Experiencing Guatemalan Street Food
by Diana Pastor
For many people from other countries visiting Guatemala, eating street food can bring to mind one of two things: a cheap, filling and ridiculously cheap culinary experience or a nasty surprise that leads your stomach to send you running to the bathroom. But how can one know whether a particular bit of street food will sit safely in your stomach and which kinds will leave your calling to God on the big white telephone. It doesn´t sound very each to guess between them, but some basic tips can help you choose wisely which type of street dishes you should go for and which ones you should avoid, as well as what steps you should take if you decide to take the risk with one of the more suspect street food dishes.
So let´s start with fruits! As we´re sure you´re well aware, fruits in Guatemala are both cheap and delicious. But unfortunately, no all of the fruits that are sold in the street are ready to eat straight away. It´s much less likely that you´ll get sick from a piece of peeled papaya than if you go for an unwashed peach. So what´s the difference? The environment in the streets of Xela is ripe for germs, flies and pollution from the exhausts of all the vehicles. If you want to eat a fruit straight away, it´s always best to go for a fruit that has to be peeled or opened, so if you see someone that´s only just cut open a new watermelon then get in there and take advantage of the opportunity quickly. So you should go these types of fruits if you know that you´re not going to have the chance to wash them before eating. Bananas, lychees (rambutanes), avocados, pineapples, passion fruits (granadillas) and many more are perfect for a quick snack.
If you want to go for a meat dish, then make sure you judge how well cooked the meat is and choose the meat that looks as well done as it could possibly be without being burnt. The low standards of meat preparation in Guatemala means that in general you simply cannot get away with eating any kind of meat that is anything less than well done. You should never eat meat that has been reheated – always choose meat that has been cooking at that moment and choose the bits that look the most well-done. As a general rule, you should always watch any street food vendor prepare the meat right in front of you. If they don´t, ask them to do so!
Freshly prepared drinks can often look tantalisingly delicious and refreshing, but they can also be a little hazardous for untrained stomachs. Unless you are sure that you have stomach that is well-armed with the latest bacteria-fighting weapons, then I would recommend that you give these a miss. Smoothies and milk shakes should also be recently made and if you have a very delicate stomach, you should avoid mixing fruits with milk. Although it´s delicious, it´s also the perfect recipe for an upset stomach.
For any food stand it is better that the food remains covered with a cloth when it is not being served so you will often not actually be able to see the food that lies beneath. However, don´t be afraid of asking what is being sold! In general, atoles (a thick, hot drink), paches and chuchitos are always covered with a cloth in order to keep the heat in and protect them from contaminants such as flies and germs.
And, of course, no article on street food would be complete without a mention of delicious pupusas. These are usually OK to eat, but if you are worried choose ones that have been prepared right in front of you, choose queso over chicharron and skip the ensalada (usually grated cabbage).
So with these tips in mind, don´t be afraid of jumping right in there. Good luck and buen provecho!