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Tapas & Surf at Nahualapa Beach, Nicaragua

Tapas & Surf at Nahualapa Beach, Nicaragua

If you’ve ever worked in food service, you know there’s nothing more crazy-making than trying to find your way around a new kitchen. I worked in the same kitchen for 25 years and knew every inch of that place like the back of my hand. We had two different home kitchens in Nicaragua, both furnished with basic utensils and tools, and each with its own quirks.

Both places had traditional outdoor Nica grills for roasting meat over an open fire. Each kitchen had a propane stove and oven, with a sketchy, rusted 10lb tank parked right beside it. Our first rental home had a fairly modern renovated kitchen, with ceramic tiled countertops, a deep stainless steel sink, and all new appliances. Mysteriously, there were NO electrical outlets in the kitchen, however. Making coffee or toast or using the microwave required that you physically move the appliance to the living room.

Our second rental home kitchen was spacious and had a breakfast bar that Miranda loved, but hardly had any cupboards–pots and pans were just stored in the oven.

That didn’t much matter, though. Believe me, when it’s 35 to 40 degrees every day, the last thing you want to do is turn on the oven. By the time we go to Jiquilillo, we were really missing one kitchen staple: a crockpot. In fact, we went out and found a little one for $20 and used it almost every day. From chicken to pastas to soups and rice, it all went in the crockpot around noon, usually with whatever chopped fresh vegetables and herbs had been available that day at the Tina Mata pulperia down the road.

Grocery shopping in Nicaragua

Surprisingly, we found that we didn’t save all that much on groceries in Nicaragua. I suppose if you only ate rice and beans, you could really live on the cheap down there. But overall, our grocery costs were only about 30% lower than in Canada. Dining out is actually far more reasonable, with tons of options for dinners at $10 or less per person… sometimes far less.  At one place we visited often, dinner was so inexpensive ($4.50 per person) that it almost didn’t make sense for us to cook.

We did save on fresh fruits and vegetables, which were not only plentiful, but convenient–growers bring them right to your door! You can hear the trucks blaring their daily specials long before they get to you, giving you time to run in from the hammocks and grab a few cordobas to spend on whatever looked best. Plantains, guava, bananas, papaya, pineapple, onions and yams were usually offered.

Women carrying baskets of produce on their heads came around with more delicate offerings: mamón, avocado, sapote, mangoes, sapodilla, jocote. Coconuts and limes grew in our yard. The local pulperias (small, family-owned convenience stores) were sometimes stocked with staples like watermelon, canteloupe, carrots, and bell peppers.

La Comida Nica: Traditional Nicaraguan Foods

Our two months of traveling around Nicaragua began with a stay at Brisas Del Mar Nicaragua resort; it was great to be looked after, and we didn’t have to try to plan meals right off the hop. We got to experience real, rural Nicaraguan cooking, using all of these new ingredients the way they’re meant to be used. It was the perfect introduction to the region’s local fare, and prepared us for cooking our own authentic Nica meals over the rest of our trip.

All over the country, true Nicaraguan dishes are called “comida tipica” — typical foods. Most hotels offer either desayuno tipica or continental for breakfast. A typical Nicaraguan breakfast includes:

  • fried (huevos fritos) or scrambled eggs (huevos revueltos)
  • thin, salty strips of bacon (tocino)
  • fried plantains (plátanos)
  • Nicaraguan cheese (Nica queso)
  • small red kidney beans and rice (gallo pinto)

In a lot of places, your breakfast also came with the most bizarre bread product I’ve ever tried: pretoasted bread. Imagine a giant crouton with your eggs; that’s Bimbo.

Bimbo toasted bread Nicaragua

Lunches at Brisas were varied and interesting. We always had fresh fruit juices and the Nicaraguan version of a garden salad: shredded cabbage, sliced carrots and beets, cucumbers, and tomato. We ate whatever was fresh and plentiful that day; if the fishermen had a good night, we had a great lunch of fresh red snapper, dorado, snook or rooster fish. Other days, head cook Sandra made delicious beef or pork stews, grilled meats with boiled yuca or roasted squash, etc. When it comes to authentic recipes, you know you’re getting the real deal from Sandra–she and her family live right across the road.

Sometimes, when the timing worked out just right, we had fresh coconut bread with our lunch. You knew that resident baker Wilson was on his way with a fresh basket when you heard his ghetto blaster, tied to the back of his bicycle, coming up the laneway.

Brisas Del Mar Nicaragua guests with Wilson, Jiquilillo's resident coconut bread baker

Brisas Del Mar Nicaragua guests with Wilson, Jiquilillo’s resident coconut bread baker. Photo: Brisas Del Mar Nicaragua

Dining in Jiquilillo & Surrounding Area

Dinners in Nicaragua, whether in a rural area like Jiquilillo or in the cities of Leon, Granada and Managua (all of which we ate our way through) are laid back affairs best enjoyed with a Toña (the national beer) a bit later in the evening than we might be used to in Canada. You want to wait until the sun has gone down and the mosquitoes thin out a bit, although they aren’t a problem at all in the bigger cities.

At Brisas, dinner was served at 6:30pm, either plated or as a buffet, depending on how many guests were in-house. You could also wander down the road to Magdalia, where fish, chicken, beef and pork are grilled over a massive traditional Nica firepit and served with salads and rice. Monty’s Beach Lodge next door does meals in the same way. If you want to try a dinner at any of the lodges or resorts in Jiquilillo, just visit ahead of time to let them know you’re interested and they’ll check in with the cook to see if they can accommodate extra diners.

The sun sets over the Pacific, as seen from the beach side of Rancho Tranquillo

The sun sets over the Pacific, as seen from the beach side of Rancho Tranquillo.

Past Tina Mata in Los Zorros, you’ll find Rancho Tranquillo, an absolutely delicious, all-vegetarian cabana-style beachside restaurant and bar at the back of a cute hostel property. We spent many a night in Jiquilillo at Tranquillo watching the sun set over the pristine beach, taking it all in with bartender Isabel and other travelers while waiting for Mami to put together our meals for the evening. From her vegetarian spaghetti bolognaise or lasagna to veg curry to something I understood translated to “orgasm potatoes,” Mami’s cooking never disappointed.

Within a 30-45 minute drive, you have some other great options. Take a cab to Nahualapa Beach to Tapas & Surf, where you can spend lunch and a few hours after enjoying this famous surf spot. The food is incredible, from their fresh seafood ceviche to traditional tostones and garlic shrimp.

You can pick five tapas or five sandwiches to share, walk it off on the beach when you’re done eating, and hit the hammocks out front when it’s time for a siesta. Head up to the second-level deck for comfortable open air seating and great views of the surf.

Bite-sized sandwiches at Tapas & Surf, Nahualapa Beach in north Pacific Nicaragua.

Another can’t miss dining experience in this area is Al Cielo, a gorgeous property with an open air dining room and two incredible French chefs. Perched on top of the highest hill in the area, it offers 360 degree views of the countryside and the Pacific Ocean beyond. We spent a night at Al Cielo in one of their cabanas and had dinner there a couple of times throughout our stay. It’s not on the beach, but there’s a gorgeous freshwater swimming pool and they’ve done a really great job of upkeeping what is a pretty large property, with horse stables, cabanas, the dining area, and gardens galore.

This is where you want to take friends for a nice night out, someone’s birthday, or any other special occasion.

Or, you know, if you just want to be spoiled and eat yourself into a coma one night.

Dinner at Al Cielo, Nicaragua

Dinner at Al Cielo, Nicaragua – pizzas and pastas galore.

I was surprised that since Jiquilillo and Aposentillos are fishing towns, there was no smoked fish to be found. Xavier, one of the Al Cielo chefs, laughed and said he’d actually just had a local mechanic/machinist put a smoker together for him. I can’t wait to try some smoked fish the next time we visit.

Gorging on La Calzada in Granada

We ate later at night in Leon and Granada, where Happy Hour seems to start at 2pm and run until at least 7pm, but often later. La Calzada in Granada is a pedestrian-only section of town where cafes and restaurants spill out into the street as far as the eye can see. Waiters dash out to the centre of the road (the walkway) to hustle patrons to their section of the outdoor seating areas.

Cafe de los Suenos on La Calzada, Granada

Sitting out in La Calzada puts you right in the middle of the action. Street vendors line the sidewalks and wander through the dining areas trying to sell you anything from hammocks to bracelets to hand-carved toys. You might yourself in the middle of a street performance, when break dancers and beatboxers take over the cobblestone streets, or La Gigantona and friends show up to perform.

You can start with tostones, a traditional Nicaraguan appetizer of twice-fried plantains topped with fried Nica cheese and served with some kind of pickled onion condiment. A lot of places also had fresh nachos, which are thicker and more dense than what you might be used to, topped with ground beef, tomato and fresh jalapenos. Note, they aren’t pickled jalapenos and are FLAMING hot. Wander down the street some more and you might find an Irish pub, pizza shops, sushi bars, Chinese food and more. Hit another spot for dessert, if you want–there’s an awesome chocolate shop that bakes real cheesecake there.

La Calzada is a fantastic vantage point from which to enjoy traditional and international foods against the backdrop of colonial Spanish architecture and vibrant Nicaraguan culture.

If you don’t want to sit out on the street and are looking for a quieter meal, ask to be seated in a courtyard. Many of the restaurants on La Calzada are small storefronts with open kitchens that back onto beautiful, long courtyards in the middle of the block. As a chef, I was impressed to see stainless steel kitchens with modern equipment pretty well everywhere we peeked into in the city. If you get a chance, try the calzones at Pan de Vida Brick Oven Bakery, or the salads and grilled meats at Café De Los Sueños.

Ask to see each menu and make sure you understand the conversion rates. Don’t be scared to walk away if the place looks too pricey. Most of the restaurants we checked out were pretty reasonable, but there were a couple charging outrageous prices for food that really wasn’t anything to write home about.

Head to Leon for Street Food and Slow Food

Leon was a bit of a different dining experience. We found that although there are gathering places like the Parque Central (at the UNESCO recognized cathedral) surrounded by restaurants, there were great places to eat scattered around the city.

One that we loved was an open air place called El Bodegon, tucked away in what looked like an alley between two buildings a few blocks north of Poet’s Park. It’s hands-down the best Cuban food we’ve outside of Cuba. Beef, pork, fish and chicken are all slow cooked in savoury Cuban spices and served in fresh quesadillas, tacos, on salads and more.

El Bodegon restaurant, Leon

El Bodegon restaurant, Leon

Another awesome place to check out is El Mirador. Closer to Parque Central, it’s on the second floor of a building and overlooks a skate park with all kinds of street food vendors lined up against the sidewalks. El Mirador is the place to be for Happy Hour; the beer is cheap, mixed drinks are frosty cold, and the view over the city to the volcanoes beyond is spectacular. We had a really cheap but delicious and huge plate of nachos con queso for tapas, but you could have your drinks here and head downstairs to the food carts for pizza, hamburgers, grilled meat skewers and more.

The music was different, too; around dusk, they started playing some kind of Spanish-Celtic music and the place went nuts. It was like being at a Canadian pub when Spirit of the West’s ‘Home for a Rest’ comes on. If you want to experience real Nicaraguan culture and hang out with the locals, the rooftop at El Mirador is a good place to do it.

Locals head to El Mirador in Leon after work for bucket deals on beer and cheap, delicious tapas.

Locals head to El Mirador in Leon after work for bucket deals on beer and cheap, delicious tapas.

Carnivoro is a great little steakhouse within walking distance of Parque Central, with a peaceful, zen-like atmosphere, a good wine list (for Miranda) and cold beers (for me), and delicious churrasco steaks. You can also get bacon-wrapped shrimp, grilled chicken or pork dishes and more.

Nicaraguan Flavours Work Well with Fresh Canadian Ingredients

Dining out around Nicaragua introduced us to some new flavours, unique ingredients, and different methods of cooking than we’re used to here at home. We were excited to share some of what we learned using local ingredients last week, at a Nicaraguan-themed long table dinner hosted by The Ginger Press Bookshop and Cafe in downtown Owen Sound.

We shared photos and stories from our trip while 22 guests enjoyed a five-course meal of traditional Nicaraguan fare, from a fresh and delicious ceviche on through to a homemade tropical flan for dessert.

Nicaraguan foods reflect the realities of life there; meals are simple, created with fresh seasonal ingredients, and made using uncomplicated preparation methods, to ensure as little time as possible is spent sweating it out over a hot stove. There are some fruits and vegetables you may not find here unless in a specialty market, like sapotes, mamoncillo and jocote, but plenty of Nicaraguan recipes can be made using our local ingredients here at home.

You can find a lot of the herbs and flavours used commonly in Nicaraguan cooking here at home, too:

  • oregano
  • garlic
  • cilantro
  • onion
  • tomato
  • vanilla
  • cinnamon

Achiote might be more difficult (but not impossible) to find in Canada. If you’re looking for a simple, tasty recipe to give you a taste of la comida Nica, here’s one of our personal favourites:

Nicaraguan-Style Steak Churrasco with Chimichurri

Churrasco simply means “cooked on the grill,” and you might be more familiar with it as a Brazilian dish, where they use tenderloin and other prime cuts. Cattle in Nicaragua are lean and the best cuts of beef are worth far more as exports, so churrasco typically uses a flank or skirt steak marinated for a few days.

Churrasco and chimichurri, traditional Nicaraguan dish

Nicaraguan-style churrasco steak with chimichurri

Pound 4 x 1lb flank steaks out between two sheets of waxed paper using a mallet, to 1/2 inch think. Place in a non-reactive stainless steel or glass baking pan.

Mix for your marinade:

  • 1 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 cup orange juice
  • 1 minced red onion
  • 6 minced garlic cloves
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • juice of 3 limes
  • 1 tsp fresh cracked black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt

Cover steak in marinade, ensuring all parts of the steak are immersed. Cover with saran and refrigerate for 24-36 hours.

Prepare your chimichurri by mixing in a food processor:

  • 1 large bunch flat Italian parsley
  • 1 bulb minced garlic

Then add and combine:

  • 1 cup good olive oil
  • 1 tbsp red wine vinegar
  • salt and pepper to taste

You can add crushed red chilis if you like it a bit spicier.

Grill your marinated steaks to medium rare and serve with chimichurri on top for a taste of Nicaragua, wherever you are.

Trevor

Trevor

 

Trevor Schwandt spent 25 years as a chef in Ontario, Canada, and is on a mission to see the world. An avid traveler, he’s backpacked Europe and explored his way around Central America and the Caribbean. Trevor’s the more adventurous of the Seeking Sanity blog duo, constantly on the lookout for a new set of ruins to hike, local cuisine and brews to try, and increasingly exciting ways to scare Miranda silly.

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