Soy vegetariana. I am vegetarian.
Bethany and I arrived in Nicaragua armed with a tiny Spanish dictionary and 40 or 50 handmade flash cards with useful phrases, provided by Spanish-speaking friends of ours. My fluency in the language is questionable at best, and all-reliant upon my memories of my C+ average Spanish classes in 1995 and 1996. For the most part, the cuisine of Nicaragua seemed to be free of meat. Despite this, and despite the notecard and the fact that vegetariana is one letter away from the English version of the word, I messed up the phrase without fail, talking around it whenever possible.
Mi amiga no me gusta carne, I’d explain while pointing at Bethany with her fancy eating habits. Directly translated, My friend, I don’t like meat. Not confusing at all.
Chants of no carne and pescado bien (fish well) became part of my vernacular for the entire eight-day trip, as we negotiated through the restaurants, stalls and markets of Nicaragua and Costa Rica. And so we’d push through eating anything that looked interesting. If it had meat, I’d try it alone. If the vendor could sufficiently reassure us that the wrapped pastry had just cheese (solomente queso), we’d both give it a shot. More often than not, we’d ask what something was and not understand any part of the response. Escribe por favor (writes, please) was my broken Spanish request that my patient Nica friend write down the name of our item for future research. And that is how tiny scraps of paper got shoved into pockets of my bag, worn through, ripped, torn and otherwise destroyed before I could transfer the data to a more reliable source, such as my journal or iPhone. (Journals and tiny pieces of paper do not have batteries that need to be recharged.)
Morning starts early in Nicaragua. The sun and sounds of children playing more often than not replaced the need of an alarm clock. (Another tool the iPhone provides, if needed; I remember the days of the “travel alarm clock.” I am old.) A sign that we were almost always in a city: we were never woken by a rooster. Maybe Nicaragua’s poultry are more polite than others we’ve encountered in our travels. On our first morning, we woke up at 6 a.m. at Hostel Oasis, eager to explore the city.
The city, for the most part, was not ready for us. We wandered the streets, waiting for things to open, while taking photos of the brightly colored Spanish buildings and doing our best to get the expansive churches in one shot. Our self-guided stroll through Granada was completely lacking of any context. Twice, we stood in front of the church whose tower we would later seek out with the help of a tour guide wearing a Detroit Lions baseball cap. (It turns out that he likes the Yankees. When I asked for a discount — because of his taste in baseball teams — he laughed. I know enough Spanish to be funny if I try. And more than enough to be funny when I don’t try.)
Even with half a day, we found plenty to eat, with the help of a market stroll and an authentic Nicaraguan breakfast joint. Granada introduced to us jocote, gallo pinto, morcilla, queso frito and plátanos fritos. Let’s take a look.
I can’t remember how much we paid for our bag of jocote, but it wasn’t much. Served with salt and vinegar (which was a distant reminder of bus fare from the Philippines, another one-time conquest of Spain) these unripe plum-shaped fruits had the consistency of apples and lacked distinctive flavor. Someone would later refer to the fruit as plums. After trying a few pieces each, we handed the remainder of our bag to a girl inside a Catholic (is there any other kind?) church.
The flavor of the tough meat thing that I bought from the market only seems familiar now that I know what it is. As the carnivore in the journey it was my duty to try the the unnamed bite-size morsel served with vinegar-laden cabbage. It was familiar, but I couldn’t name why.
Turns out I was eating morcilla, a blood sausage with a rice filler (a distant relative to the Filipino dish dinuguan.) My lazy wikipedia research shows that blood sausage (or black pudding) has variants around the world. Maybe next time, I’ll recognize them upon first bite.
Gallo Pinto, Queso Frito and Plátanos Fritos
We had our one and only Nicaraguan breakfast at Querube’s, a small and accommodating sit-down restaurant close to the market. (Once you select your seat, an overhead fan will be turned on directly above the table; it’s the microclimate of air conditioning.) This meal remains one of Bethany’s favorites of the trip.
First up, gallo pinto, or rice and beans. In this version, the two made-for-each-other ingredients are pan-fried and seasoned with tomatoes. We encountered several types of gallo pinto in both Nicaragua and Costa Rica, but Bethany’s taste buds are unequivocally accurate; the every-meal dish peaked at Querube’s.
Next, queso frito, or fried cheese. This salty block of fried cheese was generally offered in place of a meat-based protein in vegetarian meals wherever we dined in Nicaragua. I abandoned mine after a few bites; I found the pork chop-like texture off-putting. Cheese, in general, was a bittersweet experience for me in Central America. While cuajada (the specific type of cow’s milk cheese that we had most often) was in abundance, its almost-spoiled-milk flavor never grew on me. Seeing the giant blocks displayed in the market, though, was fascinating.
Almost every meal included a variation of fried plantains (plátanos fritos) and this Nica breakfast was no exception. Crispy on the outside and sweet and soft in the middle, these could easily be mistaken for bananas.
Breakfast was also served with two eggs (nothing new here), hot sauce, ketchup and fresh mango juice. The juices of both Nicaragua and Costa Rica remain one of the things that I miss the most, now that I’m settled back into my daily routine.
Querube’s doubled as a street vendor as well, selling its wares to passers-by who did not require table and fan service. (Shameless plug: Folks who “like” Itinerant Foodies on Facebook may recognize this image from the trip.)
We closed our adventures in Granada by boarding the chicken bus to Rivas, a stop on the way to Ometepe, our second destination of the trip, and I’ll close this post with a mystery bus food and a Facebook post. While the chicken, cabbage and corn tortilla snack I purchased from a bus vendor was delicious, it was a little difficult to eat. I placed the chicken bones in a tiny plastic bag in an outside pocket of my purse and instantly forgot about them. Until the next day.
Behold, my Facebook post:
Voted most likely to carry around chicken bones in her purse. Also voted most likely to forget about the chicken bones. Guess who doesn’t forget about chicken bones? One Million Tiny Nicaraguan Ants. On the plus side, I showered this morning with a frog.
Calle el Comercio
across from El Tiangue #1