Nicaraguan Food

Last year I had the privilege of visiting the fair land of Nicaragua, where I endured hellish bus trips on the worst roads on Earth, was caught in monsoons, harassed by soldiers who didn’t believe Australia is a country, flooded out of my bed, and got smacked in the face with a chicken. Good times. I also ate a bunch of things I’ve never eaten before, which is always good enough reason to go somewhere.

cuajada cheese

Gallo pinto and the works

Let’s start with breakfast.  Typically this was gallo pinto, which is the national dish of both Nicaragua and Costa Rica. I wonder if they have custody battles? Gallo pinto, which means ’speckled rooster’ for some untranslatable reason, is red beans and rice cooked separately and fried together. Of all the foods in Nicaragua, this is the one I miss most. Of course, anyone staying longer than two weeks in Nicaragua would probably laugh mockingly at that. It is eaten every day, and often all day. Here it was served with egg, tortilla, avocado, and cuajada, which wikipedia charmingly describes as an “almost cheese-like product.” Cuajada is compressed salty milk curds and tastes like an extreme version of feta.

tajadas chips

Tajadas chips

The second most important food to mention is tajadas. These are thin slices of plantain, deep fried to make sweet chips. Any meal that doesn’t contain gallo pinto contains tajadas. Of course, most meals contain both. These chips are popular from Haiti to Peru and with good reason. Deep fried banana is tasty. This meal I ate after going swimming in a volcanic crater lake, heated by fumaroles, while frigatebirds wheeled overhead. Wouldn’t be dead for quids, would you? On the side is beef fried and served with raw onions and tomatoes, which brings us to our next key component of Nicaraguan cuisine: the fritanga.

fritanga

Fritanga

A fritanga is a roadside stall with a heat source and sometimes a choice of menus, but not often. The main foods you will find at a fritanga are fried meat (beef or chicken), gallo pinto, and tajadas. Beef and chicken are the two main land animal proteins I found in Nicaragua, and I don’t think I ever saw them prepared any way other than severely fried. There was a market selling more exotic cuts, and I did see folks peddling armadillo and iguana, but these don’t seem to make it to restaurant menus. A pity.

Nicaragua 146Chicken is definitely a big deal in Nicaragua. And why not? They are cheap, plentiful, tasty, and like to travel by bus, which definitely makes them easier to handle than cows. I was somewhat surprised to only ever encounter one method of preparation, but perhaps that is due to the fritanga way of life. Stews take too long, and consume a lot of fuel. At one restaurant in the tiny town of Rio Blanco I ordered pollo al vino, expecting Central American coq au vin, and got fried chicken in ketchup. My wife Leslie ordered a different chicken dish and also recieved chicken in ketchup. It’s a good thing both chicken and ketchup taste good, but it gets a little depressing after a while.

One particularly special meal was prepared for us on the top of a mountain in the Reserva Natural Cerro Musun. After a sweaty day of hiking through the jungle, our guide Vicente prepared some limon dulces, sweet lemons:

limon dulces (sweet lemons)

Limon dulces (sweet lemons)

This was followed by a simple and very satisfying meal of beans, eggs, rice, and a corn tortilla make from corn ground before our eyes.

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Corn tortilla

This was doubly impressive to me because all the cooking for the rangers and us three tourists was done on this heat source:

Nicaragua 092Eventually, we made it to the Caribbean, where the food really began to impress. First off, take a look at this picture of a young fisherman taking his catch home:

Nicaragua 212Is that a fish in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me? Seafood is a big deal on the Caribbean coast, and why shouldn’t it be, when lobster in butter is so prevalent?

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Mmm...lobster

And of course, there is the famous Caribbean stew known as rondon. Rondon is coconut and fish stew, indigenous to Nicaragua but also found in Costa Rica. The word ‘rondon’ is Creole English for ‘run down’ and either refers to the cooking technique (laying the fish on top of the vegetables while it steams so all the flavours run down) or the need to ‘run down’ any ingredients you can find. In any case, it’s more of a concept than a recipe, requiring only four things: fresh seafood of some kind, vegetables of some kind, coconut milk, and a pot to cook it in. I wish I could have tried it while I was in Nicaragua, but unfortunately the minimum order seems to be for twelve people and requires a day’s notice. To make up for this disappointment, I ate crab and conch stew instead.

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Crab and conch soup

Conch is remarkable, but then so much shellfish is. It has a fine-grained mealy texture and that simultaneously revolting and delicious shellfish tang.

All in all, it is the seafood you should seek out should you visit Nicaragua.

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Before...

There are definite advantages to living in a small country with the Pacific on one side and the Carribean on the other.

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...and after!

12 comments to Nicaraguan Food

  • WarPig

    I Costa Rica I had some very delectable conch fritters with the ubiquitous fried bananas. I actually like the baked bananas as much as the fried. Some of my fave foods there were the beef liver salsa, which was much better than I thought it would be, the Chorizo sausage with fried potatoes, and ah-kee (unsure of spelling.). The ah-kee is a small fruit with a pink rind that tastes like eggs. However, it can’t be eaten raw, I was told. Only the inner, yellowish flesh is safe and it has to be cooked twice, sort of like poke salad in America. But it tastes very good, especially with fish or chicken.

  • There actually is a battle of the gallo pintos between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Down in Costa Rica, they make it with black beans and both countries argue over which came first: the Nica version or the Tico. I’m a year strong on gallo pinto at least twice a day. I’ll teach you how to make it when I get home. And I LOVE that cuajada is an almost cheese-like product. I wonder how Don Jose would react if I said that about the cuajada his wife makes?! Excellent photos. I wish all the food I ate looked that good.

  • WarPig, that might be the ackee fruit, the national fruit of Jamaica, and sometimes source of the illness known as “Jamaican vomiting sickness.”

    Super Gringa, I would love you to teach me the secrets of gallo pinto.

  • Barry

    I so want every dish pictured, and can’t wait to get to Costa Rica to try some Caribbean seafood.

  • WarPig

    You’re right. I looked up that spelling after I read your comment and that was the fruit. I’d not seen it spelled before. Funny, I had never knowingly been served ackee in Jamaica. At least it was never mentioned. Probably mixed in.

    I’ve heard it can kill you if not prepared correctly, but it is so tasty it’s worth the risk, sort of like blowfish sushi in Japan.

    Gallo pinto in Costa Rica and Nicaragua is as ubiquitous as is lumpia in the Philippines.

  • P.S. WarPig – is there anywhere you haven’t been?

  • WarPig

    Not too many places. Been around the world three or four times. I was in the service from Viet Nam until Afghanistan, doing more or less unconventional things ;-) .

    One thing I ALWAYS did when in a foreign nation or even a different area of a nation was to eat the food and drink the drink (alcoholic and other). Yeah, you sometimes get (fill in the blank) Revenge/Trots, but in the long run it’s worth it. You really get a feel for the gestalt of a people when you eat the food common to them. Forget hummingbird tongues at the sultan’s palace, try the couscous with goat meat with the villagers. Some of the best chicken soup I ever had was made in Nicaragua by mixed Indian/Black Mestizo women in the villages. The only thing in it was rice, chicken, water and salt. They made it in used fuel cans (cleaned, of course) with one side cut out and over an open fire. The chickens in the soup were the losers in the local cockfights.

    And, the German villain in “Our Man Flint” was right; only in Marseilles do they make real bouillabaisse, although New Orleans comes a close second, in my book.

  • Do you have a food blog? You should.

  • WarPig

    Nah, too busy to maintain it. I just hang out here and there. One reason I visit here is that you all are fearless and jump in with both feet when it comes to trying new food. You’d be surprised how many people in the USA/Canada eat basically the same things all the time, even where there are zillions of choices.

    Eating the same food all the time is a recipe for depression.

    In Russia, eat the Ukrainian recipe borscht, not the Russian version. Or, in Moscow, have a lamb samsa with red beer.

  • Mr. question guy

    “Wouldn’t be dead for quids, would you?”

    Is that a misspelled pirate reference, “Dead for squids?” It is the only obvious idiom I can come up especially in lieu of the copious amounts of seafood mentioned in this article.

    However it may be another obscure idiomatic expression of which I am unfamiliar. If so could you elucidate, or eucalyptidate, me as to its meaning?

    Regardless. Fantastic posts. Thinking of trying some your recipes, but know what sounds straight forward in cooking is often made delicious due to subtle genius of the chef.

  • As far as I know “wouldn’t be dead for quids” is pure Australiana. It means, “I’m enjoying life so much, no matter how much you paid me, I wouldn’t kill myself.” That’s what passes for humour with us.

  • Josh the Surfer Dude

    I’ve been surfing to both Costa Rica & Nicaragua. The food was very similar but the Nica food seemed to have more of a “kick” and a little more flavor. But maybe my opinion is biased because honestly I had a much better time in Nicaragua. I definitely noticed some cultural differences between the two countries. The Nicaraguans were alot more chill and down to earth and more friendly.

    In Costa Rica I noticed a bit more attitude and they weren’t as gracious to tourists. Example: crossing the border they were trying to give me a hard time, the airport was a nightmare, the taxi drivers were trying to cheat me. And the people in general just seemed bothered by tourists. It seemed like they didn’t care much for the Gringos.

    Nicaragua is becoming very tourist-oriented especially in the more popular places like Corn Island & San Juan Del Sure. And you can tell in the way they treat you. I think the people there are very well aware that tourism is going to help out the economy and so they are more gracious and friendly. Or maybe they have always been a bit more friendly than their Costa Rican neighbors?

    Next time I go to Central America I will be skipping Costa Rica. And I’ll be going back to Nicaragua and also trying out Panama which I heard was great.