Memories of Guatemala: Why refried beans will always taste like home

By Nicole Garcia-Merida

Nicole with her cousins in Guatemala. Photo Nicole’s.

Nicole with her cousins in Guatemala. Photo Nicole’s.

Every time, without fail, whenever my plane is about to take off at Heathrow, my mum texts me the same question:

“What do you want for dinner?”

The sixteen-hour flight and time difference means I usually always get in at around eight or nine pm. My mum, aunt, grandmother, sisters and dad are usually waiting at the arrivals gate.

If I haven’t been home in a long time, my uncle and six cousins on my mum’s side will spill out of the car too.

Since I left home nearly four years ago, it’s been the same process – my dad strops because I’m going to my mum’s house instead of his (they’re divorced), my mum gloats, and then we go our separate ways.

Home comforts

It’s a quick 20-minute drive home, and once we arrive the house always smells the same – frijolito, platanito y chilito.

Fried plantain, refried beans, and chipotle.

My mum can’t really cook. When I was a child we lived with my grandmother. She was a seamstress who divided her time between her sewing machine and the kitchen. She taught me how to make tortillas, butter from scratch, spicy chillies, miltomate sauce.

She made pepián, a chicken dish with red sauce made from pumpkin seeds, jocón, also chicken but with green sauce made from tiny green tomatoes called tomatillos and cilantro, and hilachas, which consists of tender shredded beef, red sauce, and potatoes.  

A familiar dish

My mother was at work, which meant she missed out on the cooking lessons. Once we moved out of my grandmother’s house this meant we’d eat a lot of the same thing – refried black beans with nachos, sour cream, queso duro, and chipotle.

Queso duro was a key element. It directly translates to hard cheese. It’s extremely salty and very powdery, finer than parmesan and far more crumbly. It made its way to the capital city from the eastern part of the country and was always a staple in our house. My mum would store it in the fridge, in a small glass container with a white plastic lid.

The repetition never got boring. Now I can’t go longer than a month having the same thing for breakfast, but I never got tired of frijolitos.

Guatemalan cuisine involves a wide variety of beans, while chillis and corn also play a large part.

Guatemalan cuisine involves a wide variety of beans, while chillis and corn also play a large part.

We all trickle back to my mum’s house and sit around the six-seater table, but there’s twelve of us so elbows are always touching and a lot of spilling takes place – but it’s fine. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

We pass the plate of beans around, then each grab a few slices of plantain, and sprinkle some queso duro on everything after spooning some chipotle onto the plate. It’s a very loud affair, we all talk over each other trying to catch up on whatever we’ve missed over the past six months, sometimes longer, that I haven’t been there.  

Whatever I find here doesn’t taste the same, even though it’s exactly the same thing except for one vital ingredient – they don’t taste like home.

The day before I leave, my mum and I will drive to the supermarket and buy refried black beans. They come in orange bags and I’ll usually weigh my suitcase down with about 25 of them.

After they’ve made their way from a Guatemalan supermarket, across the Atlantic and Heathrow, and back to my kitchen cupboard I will only ever have them when I feel like I need them. I save them for those days where homesickness makes everything else taste sour in my mouth.

Simple pleasures

It’s funny how attached I can become to a mushy bag of beans, or how excited I get when I see good plantain somewhere in Elephant and Castle. What’s not funny is how distraught I am once I run out of beans months before I head home. Whatever I find here doesn’t taste the same, even though it’s exactly the same thing except for one vital ingredient – they don’t taste like home.

There are far more intricate Guatemalan dishes that pop with colour and involve exotic ingredients in Mayan languages, so it’s funny that I should become most obsessed with the simplest one. But I never needed anything else, and sometimes I’ve never needed anything more than a dish that tastes like home.

Every time I get a text as the stewardess is asking everyone to put their devices in airplane mode, I know it’s my mum asking what I want for dinner. And every time, without fail, she knows what I’m going to say.

plane landing at heathrow aiport