My first question when I landed in Nicaragua 2012, was why on earth was a dish made from rice and beans called ‘Gallo Pinto’, or Rooster Pinto? Shouldn’t it be Frijoles y Arroz? Nicaraguans eat red kidney beans, not pinto beans, so I was initially suspicious of the dish.
The literal translation from Spanish to English means Gallo is a ‘Rooster’. While the expression for the dish is confusing I learned to ignore it in favor of the delicious practicality of beans and rice. For a vegetarian like me, it’s the perfect combination of protein and carbohydrates. This is not a spicy dish, and while some travelers do not enjoy the non-spicy flavor, if you live here it will make its way into your daily diet.
Where I am from, the Atlantic Island of Bermuda, peas and rice, a smaller bean, is our version of rice and beans. Gallo Pinto is made from pan-fried red kidney beans and rice. The rice is cooked separately and then the next day it is sauteed in the frying pan with beans, cilantro, onion, garlic and, olive oil. It is both satisfying and delicious. It makes the perfect breakfast when you serve it with eggs, cheese, homemade salsa, and corn tortillas. This is served in cafes all over Nicaraguan and I consider it to be the best breakfast in the world. It’s free of sugar and gluten and is high in protein. You can modify it and reduce the portion also so local cooks will make it healthier if you like.
Many hotel guests often ask me about the best place to eat Nicaraguan food. We go to surprisingly unpretentious little hideaways, not restaurants, for a good, affordable meal. We call them cafes called ‘cafetins’ or comedors – dining spaces – and they specialize in set lunch menus or set platos de dia. They serve rice, meat, salad and beans. Add on some tasty plantain chips and this is sure to carry you happily through the day.
As a visitor, you’ll benefit from knowing about Nicaraguan food before you head to a local restaurant and attempt to decipher the menu. Nactamales, the famous pork and vegetable corn stuffed pastries are not available all days of the week, 365 days of the year. Restaurants are also not the place to eat them. They take time to make and are produced in home kitchens, where portions are generous and the ingredients fresh.
The hot tropical climate makes it impossible to store or freeze them and it wouldn’t be safe. They are sold on Fridays and Saturdays by pre-ordering. Another interesting habit of the Nicaraguan kitchen is to eat different foods on different days of the week. Not only does it reduce waste in the kitchen, but shopping is also easier. For example, on Monday’s Sopa de Res, is a staple dish. Another famous dish is Indio Viejo, literally meaning Old India, a Pre-Colombian recipe based on corn flour, meat, and vegetables and goat meat.
Nicaraguan cuisine is not light. It’s for those planning to hike a volcano, kayak in the lake, or spend a day shopping, or running after a hoard of kids. It can also be confusing to understand where to eat. For example in Granada, it’s common to see a traditional restaurant with waiters running around, a few feet away a couple of old ladies wearing gloves and hair nets, ladling stew out of industrial-sized paint buckets. Is it safe to eat that stuff? Yes, it is! It is much safer than food sitting around all week in that restaurant kitchen and they have prepared and cooked it just hours ago. Just make sure it is very hot!
If you are cooking for yourself, the grocery store is not the place to head to first. We shop in the open air market, supporting different small vendors who sell vegetables, fish, meat, and eggs. Nicaraguans are surprisingly conscious of this and they help everyone. They look for the best and freshest produce at different stalls, and they do most of the household shopping at these markets. The ‘supermarket’ or supermercado is where you go for luxury items or the odds and ends you cannot find at the real market – mercado.
Another famous dish is vigorón, a classic, fast food street snack. This is also not vegetarian, but do not hesitate to ask for this to be modified as the meat, and yucca is piled on one at a time, and they can leave out the meat. This stick to your hips dish features boiled cassava, deep- fried pork rinds, and a delicious marinated cabbage salad. The best places to eat this are in Parque Central in Granada.
Since many of you are coming to Nicaragua to spend a few days or longer at the beach, you’ll get to feast on Nicaraguan seafood – wonderfully fresh and ridiculously cheap. Granada isn’t the best place to eat it, and it is worth waiting until you get to coast to indulge. If you are visiting the Corn Islands on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua, you’ll be able to eat wonderful lobster tails with Gallo Pinto, salad and fried plantains. Fish is served whole with the head and eyes and you take your time to eat it, as Nicaraguans never rush a meal.
I do enjoy Nicaraguans creamy version of fish soup with lobster tails and crab, however, being a Bermudian, I prefer my traditional tomato and sherry pepper based soup recipe. I still find the fish soup here to be bland in comparison to the famous Bermudian version. However, the freshness of the fish in Nicaragua rivals that of my Atlantic Island home! It would be interesting to combine the recipes to see how red sherry pepper spicens up a traditional Nicaraguan fish chowder.
Anything interesting and unusual you ate in Nicaragua? Foodies are welcome to share recipes, stories and adventures. firstname.lastname@example.org.