Gallo pinto and fritanga and nacatamales, oh my! Hungry? Scrumptious morsels are never more than a stones throw away in the city here. Open your front door and wait a few minutes and someone will probably pass by peddling something fruity or fried.
Or start walking and peruse the plentiful street food carts or roadside, wood-fueled deep fryers (open flame + hot oil + pedestrian traffic = never allowed in the states). If you still haven’t found anything that strikes your fancy keep walking and start peering into the many open doorways (many places don’t have overt signs). You have roughly a 50% chance that the people on which you peep will be selling something and another 50% chance that something will be edible. In fact, many of the people are so hospitable that even if they aren’t selling something I reckon you could probably holler, “Buenas!” and tell them you’re looking to buy something to eat and they’d whip you up something delicious for cheap.
Traveling? Don’t worry! When you take the chicken bus between cities at least a dozen people will be on and off selling you enchiladas, fried chicken, soda, juice, popcorn, soda, cookies, soda…again a lot like being at a baseball game (except for the child inappropriate movies playing on the flat screen). And don’t worry about sleeping through your opportunity to eat, the decibel level at which the saleswomen announce their wares indicates that they are unaware their customers are all trapped and within a 4 foot radius.
If you decide to go to a restaurant don’t be in a hurry because most things are freshly made to order. If you order a drink be prepared for sugar to be added. If you want a drink to go plastic cups are expensive and may be an additional cost so try a bag! Bags of drinks abound here, mainly cacao, brightly colored liquids with fruit pieces in them, or water. It’s common to see people selling cold water in bags instead of bottles. Now it’s not fair to just say “drinks” in bags because all of the other foods in bags will feel left out. I can’t not mention that I’ve seen people selling rice in bags and people then eating it with their fingers on the bus. I continue to be surprised by the small things here. Like, first, how rice might be an on-the-go type of snack suited for carrying in a bag and, second, a finger food to be eaten while packed elbow-to-ass on a chicken bus. But hey…when in Rome!
What exactly is Nicaraguan cuisine? Usually not seasoned or spicy, likely fried, and maybe cheesy. Lots of gallo pinto, fruit, fried chicken, plantains, and soda. I think soda must course through the veins of the people here as I’ve spoken with people who have seen babies fed Coca Cola by the spoonful.
You can get street food or a basic meal for $2-3 in León or you can splurge and spend $6-8 at a fancier restaurant. Stick to the market or people who sell produce on the street to eat local and cheap. I bought 3 tomatoes, 5 bananas and and onion for $.50! Don’t waste your time looking for things in the market like kale, spinach, arugula, or other such leafy greens. “Salad” here often means a cabbage-vinegar mix (coleslaw-like) or some combination of onions, tomatoes and cucumbers. Local veggies are primarily squash relatives or things you would eat in an omelet.
A small taste (ha! get it!?) of the local fare…
- Gallo pinto. The local rice and bean variation. Yum.
- The “Nica” breakfast. Gallo pinto, 2 fried eggs, a fresh corn tortilla, some medium-firm salty cheese, and a sautéed plantain. Mmmm.
- BANANAS! Fruits! And the smoothies and juices that are made from them! Bananas are everywhere and cost $.04 a piece. Being a banana lover I find the small bananas here always perfectly ripe. Pineapple, papaya, watermelon, and cantaloupe are also common.
- Slices of mango in a bag. For $.38 someone will sell you a mango AND take the work out of cutting around that pesky pit for you!
- The “fritanga”. Mecca for grilled meats and fried veg (potatoes with cheese, zucchini). Cheap and tasty.
- Quesillos/repochetas. Open-faced, quesadilla-like dishes on a corn tortilla topped with crema (sour cream but less sour) and maybe some salad on top.
- Nacatamales. Similar to Mexican tamales but stuffed with rice, tomatoes, onions, and meat, and minus the sauce.
- Plantains. In any variation..tostones, tajadas, all good to me. You will likely see thinly sliced plantain chips sold in bags with salad (coleslaw) on top.
- Pio Quinto. Nicaraguan dessert of cinnamon-dusted custard atop cake soaked with lots and lots of rum.
- Rosquillas. These locally made cookies are all the rage and sold everywhere. They aren’t very sweet, almost more like a cracker.
- Coffee. There are lots of coffee farms here. The coffee is delicious.
- Leche agria. A very sour yogurt that locals eat hot or cold with a corn tortilla. A bit sour for my liking.
It took some adjusting to get used to the victuals here and the not-so-abundant leafy greens. I eventually learned to assume that things I would pay to eat in the city were either fried, sugar-filled, or dowsed with dairy. This assumption has helped me to successfully navigate the culinary world here that I now find pretty delectable.