One rainy night I followed the Coco River, the longest river in Central America, marking the border between Nicaragua and Honduras.
On a wet and tired mule, I rode downriver from between El Tablazo on the Honduras side and Somotines on the Nicaragua side. I found some huts and asked the lady at one of them if she could cook me something – anything – to eat.
She agreed and said she had dinner in the outside oven in the back.
From the oven, I could smell a stew of plantains, corn, ayote, vegetables I did not know, and a roasted howler monkey.
Tired and hungry, I paid her for a meal and ate my fill, which I have to say was very good.
Nicaraguan cuisine is not all about eating howler monkeys, of course. But thousands of years of indigenous cooking blended with five hundred years of Spanish, African, and other styles has created something rather unique and wonderful.
When the Spanish arrived in 1522, they found western Nicaragua densely populated, with a population of around 700,000.
Recent archaeological digs have provided some answers about what these people ate: corn, jocotes, most types of mammals, turtles, fish, birds, and the small dogs – xulos – the Aztecs liked to eat.
Since they had no metal pots and pans they cooked by boiling packets of food wrapped in thick leaves, a practice still in use today, with the most famous examples being nacatamales.
A nacatamal is a mixture of corn dough, meat, rice or potato (optional), and a small hot pepper called the chile congo put in to fool careless consumers.
They make nacatamales all over Nicaragua, but my favorites come from Carazo, and in Carazo, the best come from Masatepe. Diriamba tamales come in a close second. Below are a couple of other typical tamales found in Nicaragua.
- Yo Tamal
This is a sweet tamal with no filling, just corn dough. You eat them with cheese or sour cream. You’ll find the best ones in the Centro Recreativo La Concha in La Concepcion.
- Tamal Pizque
This most resembles the Salvadoran tamal in appearance. Like the yo tamal, It also comes without filling and has no strong flavor. Again, cheese and sour cream are the most popular accompaniments.
Nicaraguans traditionally eat tamales on Sunday mornings while reading the local newspapers. A long-running joke among families all over Nicaragua is to see who bites down on the chili congo.
Nicaraguan casseroles, stews, and soups are bracing and delectable.
Nicaraguans cut up the vegetables into much larger pieces than Americans do. They include:
- Indio Viejo
Indio Viejo is like a casserole of corn dough, with stringers of cooked beef, chicken, or pork dispersed throughout the cooked dough. The rich orange color comes from the achiote.
The best vaho comes from Diriamba. It is made up of red plantains, tomatoes, onions, yucca root, tesquisque, and salted beef. Fun fact: It resembles the stew described by Spaniard Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo Y Valdez in 1528 and was the original recipe for cooking human meat.
A stew made of pork ribs, sweet jocotes, and jiquilite leaves. It’s worth a try but is bland. Look for the jocotes to spice it up.
- Sopa de Queso
The tradition is to eat this during Lent. It’s a thick soup with corn dumplings in the shape of little donuts.
- Sopa de Cola (oxtail soup)
A big pot of soup cooked apart from a larger pot of the joints of a cow’s tail cooked so that the meat falls off the bone.
- Sopa de abóndigas (meatball soup)
A soup made with Nicaraguan meatballs.
The Spanish traditions brought to Nicaragua were completely different from the indigenous traditions they found.
Mondongo could be the most famous colonial food in Nicaragua. It is also is the food expats seem to love to hate.
Mondongo is a hearty tripe soup, made from cow stomach or cow hooves, or both, which float around the bowl. If you strip off the hoof nail of a cow, the meat underneath is succulent and tender with a fine flavor.
Somewhere along the line, the Spanish colonists also invented moronga, or pork blood sausage.
Moronga has a delicate flavor, often made with the same chili congos that go into tamales. When fried, it goes well with fried eggs and gallo pinto.
My favorite food in Nicaragua is cow’s tongue in sweet tomato sauce. It could be Spanish, but I’m not sure. It doesn’t appear to be common in either Honduras or Costa Rica.
Speaking of sausage, there’s an excellent place in Managua called Bavaria Delikatessen.
Karl Welles was a gold miner at the Bonanza mines for many years and retired to Managua in 1990.
He opened Bavaria Delikatessen with his son (also called Karl) and produces first-rate sausage, cuts of meat, and sauerkraut. This is the best sausage in Nicaragua – or indeed Central America.
Bavaria Delikatessen now has two stores open in Managua.
Nicaragua’s Caribbean side has a different history to the rest of the country.
The lumber concessions and banana plantations on the Caribbean side brought in workers from Jamaica, who in turn brought their foods, customs, and language with them.
Food names are in English and they use sugar to brown their meat. Bread baked with coconut milk and meat patties are both products of the cultural mix of the Caribbean side.
Rondón, a stew made with coconut milk and (traditionally) green sea turtle meat, is unforgettable. The name Rondón derives from “run down” in English, from where you used to run down someplace to find the ingredients for the meal.
If eating endangered turtles feels as bad as eating howler monkies, rondón is nowadays mostly prepared with crab meat, lobster, fish, shrimp, or other seafood.
In fact, with the large, brackish water lagoons along the Caribbean coast, seafood abounds. The lagoons are full of snook and shrimp, and the waters offshore are full of spiny lobster.
Then there’s the quesillo. There is no American or European equivalent.
Quesillos are fresh farmer’s cheese, chopped onions, and sour cream wrapped in a thick corn tortilla. I never met a person who tried a quesillo who didn’t like it.
In any city or town in Nicaragua, the sound of salespeople singing out “Quesillo quesillo! Quesillo quesillo!” is a backdrop to daily life. Sold in plastic bags, quesillos are the ultimate Nicaraguan street food.
Over the past twenty years, many fast foods have entered Nicaragua, and this is no bad thing.
Most of the major chains are now in Managua, while Tip Top, Nicaragua’s answer to KFC, is all over the place, in most towns.
San Juan del Sur, Granada, Leon, and other cities all have plenty of great pizza restaurants, burger joints, taco stops, and other places to find international food.
They have nothing to do with the history of Nicaraguan food, but they seem to sell.
I ate my first McDonald’s burger 60 years ago and I still like them.
I have hunted and fished and eaten most everything that flies, swims, crawls or walks in Nicaragua, and I still like a Big Mac.
Pat Werner is a longtime resident of Nicaragua, arriving in 1987. He lives outside of Diriamba, Nicaragua with his wife Chilo. More of his work can be found on his Nicaraguan Pathways website.