Nicaragua, land of lakes and volcanoes, is just as much a land of food. On a recent four-day trip to visit a close friend living in León, I learned to travel, drink, and eat like a Nica. My only regret? That I didn't get to try iguana, á la Anthony Bourdain (apparently it's illegal).
León is a hot, steaming city in the west of Nicaragua, about two hours from Managua. The original site was founded on the banks of Lake Managua in 1524, but after a powerful earthquake in 1610, it was moved to the Indian capital Subtiava. Between 1978-79, León was also a place of heavy fighting between Sandinista guerrillas and army troops, which left much of the city center destroyed.
Despite its shaky history, these days León is bursting with students, tourists, artists, and out-of-this-world cuisine.
Standing in the mercadito de Subtiava, central market in León, sweat running down my back and into my eyes, I marvel at the fact that so many women are able to cook over steaming pots and flaming grills without a hint of discomfort. My companion suggests we share a chancho con yuca, a popular dish in the region. It's relatively simple -- pork seasoned with achiote, a seed that adds a reddish color and a nutty, peppery taste, and boiled yuca, which is served on a banana leaf, topped with cabbage salad with enough vinegar to keep it bright.
At home, we unwrap the leaf and dig in; the meat is tender and super porky, the yuca thick and slightly sweet. The dish costs 40 Cordobas, about $1.50, which, split between two people is a pretty delectable deal.
My next tasting came on a street corner, where I was hypnotized by the smoke curling up from cuts of grilled chicken and various goodies hidden under plastic, protected from swarms of flies. After 10 minutes of debate, I went for the Nicaraguan version of an enchilada, which resembles a large, fried empanada. The corn tortilla is stuffed with grilled chicken, rice, and vinegared cabbage, and wrapped in a banana leaf. As a side I bought some tajadas -- fried plantain chips -- that added a nice crunch to the meal. This is a meal for the hands, and it was crazy tasty, all for 15 Cordobas, or about 60 cents. For that price, you can splurge and get two.
A popular accompaniment to virtually any dish, often eaten at breakfast, lunch and dinner, gallo pinto is considered by many as a national symbol. If cooked right, the fried rice with onions and green peppers, mixed with red beans boiled with garlic, yields transcendental flavors. Our gallo pinto was served along with fresh corn tortillas, cabbage and tomatoes salad, and a hunk of salty queso fresco.
Normally only eaten on the weekends and special occasions because of the lengthy cooking process, the nacatamale was by far my favorite Nica dish. Down a nondescript alleyway, we sat at a plastic table and waited for two bundles to be heated in the backyard of a local family. The dish is made up of corn masa and lard, seasoned with achiote and salt. The masa is placed in plantain leaves and cooked over a wood fire, then mixed with pork, rice, potatoes, and onions.
When the mixture is ready it's wrapped, tied with a string, and made into pillow-shaped bundles that are boiled for a few hours. Served with slices of plain white bread and coffee with sugar, the food is a perfect mixture of mushy masa and firm (though not fatty) pork, with small, tasty surprises like raisins and spearmint sprigs. Warm, comforting and down-to-earth, 40 Cordobas, $1.50, will get you a soul-satisfying, authentic Nica dish.
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Green plantains fried and salted, topped with a large cube of queso fresco, served with cabbage salad, tostones are a great snack, appetizer, dessert or just-for-the-hell of-it finger food. We had ours at restaurant/club/hotel Via Via, which were a little on the pricey side -- 80 Cordobas, or $3 -- but came with a surprise of a free show by the Orquesta Nacional playing salsa all night long.
National beers are aplenty, but we stuck with the tried and true Toña. It's a light beer, and at 25 Cordobas, $1, you don't have to feel guilty about spending. Also, we'd be remiss to leave Nicaragua without having arguably one of its most famous products: Flor de Cana rum. Try the aged 7 years with a splash of Fresca (think Sprite) and a twist of lemon. Cheap, refreshing, and a great way to end any day in Nica.