cup seeded and diced fresh red bell peppers
  • 1/4 cup diced fresh tomatoes or canned, diced tomatoes, drained
  • 2 cups peeled and diced ripe avocado
  • 1/4 cup diced fresh mild onions
  • 2 Tablespoons lime juice
  • 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes (optional)

Combine all ingredients in a nonreactive bowl. Cover and refrigerate or chill on ice for at least 30 minutes before serving.

Total calories per serving: 127 Fat: 9 grams
Carbohydrates: 14 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 6 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams


In the Zona 1 of Guatemala City, you can visit El Restaurante Reye. The restaurant is located in the center of the city, close to the Parque Centenario. In business for more than 10 years, the restaurant offers 'Desayunos Aerobicos,' advertised as 'healthy breakfasts,' which can include oat biscuits, vegetarian granola, sorghum bread, and dried tropical fruit. Vegetarian and vegan lunch items are accompanied by fruit shakes prepared with milk, soymilk, or water. If you happen to be in Panajachel, you will want to visit the Bombay Café. The owner is from Guatemala but spent lots of time cooking around the world. The menu is vegetarian with many vegan options. You can find savory selections such as pad Thai, curried vegetables, falafel, burritos, and fresh guacamole, in addition to seasonal items. Most dishes are served with an array of sauces. Beverages can include homemade ginger ale, iced peppermint tea, and hot chai tea.


(Serves 5)

The carrots and tomatoes add color to the recipe. You can use brown rice or quinoa for this recipe, but white rice is the most authentic choice.

This can become either a soup or a rice dish. Cook it for a short time, leaving lots of liquid, to make a soup, or cook it until it is almost dry to make a side dish.

  • 1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup minced onions
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 cup uncooked white rice, brown rice, or quinoa
  • 1/4 cup minced carrots
  • 1/4 cup minced fresh tomatoes or drained canned tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup peeled and diced Yukon gold or white boiling potatoes
  • 2 cups low-sodium vegetable broth

Preheat a frying pan and add oil. Add onions and garlic, stir, and cook over medium heat until onions are translucent, approximately 2-4 minutes. Add rice or quinoa and continue to stir and cook until the rice is coated and mixed with onions and garlic, approximately 5 minutes. When rice is translucent, add carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, and broth. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes or longer until it reaches the desired level of 'soupiness.'

Total calories per serving: 190 Fat: 3 grams
Carbohydrates: 35 grams Protein: 4 gram
Sodium: 63 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams


(Serves 4-8)

Honey is a traditional ingredient, but maple syrup will work just fine. These bananas make great breakfast or buffet entrées or tangy desserts. If there are leftovers, they can be sliced into hot breakfast cereal.

  • 4 large (approximately 8-inch) bananas
  • 4 teaspoons nonhydrogenated vegan margarine
  • 2 Tablespoons maple syrup
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 4 Tablespoons vegan sour cream

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Peel bananas and cut lengthwise, as if for a banana split. Place bananas, cut side up, on a nonstick baking pan. Dot each banana with a smattering of margarine.

In a cup, mix the maple syrup and lemon juice together and pour evenly over bananas. Bake for 10 minutes, making certain that the bananas don't start to burn.

Arrange bananas on a serving plate. Just before serving, garnish with sour cream, or allow each person to add some sour cream as desired. This dish can be served hot, warm, or cool.

Total calories per serving: 223 Fat: 7 grams
Carbohydrates: 42 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 123 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams


(Makes approximately 8 cups)

Fruit vinegars are very popular in Central America. They are easy to make and store well. They are also tangy without the acid flavor of white vinegar.

You will need a 'sterile' glass jar or container and lid to process the vinegar. You can add boiling water to a glass jar to do this. Also, this recipe takes some planning since- from start to finish-the vinegar will need to 'sit' for 4-6 weeks.

If the stored vinegar develops a 'ghost' (a cloudy mass at the bottom), that's fine. That is called the 'mother' and can be used to start another batch of vinegar. If you don't care to start another batch of vinegar, the 'mother' can simply be removed.

  • 1 pineapple (11/2-2 pounds)
  • 3/4 cups vegan dark brown sugar
  • 2 quarts cold water

Remove the green top and stem end of the pineapple and discard. Wash and finely chop the pineapple, peel and all. (Really!)

Add the chopped pineapple, sugar, and water to the glass jar or container and stir to combine. Cover tightly and store in a warm, dark place, such as a cabinet near a stove for 4-6 weeks. The liquid will be cloudy and brown at first, but eventually, the liquid will become clear as the solids sink to the bottom.

When the liquid has been clear for two days, strain the liquid through several paper coffee filters or some clean cheesecloth. Discard the solids, pour the vinegar into several small clean jars, and store in a cool dark area or your refrigerator.

Total calories per serving: 95 Fat: < 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 25 grams Protein: < 1 gram
Sodium: 6 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram