Nicaraguan cuisine is simple. Fresh food. Fresh ingredients. Homemade dishes with history. In our week stay in Nicaragua, we tried many local dishes that were super delicious, especially when made right. And aside from being tasty, Nicaraguan food was particularly enjoyable for us as it is mostly allergen-free for Matt.
Basically, Nicaraguan food all comes down to one simple fact. If you like beans and rice, you are going to love it. Along with vegetables, meats, and some of the best tortillas you’ve ever tasted, beans and rice are a serious staple here.
You’ll find them served separately from each other – small red beans cooked in a pot with spices and aromatics on a plate next to a well shaped pile of white rice. OR, you’ll find them cooked together as Gallo Pinto. Most countries throughout Latin America have some version of this dish (Casamiento in El Salvador, Moros y Cristianos in Cuba…) though Costa Rica’s may be the most well known. It uses black beans and Lizano sauce, a local condiment that is spicy and mustard-y and definitely made with magic. The history of Gallo Pinto is disputed between Costa Rica and Nicaragua – Nicaragua thinks it came from their Caribbean shores while Costa Rica maintains the dish was first created outside San Jose. Whatever the history, it is incredibly important to both country’s culinary make-up.
The Nicaraguan version of Gallo Pinto is quite simple and requires few ingredients. Rice, beans, onion and garlic, oil, salt. Sometimes you’ll find green bell pepper and chicken broth in the dish, but it’s not necessary. If you are eating at casual local restaurants, chances are you will get the simple version, made very very well with generations of cooking knowledge boiled into the dish.
Beyond rice and beans, plantains are a common side dish. Either baked, boiled, or fried, they offer a starchy and slightly sweet addition to any meal. Sometimes they are sliced the long way (above) or the short way (below). A common preparation, called tostones, requires two fry sessions and a good smashing with a fork.
This creative dish (below) we found at Ojo de Agua on Ometepe Island used tostones and cheese as a base of a fun finger food with chicken. It was perfect as a pool-side snack in the hot afternoon.
In San Juan del Sur, a considerably more touristed area than, say, Ometepe, we enjoyed international food as well as local dishes. There are places around town and along the bay that serve pasta, pizza, sandwiches and other international favorites. But these meals are nothing like the tacos. Tacos are totally not Nicaraguan – they are clearly Mexican. But that doesn’t mean Nicaraguans don’t make a mean taco. Especially here, where travelers and surfers are rather abundant and pro-taco.
And let’s be honest. There’s nothing better than a couple of chicken tacos, piled high with fresh veggies and pico de gallo, after a long day of hiking along the beach, laying on the beach, tide-pooling, and watching surfers fall down. Playa Madera’s Tacos Locos serves some of the best tacos in Nicaragua. They are really known for their fish tacos (duh) but since Matt can’t eat those, we went the chicken route.
And if you are back in town and still craving tacos, then go to The Taco Stop. They have a street stall in Managua, one in San Juan del Sur, and a food truck with its own twitter account. Wherever you find the Taco Stop, their tiny tacos are a great snack mid-day and especially late at night – even if the tortillas are a little “fall-apart-y.” Actual words from my husband.
And in my glass…there were a few things.
Ok. First off, coffee. Can’t start a day with coffee. Especially when you are in a coffee producing country with local plantations and roasters all around.
In San Juan del Sur, check out El Gato Negro. Yes, it is meant for travelers. And yes, they have beanbag chairs, board games, and a complete English language bookstore. But they do have some amazing coffee that worth the trip and some good western breakfasts on the menu if the mood strikes.
And on Ometepe, Finca Magdalena is *the* source for local coffee. Read my article here about how to visit Finca Magdalena or just enjoy their coffee elsewhere in Nicaragua. It is smooth and mild, which is a nice treat for those us of who get the caffeine shakes.
Beer. It’s not that good in Nicaragua. I’m usually one to enjoy a good local Bud-Light-equivalent, but not this time. The most widely available beer Toña is gross. I’m sorry – it is. Victoria Clasica is a significant upgrade, but its still not awesome. I don’t think I’ll be searching for either of these beers in the import shops in Brooklyn.
The rum situation couldn’t be more different from the beer situation though. Nicaragua’s main rum brand, Flor de Caña, is delicious. It’s one of the most revered and awarded rums in Central America and is widely imported into the US. I’m not a big rum drinker or connoisseur, but when in Rome…
…drink some Rum and Coke and take a photo of it with your iPhone.
Have you been to Nicaragua? What were your favorite dishes and restaurants?