Food in Nicaragua
Nicaraguan food is very cheap by Western standards. A plate of street food costs between 30 and 70 cordobas. A typical dinner consists of meat, rice, beans, salad (e.g. coleslaw) and some fried plantains and costs less than 3 USD. Buffet-style restaurants/eateries called “fritanga” are very common, but the quality varies greatly. Much of the food is fried in oil (vegetable or lard). It is possible to eat vegetarian food: the most common dish is gallo pinto (beans and rice), and most places serve cheese (fried or fresh), fried plantains and coleslaw. There are some vegetable dishes such as guiso de papas, pipián o ayote – a creamy, buttery stew of potatoes, courgette or squash; guacamole nica, prepared with hard-boiled eggs and breaded pipian (courgette), and various fried fritters of potatoes, cheese and other vegetables. However, the concept of vegetarianism is unknown to most Nicaraguans, especially in the countryside, and saying that you “don’t eat meat” can lead to you being offered chicken instead, which is considered something other than “meat” (pork or beef).
If you like meat, grilled chicken and beef are delicious, the beef generally being of good quality but often hard-cooked. Also try nacatamales, a traditional Sunday dish that is essentially a large tamal of pork or beef and other spices wrapped in a banana leaf and tied with banana leaf string (35-40 cordobas). The people who make them often sell them from their houses on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays; look out for signs saying “Hay nacatamales” (“We have nacatamales”),
Indio Viejo is a dish based on maize flour (masa), prepared with minced chicken or beef and seasoned with mint. The typical spice is “chilero”, a mixture of onions and dried chillies, more or less spicy depending on the cook. Nicaraguan food is not known for being spicy, although chilero or hot sauce is almost always available (but be prepared for some strange looks if you use it heavily).
Although not as ubiquitous as in neighbouring Costa Rica, Lizano salsa (a type of Worcestershire sauce) is usually served with your meals and sold in most supermarkets. Soy sauce (salsa chinesa) and Worcestershire sauce (salsa inglesa) are also sold in supermarkets. If they don’t have it, just ask.
The typical Nicaraguan diet consists of rice, small red beans and fish or meat. Nicaraguans are proud of their famous gallo pinto, a balanced mixture of rice and beans that is usually served for breakfast.
Nicaraguan tortillas are made from corn flour and are thick, almost like a pita. A common dish is quesillo: a string of mozzarella-like cheese with pickled onions, watery sour cream and a little salt wrapped in a thick tortilla. You can find them on street corners or in the baskets of women running around shouting “Quesiiiiiillo”. The most famous quesillos are found on the side of the highway between Managua and Leon, in Nagarote (they also serve a local drink, tiste) and in La Paz Centro. The best selection of cheeses, from quesillos to cuajada, can be found in Chontales.
A typical dish that can be bought both on the street and in restaurants is vigoron, which consists of minced pork, yuca and coleslaw, chillies can be added according to taste.
Fritangas (medium to large food vendors and barbecues, usually with seating and found in most residential areas) typically sell grilled chicken, beef, pork and fried foods. They also sell “tacos” and “enchiladas”, which can be delicious but have little in common with their Mexican cousins. Tacos consist of chicken or beef wrapped in a tortilla and fried. This is accompanied by coleslaw, cream, sometimes ketchup or homemade tomato sauce and chilli on the side. Enchiladas” are not enchiloso (not spicy). They consist of a tortilla filled with a mixture of beef and rice, folded in half to enclose the mixture, covered with batter and then, yes, deep fried. They are served in the same way as tacos.
An alternative to the fried offerings on the typical menu is carne en baho. This is a combination of beef, yucca, sweet potato, potato and other ingredients steamed in plantain leaves for several hours.
One of the typical desserts is Tres Leches, a soft, spongy cake that combines three types of milk (evaporated, condensed and fresh, hence the name) into one sweet concoction. Your dietician and dentist will hate this dessert, but since it’s usually only eaten on special occasions, you can treat yourself to it once in a while.
On the Caribbean coast, you can eat pretty much anything “de coco” (with or from coconut). Try pan de coco (coconut bread) or coconut gallo pinto. A famous speciality of the Caribbean coast is rundown (sometimes spelled and pronounced ron-don), which consists of fish and other ingredients cooked until the fish “sinks”. As it takes a long time to prepare, it should be ordered up to a day in advance and preferably for several people.
Plantains are an important part of the Nicaraguan diet. You will find them in various forms of preparation: fried (divided into maduros/sweet, tajadas/long and thin fries and tostones/thin and twice fried), baked, boiled, with cream or cheese, as chips for dipping. Green and guineo bananas are also cooked and eaten as a side dish. Ripe (yellow) plantains (platanas maduros) can also be eaten fresh, but people don’t seem to do this very often; they are less sweet and taste more “substantial” than bananas.
The passion fruit (known as maracuya in international Spanish and more commonly as calala in Nicaragua) is quite common in Nicaragua. Nicaraguans seem to prefer them in sweet drinks (refrescos), but they can also be eaten fresh. They taste especially good with ice cream or natural yoghurt.
Most oranges you see growing in Nicaraguan gardens are of the sour variety; almost as sour as a lemon, or sometimes even a little bitter, they are not eaten but squeezed into juice. You can also do it this way; squeeze the juice of one or two oranges (that’s a couple of tablespoons) into a cup, fill the rest of the cup with water and a little sugar to taste – and your cup of lemonade is ready!
Mangoes grow on huge trees and are harvested with net bags attached to long poles; sometimes people just throw a few stones into a tree to pick some fruit to eat. At certain times of the year, or in some of the less commercial towns, you may not see mangoes for sale, but you will find plenty on the ground under roadside mango trees. If you take the trouble to pick the ones least damaged by autumn and pests and wash them, you may find them tastier than those on sale!
When you go to Chinandega, ask the locals who sell “tonqua”. This is an excellent fruit that is candied in sugar and is ONLY available in Chinandega. Most Nicaraguans outside of Chinandega do not know what tonqua is. Tonqua is a Chinese word for fruit, because tonqua is a plant that Chinese immigrants brought to the Chinandega area.
Drinks in Nicaragua
Rum is the spirit of choice, but you will also find whiskey and vodka. The local rum brand is called Flor de Caña and is available in several varieties: Light, Extra Dry, Black Label, Gran Reserva (7 years old), Centenario (12 years old) and a new 18 year old top rum. There is also a less expensive rum called Ron Plata.
The local beers are Victoria, Toña, Premium and Brahva. Victoria is the best of these beers, with a taste similar to the usual European lagers, while the others are much lighter and less flavourful, more like the usual American lagers. A new beer, “Victoria Frost”, is equally light.
In the soft drink section you will find the usual sodas like Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola. Local drinks include Pinolillo and Cocoa, which are delicious drinks made from cocoa beans, corn and milk and usually Cinnamon, a thick cocoa-based drink, Milka and Rojita, a red lemonade that tastes like Inca Cola or “Red Pop” (if you are from Texas or the southern United States).
Nicaraguans drink a variety of natural fruit juices and drinks (jugos naturales, which are mostly pure juices, and (re)frescos naturales, which are fresh fruit juices mixed with water and sugar). The most popular are tamarind, cantelope, watermelon, hibiscus flower (Flor de Jamaica), lemonade, orange, grapefruit, dragon fruit, star fruit (mostly mixed with orange), mango, papaya, pineapple and countless others. Also popular are “luiquados”, fruit and milk or water shakes, with banana, mango or papaya with milk being the most common. Maize and cereal drinks, such as tiste, chicha (both maize-based), cebada (barley) and linaza (linseed), are also common and very traditional. Most cold drinks cost around 10-20 NIO. As in other parts of Central America, you should avoid juices with water unless you are used to untreated water, except in a restaurant that uses purified water (agua purificada in Spanish).
If you don’t like ice (hielo) in your drink, just say so, otherwise you’ll get huge chunks of ice that may or may not be made from purified water, which defeats the purpose of avoiding tap water when ordering Coke.
A word about the bottle deposit: While most plastic bottles and cans cannot be returned, glass bottles can. In some small pulperias (family-run mini-markets where you can find anything), you may not be allowed to take a glass bottle unless you bring them an empty bottle in exchange. So you either have to drink your Coke on the spot, or they give you a small plastic bag with a straw to take the drink (but not the bottle). Street vendors of homemade soft drinks ((re)frescos) often sell them in plastic bags; spiced vinegars are also sold in such bags in the markets.