Fiambre is a traditional Guatemalan cold salad that is prepared and consumed annually to celebrate the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos on November 2nd) and All Saints Day (Día de Todos los Santos on November 1st).
The Day of the Dead or Día de los Muertos is celebrated throughout Latin America. During this holiday, ancestors and loved ones who have passed away are remembered and honored. It is a celebration of the lives of those who are not with us any longer, but more importantly, it is a celebration that portrays death in a very positive way, somewhat contrasting with Halloween, which typically portrays death in a more gruesome, yet playful fashion.
In Guatemala, on the evening of October 31st, fireworks fill the sky while church bells ring. People gather on hilltops and at cemeteries to fly huge kites (barriletes). It is a way for the living to reach up to the heavens and unite with those who have died.
Historically, sharing food with ancestors at burial places was a tradition that pre-Columbian cultures already practiced for centuries. With the arrival of the Spaniards, catholic holidays such as the Day of Saints and the Day of Souls were adopted and these traditions were blended. Spaniards also brought with them their food and recipes, and these were combined with the local flavors in order to recreate memories through food, resulting in new dishes that the population adopted as their own.
In many cultures, foods are prepared to be shared with the dead on special occasions or during ceremonies, often at the place of burial. This ritual serves as a way to bring living family members together, reunite them with their ancestors, as well as remember and honor these ancestors by sharing favorite foods with them. This tradition of great significance perfectly symbolizes the coexistence between the living and the dead.
There have always been a lot of mysticism and rituals around death. In Guatemala, funerals (called velorios) typically last 2 days. Friends and family stay up for 48 hours in funeral homes, next to the deceased. When the sun rises on the second day, the burial takes place.
In small villages however, the funeral takes place at home. People prepare a lot of food. They serve atol, a thick drink made out of corn and cinnamon, as well as chuchitos, tamales, and hen broth. Pine needles are spread around the whole house and a liquor called agua ardiente (literally burning water) is served to the men.
Guatemalans now traditionally visit their dead family members at the cemeteries on the Day of the Dead. Part of the tradition has always been to bring flowers, incense, even liquor (such as rum or cusha) as well as favorite dishes to the beloved dead family members, but also to share this food with other families and relatives.
As families brought different foods to the celebrations, they eventually became mixed to form this elegant Guatemalan cold salad that can sometimes include over 50 ingredients. Fiambre usually includes numerous meats like sausages, cold cuts and chicken, pickled baby corn and onion, beets, pacaya flower (a bud that grows on palm trees native to Guatemala), hard-boiled eggs, cauliflower, carrots, olives, as well as different cheeses.
This dish can vary widely from family to family. No two fiambre recipes are the same, and the recipes are traditionally passed on from generation to generation.
Today, the tradition of bringing food, including fiambre, to the cemetery is mostly carried out in rural areas and small towns on the Day of the Dead. Although many people in the cities still visit their loved ones who have passed away, fiambre is now more often shared at home in private celebrations that include family and close friends.
Fiambre must be prepared at least one day before serving as it needs to marinate in a dressing made of vinegar and other ingredients called the caldillo.
What is the origin of fiambre?
The word fiambre is a Spanish word that means “cold cuts” or “cold foods” (including cold cuts and cheeses).
There are many popular beliefs when it comes to the origin of fiambre, but there are some written sources that suggest that the traditional cold salad emerged around 1770. Indeed, after a series of natural disasters in Guatemala caused food shortages, a Spanish emissary visited Guatemala and stayed at the home of an important Spanish family. The chef didn’t have any dish to offer due to the shortages, and thus decided to make a cold mixture of available leftover ingredients. The guests really loved the dish and fiambre was born.
Others believe that fiambre originated as different foods that families brought to the cemetery to honor their dead were mixed together. Visitors used to bring dozens of small plates to the cemetery, but they eventually started assembling them into one giant concoction, served cold.
You can find in fiambre the various identities of several cultures of Guatemala. Indeed, the use of vegetables and the caldillo dressing are an obvious inheritance of the pre-Columbian world. The various types of meats and sausages are the result of the Spanish influence. The use of cheeses, capers, olives and other spices comes from the Arab heritage.
This fusion of the cultures that make up Guatemala now make fiambre one of the most traditional dishes of the Central American country.
The different versions of fiambre
Fiambre from Antigua, the most traditional version
Fiambre rojo or fiambre colorado (with beets)
Fiambre blanco (no beets)
Fiambre desarmado or divorciado (traditional of the department of Jalapa): version where all the ingredients are left separated and each person picks what they want.
Fiambre verde: vegetarian version that therefore does not include cold cuts, sausages or meats
How to make fiambre?
As mentioned earlier, there is not really one recipe for fiambre, but here are the ingredients that you will often find in the various versions of the traditional Guatemalan cold salad. It is important to note that fiambre is always prepared in gigantic proportions and that the leftovers are often eaten for days after the All Saints celebrations.
Meats and fish can include chicken, turkey or pork ham, black or red chorizo, spicy pork sausage (longaniza), bacon, pork and turkey sausages, spicy salami (salchichón), pork loin, anchovies, sardines and shrimp.
Fiambre can include various types of cheeses, including sliced hard cheese, crumbled fresh cheese (queso fresco) or Zacapa cheese (similar to parmesan).
Pre-cooked vegetables include carrots, green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, beets, peas, chickpeas, red beans, white beans or fava beans.
To decorate the fiambre, Guatemalans use a combination of hard-boiled eggs, pacaya, capers, olives, lettuce, cheese, pickled onion and radishes that are carved like flowers.
This colorful salad carries centuries of traditions and is a symbol of Guatemalan gastronomy by itself. It is impossible not to prepare a huge portion of fiambre, and even I did not prepare gargantuesque proportions of the dish, the whole family enjoyed this beautiful tasty salad for 2 days. Good thing it was a hit with the kids!
- 3 carrots , sliced or diced
- 2 cups green beans
- ½ cauliflower , cut in small florets
- ½ cabbage , thinly sliced
- 4 oz. asparagus
- 1 cup green peas
- 1 (14 oz) can beets , sliced
- 1 cup canned corn
- 1 cup hearts of palm
- 3 pacaya flowers (in jars or cans)
- ½ cup pickled baby corns
- ½ cup pickled pearl onions
- 4 tablespoons capers
- 12 green olives
- A few leaves lettuce
- 4 radishes , carved in roses (for garnish)
- 4 oz. butifarra (sausage made with anis and other spices)
- 4 oz. cecina (dried smoked and salted beef)
- 12 oz. chicken breast , cooked
- 4 oz. chorizo Colorado (red chorizo sausage), sliced
- 4 oz. black chorizo sausage , sliced
- 4 oz. yellow chorizo sausage , sliced
- 4 oz. hot dog , cooked and sliced
- 4 oz. ham , cut in long strips
- 4 oz. longaniza (sausage with mint and chili pepper )
- 4 oz. salami , cut in large cubes
- 4 oz. mortadella , cut in large cubes
- 4 hard-boiled eggs , halved
- ½ lb cheddar cheese , sliced
- 12 oz. queso fresco (fresh cheese), crumbled
- 12 oz. Zacapa cheese (or parmesan)
- ½ bunch parsley , chopped
- 1 sprig thyme
- 1 sprig oregano
- 2 cups vinegar
- 1 cup olive oil
- 3 tablespoons mustard
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- Salt (to taste)
Cook the vegetables separately (times are indicative, vegetables need to be cooked but still firm).
Boil the sliced carrots for 10 to 12 minutes.
Blanch the green beans for 5 minutes. Cut in 1-inch sections.
Boil the cauliflower for 8 to 10 minutes.
Blanch the cabbage for 5 minutes.
Blanch the asparagus for 3 to 5 minutes. Cut half of them in 1-inch sections, and keep the rest to decorate the salad.
Boil peas for 6 to 8 minutes.
Boil the chicken in water seasoned with salt and pepper for about 20 minutes.
Skim off the fat once it has cooled.
Shred the cooked chicken and set aside.
Keep some of the broth and mix in a blender with the vinegar, olive oil, mustard, parsley, thyme, oregano, sugar, salt and pepper. Simmer for 10 minutes then chill overnight.
Combine all the cooked vegetables with the beets, hearts of palm, corn, and pour the dressing over them. Let them sit overnight in the refrigerator.
Boil the chorizo, as well as the sausages and meats that need to cooked.
Mix the vegetables with the meats. Keep a few slices of ham (or other cold cuts) to decorate.
Place lettuce leaves to cover a large serving platter.
Arrange a layer of the vegetables and meats.
Decorate with the asparagus, baby corn, capers, radishes, olives, hard-boiled eggs, ham and cheese.