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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Nicaragua

Historic Diet

Nicaraguan Food - Shrimp kebabs
Shrimp kebabs

The region that is now Nicaragua had a large number of fruits and vegetables that were locally available historically. Among these were cassava, plantains, pineapples, bananas, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, papaya, and more. Today the most important of these foods are maize (corn) and beans (of which there are numerous varieties). However, historically the root crops, like cassava (yucca) and plantains were more popular, although maize and beans made up an essential part of the local diet.

Meats and seafood were also consumed by the ancient people of Nicaragua, but to a lesser degree. Small mammals and birds were hunted for meat and along the coasts numerous fish, conch, lobster, and crab were eaten, but again in smaller quantities.

Culinary Influences

Nicaraguan Food - Lobster
Lobster

The earliest people that occupied Nicaragua brought created a culinary base that still exists today. The people used corn extensively and its use expanded over time. Tortillas were a regular part of the diet as were other maize-based foods, like the dough used to make tamales. The people also used the fruits and vegetables regularly, truly giving modern day Nicaragua its base of maize, beans, and coconut.

With the arrival of the Spanish and the growing communication with the people of the Caribbean, rice became much more common in the region and today remains one of the country's staples. From the Spanish the region also became the recipient of new spices, meats, cheeses, and dairy products among other changes. The Spanish also incorporated their cooking techniques as new dishes were created from the local ingredients using Spanish creativity, such as guacamole and enchiladas.

Although dozens of introductions have arrived to Nicaragua since the Spanish, none have truly altered the cuisine like the Spanish and today the local diet is not too different from what the people have eaten for hundreds of years. However, as the communication and transportation expand it is becoming easier and easier to bring new foods to Nicaragua. Today there are numerous ethnic restaurants in the larger cities, including numerous America pizza and hamburger restaurants.

Staple Foods

Beans: red and black beans are popular; often mixed with rice
Coconut: not as common as rice or beans, but many dishes contain some part of the coconut or are cooked in coconut milk
Maize (corn): usually served in the form of a flat bread called a tortilla, but also used for nacatamal and other dishes
Rice: sometimes cooked in coconut milk, rice can be served alone, or mixed with beans

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Gallo Pinto: combining two of the staples, this dish has a rice-base fried with red beans, onions, sweet peppers, and garlic
Indio Viejo: meat cooked with onions, garlic, peppers, and tomatoes then served with these items in orange juice and a broth
Nacatamal: known as a tamale in nearby countries, Nicaragua's version is a corn-encasing filled with pork or chicken, rice, vegetables, and spices cooked in plantain leaves
Quesillo: simply a tortilla with cheese, onions, and vinegar topped with cream
Tres Leches: meaning "three milks," this cake uses milk, cream, and condensed milk along with flour and eggs; topped with meringue

Dining Etiquette

Dining in Nicaragua is more about the company and conversation that it is about the food. Due to this, and the fact that most Nicaraguan arrive about a half hour late for set meeting times, you shouldn't arrive to a meal hungry.

Once everyone finally arrives, drinks are typically served prior to the meal. This generally begins with a toast of "salud" then followed by drinking and lively conversation. Pre-dinner drinks may take place away from the dining table itself, but your host will eventually invite you to the dining table. Let him or her seat you and expect to be separated from your significant other if eating together; this encourages greater socialization with new people. Generally the men and women will eat on opposite sides of the table and this sexual division is also seen in other forms as men usually stand when women enter the room.

With the arrival of the food, the host will invite everyone to begin eating with the words "buen provecho." Although the Nicaraguans are fairly forgiving of foreign dining habits that differ from their own, they do expect you to keep your hands in sight by resting your wrists on the table. The etiquette for using utensils though is very relaxed and you may eat in either the continental style (fork in the left hand and knife in the right) or the "American" style without any offence made. With some foods, you may be expected to eat with your hands, generally when tortillas are involved. If this is the case, follow the lead of the locals.

If dining in a local's home take small amounts of food at first so you can ask for a second helping; this is a great compliment to your host. As you finish eating, clean all the food from your plate then place the knife and fork together on the right side of the plate.

If dining at a restaurant, summon the server by making eye contact (don't wave or call his/her name). The inviter is expected to pay for everyone present; if you are the guest be sure to offer to pay, an offer that will likely be turned down. If you are paying, look to see if a service charge is included in the bill; if so no additional tip is needed, but if not a tip of up to 10% is appreciated. In more rural areas tips are not expected at all, but rounding up is still an appreciated gesture.

Celebrations & Events

At most celebratory meals in Nicaragua, the people tend to prefer steak as the entree. Meats are consumed more often and in larger proportions at celebrations of all kinds and lomo, a grilled sirloin is a favorite. This is common for birthdays, anniversaries, and other larger gatherings.

Among the many holidays, Christmas is the most important and is one strongly connected to particular foods. Chicken is usually the main course, but rice dishes similar to Spanish paella and bread are also essentials.

Another interesting event is La Griteria (December 7), at which children sing house to house and receive fruits or treats in return, including local specialties called leche de burra and nacatamal.

Drinks

The variety of drinks in Nicaragua is quite impressive and this list begins with fruit drinks and coffee. The fruits used in beverages vary based on what is locally grown as coconut, papaya, guayaba, pina, and melons are among the most common fruits used to make juices. Coffee is very common as this beverage is generally served with milk. Despite the popularity of these drinks, the national drink in Nicaragua is called pinolillo or pinol, which is made from water mixed with cocoa and cornmeal.

Among the most common alcoholic drinks in Nicaragua are beer, rum, and local distilled spirits. In general, beer is the most commonly consumed alcoholic drink, but there are few local brands of note. Rum is popular in mixed drinks and for the hard liquor lovers, but again there are few notable local brands. For an authentic local taste, try the chichi, which is a local corn-based wine that has been produced and consumed by the local Indians for hundreds of years.

The tap water in Nicaragua should not be consumed. Be sure to also avoid anything with ice as it may have been made from the tap water. Salads and fruits could have also been washed in the tap water so be careful with those foods as well.

This page was last updated: March, 2013