“Rice and beans is an underrated dish. People assume that it’s just a mixture of leftover rice and bland beans, but it can really be divine. I had the best rice and beans in Managua right before I was shot in the stomach at an ATM.”
Never before had someone so casually compounded my favorite thing (food) and my least favorite thing (the thought of getting shot). Mouth and eyes agape, I attempted to rewind to his near death experience. Dan was unfazed by my shock, and redirected my attention to Nicaraguan food. Dan is the third friend of mine who has been shot or was with someone who was shot in Nicaragua. I’ll assume I’m not alone when I say that I don’t aspire to get shot, so for reasons of self-preservation, I aimed to stay out of Nicaragua.
While my aim may have been true, I somehow ended up in Granada. I have no one to blame but myself for getting shot my first day there.
Sorry, that was a tactless joke. I remain gunshot wound-free, and even found Nicaraguans to be pleasant, accommodating people. Nicaraguan food, on the other hand, is a bit less predictable. I eat frequently and don’t discriminate, yet finding a satisfying meal in the towns I visited was a challenge. Fortunately, there was no shortage of tropical fruit to nibble on.
I tried dragon fruit for the first time in Granada, and I liked everything about it. First of all, it grows on a Medusa-like cactus that could easily win an award for most unique fruit-bearing plant in the ENTIRE UNIVERSE. Second, it’s living proof that you should never judge a book by its cover. While its color is straight out of a vibrant painting, the shape and texture of its exterior leave much to be desired. In fact, it looks more like a neon weapon than a piece of fruit.
When you crack it open, though, you’ll find a smooth, dense pulp that is reminiscent of a beet, but sweeter. You can simply spoon its flesh out of its shell, and I find its overall effect to be both refreshing and filling. Similar to a kiwi, its seeds are edible and its fruit is teeming with Vitamin C.
To do: plant dragon fruit tree in backyard.
Then there were the times I pretended I was going out for fruit, but instead visited this cutie for her candied concoctions.
For something more substantial to eat, my travel bud and I ambled up and down streets that were on and off the beaten path. We attempted to ignore the natives and expats who claimed that Nicaraguan fare wasn’t the most inspired, and we remained optimistic about sampling the local flavor. My one rule about eateries abroad is that I try to stay away from restaurants on or within one block of the main plaza, as these tend to be tourist traps. Nicaragua challenged this notion though, which I never would have discovered had I not been desperate enough to order food on Granada’s main square.
Meet “El Gordito”, owner of Kiosco El Gordito.
For those of you not familiar with Spanish, gordito loosely translates to fatso, and Latin Americans claim that this is a term of endearment that they bestow upon chubbier folk. I have been told that I should strive to be chunky and earn the label “gordita” to show Latinos that I am enjoying their food. I think eating ten times a day sends the same message, and I thankfully have been spared the aforementioned title. El Gordito, on the other hand, seems to be rocking his moniker by running a successful restaurant (named after his heftiness, to boot!) on Granada’s plaza. While he may resemble a mafia member, he’s quite a sociable fellow.
Kiosco El Gordito consists of a small enclosed kitchen that is surrounded by ample outdoor seating. It appeals to the masses by regularly showcasing live music and playing Spanish telenovelas (soap operas) in between.
The food at “Fatso’s Kiosk” is inexpensive, flavorful, and habit-forming. A national favorite in Nicaragua is chancho con yuca, which is pork medallions fried with garlic, orange juice, onion, tomato, lemon, and other spices. Unlike some fried meats, this is supple enough to be eaten with a spoon. It is served atop yucca and buried under some spicy coleslaw. El Gordito’s chancho is spectacular.
Equally as appetizing is his gallo pinto con cerdo (rice and red beans with pork). Dan wasn’t kidding when he raved about Nica’s rice and beans. You can find both savory and sweet variations in Nicaragua, and both are worthy of your attention.
Since visiting El Gordito’s just once is an impossibility, you should try the tostones y queso frito (fried plantain with cheese) your second time around. Whatever you end up ordering, be sure to sprinkle it with some chilero, which you can see in the red-topped jar below. It is a mix of onions, carrots, and chili peppers pickled in vinegar with a hint of clove.
Did I mention these meals all cost under 3 dollars?
As I write this, it’s occurring to me exactly how much fried food I consumed while in Nicaragua. I’ll let you call me gordita just this once.
No meal is complete without something tasty with which to wash it down, and Nica aims to please in this department. In addition to every fresh fruit juice you can imagine, Nicaraguans enjoy cacao-based drinks like pinolillo/tiste (cornmeal mixed with ground cacao, milk, sugar and ice) or just plain cacao which is basically souped-up chocolate milk. I’m a firm believer that you are never too old for a glass of chocolate milk.
Or a bag of chocolate milk, for that matter.
I adore the juxtaposed image of this woman playing with her smart phone while drinking out of a plastic bag. I also came to enjoy this plastic bag concept because it added a dose of disruptive wonder to my life. I can’t believe that I once thought that I needed to drink my beverages out of a cup, when a bag clearly does the trick as well! Also, it sort of feels like you won a goldfish at a carnival when you are carrying around a bag of liquid, and none of us can deny how great that feels. Until your fish “Pickles” dies less than 24 hours later, that is.
Other first-rate beverage options are jamaica (a juice made from the jamaica flower, also popular in Mexico) and chicha rosada (ground corn mixed with water, juice and vanilla which can be seen in the tostones picture above). The latter is my favorite. Dump it in a plastic bag and it’s even better.
After El Gordito tired of seeing our faces for every meal, we headed off to Masaya for our next adventure. Masaya is known for its volcano, lake, and handicrafts, but we were headed there for a different reason. Our friend Josh has co-founded Casa-Nica, an awesome NGO in the heart of Masaya that places volunteers from all over the world with Nicaraguan organizations to do development work in a variety of sectors. Additionally, his program offers personalized Spanish lessons as well as opportunities to integrate into Nicaraguan culture.
Josh invited us to stay with him for a few days, and seeing as though he is just as much of a foodie as I am, I couldn’t pass up the invite. He kept us well-fed, and again, two of my favorite meals ended up being at restaurants that are situated on Masaya’s main plaza (who woulda thunk it?).
One place that particularly tickled my fancy was a quaint cevicheria with a small menu yet a ton of personality. It is rare for restaurants in smaller Latin American towns to exhibit creative flair, so this place knocked my socks off. It had 9-foot chairs and tables that were painted in pastel colors. I felt like a tiny character from The Borrowers while I was climbing to my seat and yelling my order to the waitress below me. The ceviche was fresh and light, and the smoothies were innovative and pretty much perfect. If ever in Masaya, be sure to try the avocado shake.
Just a few steps away from the cevicheria is a pizza place that could easily rival New York pizzerias. Josh thought that the three of us would have trouble finishing this, but he didn’t realize that I am accustomed to eating an entire pie all by my lonesome.
Masaya, in addition to its culinary treats, provided me with one of my all-time favorite travel memories. While having a few beers with Josh at a hole-in-the-wall bar, it started to torrentially downpour. Before we knew it, the streets were completely flooded to the point that we could have kayaked down them. Fearing that I’d be swept away by the current since I don’t know how to swim (GASP!), my friend carried me the whole way home, slipping and sliding, trying not to lose any shoes in the rapids, and laughing hysterically. It was one of those moments that was just so simple and fun and memorable. And not at all dry.
So Nicaragua is by no means fit for a foodie, but it kept my appetite curious and my belly full and content.
And luckily, none of us were shot along the way.