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.
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.
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.
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.
Chicken 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:
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.
This was doubly impressive to me because all the cooking for the rangers and us three tourists was done on this heat source:
Eventually, 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:
Is 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?
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.
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.
There are definite advantages to living in a small country with the Pacific on one side and the Carribean on the other.