Fiambre – A History of Guatemala’s Most Famous Dish

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To appreciate Fiambre, you need a brief history lesson. It is the middle of the eighth century. Until this time, All Saints Day was celebrated on May 13 and experts believed that rituals were deeply rooted in a similar pagan celebration, Feast of the Lemures, a day when evil spirits were mollified by earth-dwellers. Pope Gregory III consecrated a new date (November 1) and reaffirmed the significance we presently associate with All Souls Day – a time to be with loved ones no longer with us.

Fast forward about 800 years. All Souls Day has taken root throughout Central and South America, with similar rituals performed country to country. On November 1st, Dia de los Santos, and November 2, Dia de los Muertos, families and friends come together in cemeteries and gravesites to remember those departed. Graves are cleaned and maintained, memorabilia and flowers are laid beneath freshly touched-up tombstones, prayers are recited and relatives share memories and anecdotes about loved ones. It is a time for family and it is a time for sharing. Fiambre symbolizes both.

The legend of Fiambre’s inception goes something like this – families tending gravesites would bring food – generally something their loved one enjoyed – and share a meal together, reigniting the connection with the departed. And, as Guatemalans are incredibly warm and friendly people, one family shared their dishes with their neighboring gravesite family, and that family in turn shared with their neighbors…you get the idea… Finally all these dishes combined into one – Fiambre.

Fiambre is a cold salad. It is typical made with an average of 50 ingredients known to include pork, chicken, shrimp, cured meats, cheese, pickled vegetables, onions, pacaya flower (an under-the-sea looking bud that grows on palm trees native to Guatemala) and a dressing made from mustard and vinegar. While there is no one recipe for Fiambre, there are several popular categories that serve as guidelines for preparation – Fiambre Rojo is made with beets while Fiambre Blanco is without beets. Fiambre Verde is vegetarian friendly, while Fiambre Desarmado keeps all of the ingredients separate allowing you to mix and match based on personal taste.

While many Latin American countries celebrate Dia de los Santos, Fiambre is unique to Guatemala. More than a food item, it is a symbol of Guatemalan love and community, a melting pot of traditions and locations and methods and people. It symbolizes kinship – recipes, often specific to an individual family, are handed down generation to generation. It brings all family members together in the kitchen, each  expected to contribute to the preparation days in advance by supplying several ingredients, slicing and pickling vegetables, grilling meats, etc. Fiambre is deeply rooted in the past while constantly adapting with each new generation, like Guatemala itself in many ways.

Originally published in Revue Magazine, copyrighted 2012. 

Photo by Keneth Cruz. 

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