Guatemala’s National Dish Revealed!

Twenty months after her first and, to date, sole visit to Guatemala, my niece Holly Myrick remains stricken by Guatemala. In March she did her seventh-grade country report, and she could have chosen any of Earth’s 197 sovereignties. Reader, you guessed it—she didn’t choose Djibouti.

It helped to have a Guatemala expert (so reputed) in the family. Had I the means, I could have flown north to give a talk to her class on things Guatemalan. As it turned out, Holly needed little help. And the answer to the one question she did put to me has gotten me in trouble before.

The innocent question was: What is the national dish? My offending answer is— ready? “chau mein.” Years ago, I made the gaffe of telling someone this in the presence of the wife, who is Guatemalan. Slow learner that I am, this was not the last time I did so in her presence, provoking sighs, rebukes and that you’ve-been-here-long-enough-to-know-better look.

OK, so then what is the national dish? Típico possibilities, like jocón, come to mind. The candidacy of the tamal has also been put forth, but it is about as uniquely Guatemalan as tuk tuk operators in tropical latitudes without drivers’ licenses. There is nothing that is explicitly national, as say, pupusas in El Salvador or kidney pie in Ireland. So, for Holly’s sake, I championed my old standby, chau mein, as the answer.

The full answer might be, “chow mein with Russian salad on the side and horchata as a chaser.” Horchata is a sugar-saturated drink made with rice. Ensalada rusa is basically carrots, potatoes and green beans diced and mixed with mayonnaise. How it got that name taxes my imagination, so I will limit my chatter to my candidate for the national entrée, the thing that, back in Nevada, we spell “chow main.”

I have encountered this trio of vittles with astonishing frequency at social events, including nearly every wedding, wake and quinceaños I have attended

I have encountered this trio of vittles with astonishing frequency at social events, including nearly every wedding, wake and quinceaños I have attended, including my own (my own wedding, that is; I’m not ready to attend my own wake, and I passed on having a quinceaños).
And herein lies my first argument. Either there is some vain conspiracy to make me think that chau mein/ensalada rusa/horchata is the de facto national dish, or, more likely, it really is. .

It breaches class lines, age lines, regional lines and even cultural lines, since it is big with both Mayas and Ladinos. For all I know, even Garífunas dig chau mein.

Chau mein may be the only phrase of Chinese origin to have entered all 23 of Guatemala’s constitutionally recognized languages. Go to any mercado, even in isolated, distant spots, and you find Doña Pepa selling little bags of prepped vegetables—carrots, güisquil, celery and aubergines. And Doña Marta, the dry-foods vendor in the next stall, sells mats of stringy dried pasta. This product, though dressed in faux Asian packaging, comes from a Guatemalan factory. Now if Pepa and Marta call both of these dissimilar wares chau mein, then we may assume that the two not only go together, but that every Pepa and Marta in Guatemala has her own recipe. Sounds like a national dish to me!

The objection to this idea, from the wife and other doubters, seems to be that chau mein is “Chinese” and not, therefore, essentially Guatemalan (by the same logic, pizza is only Italian). This overlooks the contribution of Chinese immigrants to the social pedigree of Central America and their presence as citizens. Many descend from railroad coolies brought in by Cornelius Vanderbilt over a century ago.

In Tegucigalpa, Honduras, everywhere you look, you see people with full or partial Chinese phenotypes. They are not as common in Guatemala City, but comedores chinos in zone 1 seem to outnumber the combined total of those in Shanghai, Hong Kong and San Francisco, with Brixton thrown in. These establishments have proprietors whose ancestors spoke Chinese, but to whom such utterance would now be as intelligible as Martian or Aramaic. All such places also have, according to unwritten convention, an aquarium.

The mystery is how chau mein broke out of zone 1 and became—dare I say it? The National Dish. My serious theory (since I often put forth unserious theories), is that it happened through the channel of town ferias. In a 2003 Revue article, I mentioned el chino que anda con la feria. The roadshow operations that arrive at fair time to unpack Ferris wheels, confectionary stands, chingolingos like ring-toss and other annual novelties also include makeshift comedores chinos. Between the walls of nylon sheeting are plastic tables set with Tabasco, A-1 and “El Chino” soy sauce. No aquarium, though.

The operator looks chino enough to augment the experience. And if there is just one item on the menu, it is, of course, chau mein—in beef, chicken, pork and maybe shrimp varieties (I could wish for tofu chau mein or “nothing” chau mein, but that’s just me). And so, via culinary missionaries, chau mein went wherever the moving fair apparatus went. Campesinos in the remotest aldeas could sample something exotic, something special, and so chau mein caught on for special events. Now it unites cooks nationwide.

I say we make chau mein official—the “main chow,” if you will!

Any day now, I expect Álvaro Colóm to ring me up and tell me it is so: Chau mein, thanks to my lobbying, is now the National Dish. The National Assembly, he will add, has finally found something that its members can all agree on. When can I come to the capital to be decorated with the Order of Quetzal? And by the way, Russian salad and horchata—what else?—are also on the menu for the awards ceremony.

Holly Myrick will be proud of me. I just hope my wife doesn’t find out.

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