Despite its tasty Gallo Pinto and Nacatamales, Nicaragua is not often recognized as a culinary capital of the world, but here are two links that have found the hidden gems of Nicaraguan cuisine – and some of the pitfalls of its politics.
Many people say that the best way to pay homage to an animal that you plan to consume is to understand and appreciate its life cycle (from birth to free grazing farm to supermarket). There is a prevalent belief that those of us eating meat without a full understanding of where it originated is not only ignorant, but sacrilege. Some even go so far as to assert that one must be a participant in the slaughtering of the animal to truly honor the life of the animal that they are about to eat. I can’t say that I ever paid much attention to any of these concepts and probably made more of an effort to avoid having this knowledge for the majority of my life. Now, living in Nicaragua, this concept is much more real. More often than not, the meat we eat is no longer from Arkansas (Tyson), but is from our neighbor’s front yard…literally.
The other day, I came home from Managua on a sunny afternoon to find a slaughtered baby pig hanging from a tree in our driveway. This was no religious sacrifice, but preparation for a party to be hosted by my landlord later in the week. I had the train-wreck syndrome; I was equally horrified and curious and couldn’t decide whether to stay and stare or run into the house. I chose the latter only to be confronted by Wilbur at the party a few days later. That evening, Justin feasted on the piglet, while I stuck to the homemade bread and marmalade. Ironically, I also ate some bacon wrapped dates, but somehow, this felt less abusive than eating the pig direct from the carcass. A 4 year old at the party grilled the host on why he had killed the pig. To placate the poor girl, he described an elaborate story in which he came upon a suffering pig along the side of the road and after a failed attempt to revive the pig with CPR, it passed away peacefully – then he cooked it. She walked away semi-content with the reponse. The 32 year old inside me felt a little better, too.
More and more, I have struggled with the concept of dining on the chickens that I valiantly try to avoid hitting with my car as I drive home each evening. I am mildly excited when someone on our sailing trip catches a fish, but the moment it is reeled in, I move to the other end of the boat. I can’t handle being the metaphorical fish out of water. Try watching the real thing. It’s difficult having items from my grocery list as neighbors.
So, am I making the natural transition to vegetarianism? Is this how it all begins? Eating meat directly off the bone has always made me feel a bit cannibalistic. But more recently, I have found myself hesitating with chicken breasts, fish filets, and hamburgers. Perhaps it has something to do with the winding pastoral landscapes complete with grazing cows and lamb (chops). The first trimester of my pregnancy didn’t help, as a slight discomfort with certain meat turned into an all out chicken aversion for three months. For whatever hormonal reason, the very thought of eating chicken could make me gag.
I attempted vegetarianism once in my life. After a summer away at sleepover camp, I came home to my parents and proudly proclaimed my new vegetarian status. My parents smiled and commended my efforts and promptly turned their backs to share a questioning glance that asked, “how long will THIS phase last?” Not long. I struggled to justify my new-found vegetarianism to friends and neighbors and most importantly, to myself. Had I really adopted this new diet for reasons beyond the fact that it’s what the cool kids were doing? Two weeks later, I was sinking my teeth into juicy burgers at the neighborhood party.
As a “mature” adult, I’m still not so sure that I’m ready for the vegetarian commitment. It’s an even more difficult feat to achieve here in Nicaragua. Though the country is poor and the diet subsists primarily on rice and beans, Nicaragua is still a meat country at heart. Just count the number of fritangas (chicken ladies) in the street every evening around supper time, cooking up chicken, pork, and beef on their outdoor grills for a few cordobas.
An Irishman, Justin has meat and potatoes in his genetic makeup. He would never make the transition with me. And, if we ever moved back to the States and I had a little distance between myself and the local farm, will the plight of Bessie and Nemo become but distant memories?
For now, with a baby on the way in need of a well-balanced diet (which I don’t have the knowledge to provide sans meat), I won’t make any drastic changes. But rest assured, it’s only going to get harder.
Back in September, Justin and I took this fantastic trip to the northern part of Nicaragua with our friends, Sarah and Baldo. The four of us had been planning this trip for close to a year before we were finally able to take it. It was well worth the wait. The northern part of Nicaragua is stunning and everyone who visits should take the time to explore this corner of the country.
We began our journey on a Friday afternoon, driving thru Rivas, Nandaime, Catarina, etc. and circumventing Managua by passing thru Tipitapa (the route to the airport). We spent the first three hours of our drive salivating about the upcoming stop in Sebaco for güirilas and cuajada at Tipico Daisy.
A quick stop and “lunch” to go, and we continued on our way to La Ecoposada el Tisey in the Reserva Natural Meseta Tisey-Estanzuela, located about 25 minutes outside of Esteli. This place is wonderful! They have a small, traditional kitchen, an outdoor dining area, and a handful of simply appointed cabinas (just a bed and a bathroom). After a tasy dinner, a media of rum, and some cards, we all retreated to our rooms for a cozy night of sleep, nestled under blankets. The northern part of the country is much cooler and sweatshirts and jeans are highly recommended! In the morning, we awoke to a mist-covered landscape of orange trees and coffee plants. We ate a fresh breakfast of homegrown eggs, gallo pinto, cheese, and coffee and then changed into sneakers for a hike up to Mirador Segoviano which gave a great panoramic view of the Valley of Esteli, the volcanoes of Los Maribios, Lake Nicaragua and all the land up until the Gulf of Fonseca. From there, we ventured down the road from the ecoposada in search of the elusive Alberto Gutierrez, an eccentric recluse who lives in Cerro Jalacate. A self taught sculptor, he carves animal themed reliefs into the cliff-face overlooking his house. Unfortunately, we walked in the wrong direction and got caught in a massive downpour! So, instead of meeting the talkative hermit, we returned to the ecoposada, packed up, and made our way to Salta Estanzuela, a 36 meter waterfall that feeds into a small, refreshing swimming hole.
From there, we drove thru Esteli and stopped at Restaurante Pullaso’s Ole. Pullaso, we learned, is a certain cut of beef that is incredibly tasty and full of fat – yum! The thick slab of meat is accompanied by none other than…more meat…your pick of sausage from around the world. Plus, they throw is some gallo pinto, some ensalada, and you can eat yourself into a food coma.
Stomachs fulls, we drove into Condega where Baldo’s family owns and operates Pension Baldovinos, a small hostel in the center of town. That night, we ate awesome taquitos and other street food from the vendor just down the road, wandered the small town, and relaxed in the garden of the pension. The next morning, after breakfast, we journey onto Somoto Canyon. The Somoto Canyon was relatively unexplored until a group of scientists from the Czech Republic and Nicaragua discovered the canyon in 2004. The canyon is believed to have formed 5 to 13 million years ago. After its discovery in 2004, the Somoto Canyon has been developing into a tourist attraction, further helping the growth of tourism in Nicaragua.
There are no formal tour guides at the canyon, but there is a family that lives along the highway just before entrance signs to the park. They are adept at identifying slowing cars in search of the canyon and will flag you down as you go by and offer to take you thru the canyon. Try to find Bayardo, a nimble guide, well-informed on the history of the canyon and, more imporatantly, on the location of rocks throughout the river. He is well outfitted with life jackets and a plastic bin to put your valuables in while floating down the river. You can leave your car at his house while you journey thru the Canyon. He will first guide you on a 45 minute walk into the canyon where you will then walk another 10 minutes along the rocky river until it becomes deep enough for floating. From there, you can put on your life jacket and float the length of the canyon in the river’s gentle current. This is an experience not to be missed! The water is refreshing, the canyon is incredible, and the float is peaceful. Be sure to ask about good diving spots. At the very end of the river, there is small rowboat that takes you along the final leg of the trip. Some guides also rent inner-tubes, but we found the natural float perfect.
Tired and hungry after a long day on the river, we pulled over at a roadstand fritanga and chowed before continuing onto Miraflor. The plan for the afternoon and night was to stay at another house owned by Baldo’s family, within the reserve. However, we all know what happens to the best laid plans…Miraflor is a unique natural reserve located about 30 kilometers outside the city of Estelí. The reserve is over 250 kilometers squared, which means that it is giant! Confident that we would arrive at our location in plenty of daylight, we took our time driving thru the unique landscape of the reserve. Two hours later, in the dark and pouring rain, we still had not found our house, so we pulled over at a small posada to ask for directions. When we explained, to the owner, where we were headed, his face told all and we made the decision to stay there for the night. Finca Neblina del Bosque turned out to be a great find! Set in the middle of the cloud forest, this small eco-friendly posada offered comfortable bamboo huts, an organic farm, vegetarian meals, and tasty coffee. The owners, a local Nicaraguan and his German wife, spent a lot of time designing their guest houses to make them eco-friendly – right down to the bicycle-powered water pump! Our only regret was that we didn’t have more time to spend there, as they offer hikes, horseback tours, and more. But, having arrived late at night with an early departure the next morning, we only had time to take in the beautiful view before heading out. The next morning, we began thr 2 hour journey back to Esteli and then hit the road south towards San Juan del Sur.
San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
News editor Paula Szuchman on the remote beaches of Nicaragua.
What to do: San Juan del Sur, on Nicaragua’s southwestern coast, is wedged between the Pacific Ocean and the massive Lake Nicaragua — best known as the home of the world’s only freshwater shark. Just outside San Juan are some of the few perfect beaches left in the world, both accessible to tourists and virtually empty. To the south, Playa Remanso has a soft wave (nice for swimmers and beginner surfers) and a beach bar under a thatched roof. A little farther down the coast is Playa El Coco, where you’re least likely to see any surfers because the waves are puny by Nicaraguan standards. South of El Coco is Playa La Flor, a national wildlife reserve and turtle nesting site where, during the nesting season from July to about January, thousands of turtles crawl up onto the shore. Nicaragua Surf Report gives surfing lessons staring at $50, which includes a ride to the beach and back; non-surfers can also get rides for about $10 round-trip — probably a better bet than renting a car since the roads are harrowing (50 meters behind the Texaco station,email@example.com). For the requisite zip-line jungle canopy tour, stop by Da Flying Frog (Carretera a Marsella, Tel. 505-465-6781; $30). Locals gather for Sunday-morning baseball games between San Juan’s team and neighboring towns at the stadium just south of town.
Where to eat: Restaurants with views line the beach in downtown San Juan, and though they all have similar menus, Josseline’s stands out. A piña colada paired with a whole grilled pargo (red snapper) or churrasco (steak) makes for a great lunch (in front of the Casa Marina condos, Tel. 505-563-7000). The Bambu Beach Club on the north end of the beach is San Juan’s answer to South Beach, with a pool and lounge music and a menu of duck wraps, lobster tempura and yellowfin tuna (Tel. 505-568-2101). On Sundays, try the local tuna sushi at El Pozo (near the market, one block south of the central plaza, Tel. 505-937-4935). Every night on the central plaza facing the church, Vilma Asado grills marinated chicken. A half chicken comes with fried plantains and cabbage salad and costs about $2.50.
Where to stay: Perched on a hill overlooking the town and the bay, Piedras y Olas has individual bungalows with balconies, three infinity-edge pools and one of the best restaurants in town Be sure to try gallo pinto, a flavorful rice-and-bean dish that goes great with fried eggs in the morning (rates from $180 to $300 a night, Tel. 505-563-7000, piedrasyolas.com). Morgan’s Rock is an all-inclusive eco-resort with a private beach, bungalows on stilts and a friendly band of howler monkeys who swing from the tree tops (rates from $219 to $298 per person, per night, including meals. Tel. 506-2-232-6449, morgansrock.com). Surfers should try Dale Dagger’s Hidden Bay Surf Lodge in Gigante. Rooms are spare but clean, and a boat takes guests to remote surfing spots ($1,500 per week, per person, including meals, airport transportation and boat rides, Tel. 505-416-8464, nicasurf.com).
I am trying to start a bakery out of my house, in Nicaragua. This is my kitchen.
On Monday, our friends ordered a cake for a dinner party at their restaurant on Tuesday. On Tuesday, the power went out. The fridge defrosted and 4 pounds of butter and my $10 bag of chocolate chips melted. On Wednesday, the fridge door wouldn’t close because I had forgotten to drain the water in the freezer from Tuesday’s defrost. On Thursday, I got tired of propping the fridge door closed with our dining room chair, so I attacked the freezer with an ice pick, making Sharon Stone proud. The ice was stubborn, yes, even in this unrelenting heat. Go figure. On Friday, I hooked the fridge door shut with a bungee cord and some muscle.
Our oven is a Mabe oven. Maybe it will work, Maybe it won’t.
Instead of a temperature gauge on the oven dial, it is marked with the numbers 1 thru 5. Even using an oven thermometer, I pretty much guess at the temperature. Today, 1.5 on the dial was 350 degrees. Yesterday, I cranked it to 4 and couldn’t get it above 200 degrees. Last week, I ran out of gas, both propane and my own.
Somehow, I still managed to deliver a pretty impressive triple layer chocolate cake to the restaurant at 5:30 on the dot.
They say that cooking is an art and baking is a science. Well, doing either in Nicaragua is a miracle – at lease in a Mabe kitchen.
Our friends, in León, have entered the popsicle business, distributing La Michoacana natural fruit pops. The “aguas y frutas” style was born in Mexico, hence the name, La Michoacana. Look for the logo on bicycle vendors during your next visit to León (the hottest city in Nicaragua) and cool off with a refreshing frozen 100% natural fruit pop.
After a year of thinking about it, I am finally pursuing my dream of selling baked goods…in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. Check out the menu below for a sampling of available treats. Items are available by order and can be delivered to homes and businesses within San Juan del Sur. Small function catering is also a possibility, with enough notice. Please feel free to contact me if you would like something not listed on the menu. I hope to expand the menu in the coming weeks. If all goes well, I hope to eventually open a bakery, offering sweets, Nicaraguan coffee, and a book exchange.