Guatemala Eats: The Desayuno Chapin

Guatemala Eats: The Desayuno Chapin

There are no surprises at breakfast in Guatemala. Walk into any food stall at the market or take a look at a local restaurant menu, and you will invariably find the same two items on offer: Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and the desayuno chapin.

Now, I’ve got nothing against Guatemala’s love affair with the golden flakes (I myself kill bowls of the stuff on a weekly basis), but the cereal simply cannot stand up to the mess of beans, eggs, tortillas, cheese, and plantains that comprise The Great Desayuno Chapin.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing exotic about this dish—I’d bet my Corn Flakes you’ve eaten some combo of these ingredients before—but what makes it so special is that it’s the perfect pairing of flavors. The medley of ingredients that are served together demand to be mixed up, mashed up, and then licked clean off the plate.

The desayuno chapin above was from one of our local comedores (diner-esque Guatemalan restaurants). After just a few bites, this quickly turned into a plate of slop–delicious slop. P.S. Ignore the branding. Though I wouldn’t be averse to eating at Pollo Campero (Guatemala’s fried chicken chain) at 9:00 in the morning, that is not where I was.

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You don’t have to take my word for it, though—take Guatemala’s. Desayuno chapin literally means “Guatemalan breakfast” (chapin is a nickname that Guatemalans use for each other), and you don’t name a dish after yourself if it isn’t damn good.

So, what are the pillars of the desayuno chapin? First and foremost, you’ve got to have beans. These can be whole, loose, and soupy, or refried and thick as mud. Most Guatemalans I’ve polled are fine with either, so long as they’re homemade. That’s all well and good if you have the foresight to make your beans in advance, but apparently, I do not. And so, on Sunday mornings you’ll find me using the store-bought alternative.

Don’t get your panties in a wad, though, as this is a wrong that’s about to righted. See, I have a date with Anna, a Guatemalan friend and cooking fiend with whom I’ve worked out a pretty sweet deal: For every apple pie or lasagna that I teach her how to make, she’ll show me how to prep a typical Guatemalan dish. Refried beans are next on the roster. I’ll share with you when she shares with me. And I suspect neither of us will ever go back to using store-bought beans, again.

The next two ingredients essential to the desayuno chapin are eggs and tortillas. The former are typically scrambled or fried and, to be honest, don’t even have to be all that great. No one will notice if your fried eggs lack crispy whites, since they’ll be smeared in beans, mixed with cheese, and scooped up onto a tortilla anyway.

But those tortillas? You better make sure those are perfection on a plate. Per Guatemalan law, I think. Made from a sticky dough of milled corn, tortillas are shaped by hand and then cooked on a flat metal stove until crisp and toasty on the outside. I usually buy ours already prepared from a local señora. At the market or in a restaurant, the tortillas that accompany desayuno chapin often arrive at the table so fresh they burn your fingers if you grab them too soon.

The final staple ingredient, plantains, is one that I consider imperative to the dish, though I know there are misguided Guatemalans who forgo them at home. Typically pan-fried, they almost always accompany the desayuno chapin served in markets, restaurants, and my kitchen–and for good reason: These edible coins of honeyed gold will make you thank your parents you’re alive. Slightly caramelized on the outside, they’re tender and chewy and sweet; eating them is like eating dessert for breakfast in a “Haha! I’m getting away with this!” kind of way. They’re oh-so-easy to make, too. Try them using the recipe at the end of this post. I promise, you’ll love them.

The above-mentioned ingredients are the must-have ingredients for desayuno chapin. What accompanies them is variable, though the best plates gild the lily with both queso fresco and cream. These two add-ons really bring the dish together. The cheese lends a savory boost to the eggs when sprinkled over top. The cool sour-cream-like cream can be stirred into the beans to make them velvety-rich, or dolloped on a sweet plantain for a bit of tangy contrast.

Parma! Find a new translator! This is not heavy cream! I mean, yes, it’s literally cream with maybe a few ounces to lose, but call it sour cream… or something like crème fraîche. But don’t get my hopes up thinking I’ve finally found what I need to make whipped cream, because this ain’t it!

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At the market, queso fresco is called queso de oja; oja means leaf. It’s essentially cheap queso fresco that people purchase straight from the factory, divide into squares, wrap in banana leaves, and then sell. I say “cheap,” because it is, in terms of both price and quality. Eating it is kind of like chewing on a sponge while sucking on a salt lick. But it totally works in the desayuno chapin. I swear.

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In fact, the desayuno chapin is all about ingredients playing well together. Each item essentially boosts the flavor of something else. And I love that every bite is customizable: If the eggs that I’m eating get boring, I can add some cream or cheese, stir them into beans, or wrap them up into a tortilla along with everything else, burrito-style. I can decide whether I want my next bite to be salty and rich or sweet and tangy. The flavor combinations are endless.

The desayuno chapin is at once simple and complex–the whole, greater than the sum of its parts. But all that’s a bit much to be thinking about at breakfast. So my suggestion is to simply eat and enjoy.

***

Pan-Fried Plantains

When frying plantains, be sure to watch them closely, especially when they’re near done. With their high sugar content, they burn easily–believe me.

Serves 4

2 yellow-black plantains, sliced on the bias into 1/2-inch pieces

2 Tbs. unsalted butter or a neutral-flavored oil; more as needed

Kosher salt

Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat (if using oil, heat until shimmering hot). Add about a third of the plantains and cook, flipping occasionally, until browned and caramelized, 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate, sprinkle with a bit of salt, and keep warm. Repeat with the remaining plantains, cooking them in two more batches and adding more butter or oil, if necessary. Serve immediately.

If your plantain is ripe, you should be able to peel it like a banana. If it’s not, cut it crosswise into a few sections, make a slit in the peel of each section lengthwise, and then roll the plantain out of its peel.

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I think 1/2-inch-thick slices of plantains are the perfect size: They cook relatively quickly and are sturdy enough to hold their shape.

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10 responses

  1. Do you eat them with anything else, with a dinner, or as as a dessert? They sound really good and I have had them cooked in Kashi dinners, they taste good in the dinners but what else do they go with? Just wondering. Time to look at Mark Bittman : )

    • I’d serve them anytime you make rice and beans–or black bean soup–with roast chicken or with pork… fried plantains+bacon (not that you would appreciate it) would be heavenly. Or dip them in sour cream when still warm. They’re kind of addictive, so be careful, though.

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