Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Back From Nicaragua and Thinking About a Winner

Once again I find myself sitting in front of my computer writing about food. This time it is after a 10-day journey to surprisingly lovely and enchanting Nicaragua. I had a great time and left with great memories thanks to the warmth of the people and rugged beauty of the landscape. I did things like climb up to the rim of an active volcano, look down into its vast crater and choke on its sulfurous smoke.


And watch the sun set perfectly over the ocean.



I also ate a version of this every morning:


This is Gallo Pinto, the national dish of Nicaragua, which loosely translates to "Spotted Rooster". It usually came with some sort of scrambled egg and a slab of margarine so yellow it would make Big Bird jealous. Gallo Pinto is basically just rice and black beans pan-fried together until the rice is colored a "spotty" grayish brown by the black beans, like the color of a hen or rooster-- or at least that is the sum of the convoluted explanations given to me in varying degrees of believability by proud Nicaraguans, all of whom were quick to insist that the dish was clearly not invented in Costa Rica. The fact that so much national pride is staked on the origins of rice mixed together with beans is the first clue to the fact that, well, there isn't a lot going on with Nicaraguan cuisine.

That being said, I did have a few solid meals. A few highlights included a set of beautifully cooked, fat and juicy pork ribs; grilled fresh-caught fish and langoustine; and an assortment of deep fried goodies including fried mashed potatoes.



Otherwise the typical lunch or dinner consisted mostly of rice, beans, plantain and some overcooked slabs of meat. Some were decent, others bordered on inedible. This one was certainly the biggest:

The Nicaraguans also seem to have a thing for fast food fried chicken and pizza, of which there were numerous local chains. They also like eating their hot dogs from carts painted with Looney Tunes and/ or Disney characters:


Besides Gallo Pinto, the other two most touted national dishes are the Quesillo and the Nacatamal. The quesillo is a thick slab of extremely fresh though relatively tasteless cheese covered by chopped onions that have been stewing in vinegar for a week. It is all wrapped in a thick corn tortilla, stuffed into a plastic bag then doused in the cream that the cheese has been sitting in. It is served at room temperature. The tart onions give some intensity and dimension to what otherwise is a plain dish. It is good, I suppose, but it will be a while before you see a quesillo joint open up down the street. Here is a restaurant version, unbagged and unrolled:


The nacatamal is a corn masa tamal wrapped in a plantain leaf and filled with pork, potatoes, tomatoes, mint, and at times raisins, olives and chiles. Circumstances beyond my control kept me from getting my hands on one until the final night, when I was able to pick up a few cold ones. I did succeed in smuggling them home past our ever-vigilant border patrol, but by the time I opened it up, the sweaty sock stench emanating from the bag forced me to at least ponder the consequences of eating food in such a state of decay. I still have them in the fridge, hoping somehow to reverse the ageing, but I fear I will be throwing these beauties out tonight.

By no means do I pretend to know a lot about Nicaraguan cuisine after my 10-day tour, and by allowing my nacatamals to spoil, I probably missed out on the best Nicaragua has to offer. I also discovered late in my journey that the bakeries held countless varieties of meat-stuffed pastries that are sure to delight. And although I won't recommend that you venture to Nicaragua as a food destination, I do recommend that you go to Nicaragua to enjoy cheap and relatively tourist-free travel, the lovely people and the endlessly beautiful landscapes.

I also haven't forgotten about the little contest I set up just for you, reader. If you missed that post, I was looking for some great new place to visit in exchange for a $10 coupon for one of Denver's Independent Network of Restaurants. I am still debating the options and will decide on a winner by the end of the week. Stay tuned and thanks again for checking in.

1 comment:

  1. I'll go & visit but have meals sent in.

    Glad you enjoyed the visit.

    Uncle Tom

    Visit Teds Montana. Great burgers.

    ReplyDelete

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