Cacao from the vigoron stand in Granada’s market.
Before I left for Nicaragua, I sat down with my mother-in-law and had her write a list of all the things I should try. There was a section for food, and a section for drinks. There were some drinks that I’d heard of before – like chicha, for example – that I was already planning to try. Most places I’ve gone haven’t had much in the way of exotic drinks, and when they do, the beverages in question are often alcoholic. My mother-in-law doesn’t drink alcohol, but she still managed to assemble a list of more than ten must-drink beverages.
Most of these fall into the category of ‘frescos,’ which are also called ‘refrescos’ or ‘jugos naturales.’ For those of you paying attention, in Spain a ‘refresco’ would be a soda, here in Nicaragua a soda is a ‘gaseosa.’
And so the frescos were dutifully sought out. Not that it takes much work to find a fresco in Nicaragua. They are found at fritangas (restaurants that specialize in grilled meats, beans, rice and tejadas), at comedors (restaurants with a wider selection on the menu, that are often primarily for lunch). There are houses with handwritten signs advertising frescos: “Hay frescos de tamarindo, cacao, cebada.”
Frescos on the street corner in Granada, Nicaragua
So far, my favorite refrescaria is on a street corner outside the main market in Granada. The older woman who runs it stands under her umbrella all day, and she generally has 4 or 5 different options. The frescos at my favorite stand cost 15 cordobas, but I’ve bought frescos for as little as 5 cordobas and as much at 30 cordobas. If you’re getting a fresco to go, it will be served in a plastic bag that has been filled with ice, then filled with fresco. Then the vendor expertly ties the plastic bag around a straw so that the consumer can easily carry the bag and sip through the straw.
Generally speaking, frescos are a cold, sweet drink that is prepared either with a milk base, a fruit base or a grain base. The varieties are theoretically endless, but I’m going to describe the classics below. Before I get to the classics, a word of caution: While the drinks are one of my favorite things about Nicaragua, they are not universally delicious. Some people add so much sugar that the beverage tastes like liquified bubble gum. If you are traveling with another person, I’d recommend ordering one fresco, tasting it, and then deciding if you want to get another. It would be even better if you could taste before you buy, but I haven’t had any luck getting vendors to give me a taster. If you happen to get a bad fresco, don’t assume it means they are all bad. It’s not like a wasted fresco is going to leave you penniless, so I’d err on the side of being an adventurous drinker!
And now, for the flavors.
This one is obvious: It’s cacao powder mixed with milk and sweetened with sugar. Proportions vary from place to place – I’ve had some gross bubblegum-like cacaos that had way too much sugar, but also some deliciously balanced cacaos (notably from Doña Tania’s in Managua). If you’re in Nicaragua, there is no excuse for not trying at least 2 cacaos. My favorite cacao came from a small stall just inside the market in Granada that sells vigoron and frescos, which you can take to go or eat at one of the two plastic tables tucked behind the fresco table. One note: cacao is delicious, but it’s also heavy. Don’t expect to have a huge lunch (for example, a nacatamal) and a huge cacao and escape without a stomach ache – although it would be very Nicaraguan to have a nacatamal with a cacao.
Tamarindo is made from the fermented pulp of the tamarind fruits, which are soaked in water, strained to remove the pits and then sweetened. Most fruit sellers in Nicaragua sell disks of fermented tamarind for 5 or 10 cordobas so people can make their own fresco at home – which exactly what we did our last week in Nicaragua, when we had Airbnb rental with a real kitchen. Tamarindo is another classic fresco that you’re like to find just about anywhere in the country.
Yes, Spanish-speakers, that is barley! This popular fresco is made from barley that has been soaked in water for several houses and then liquified in a blender. It is usually colored pink, either with food coloring or raspberry flavoring, seasoned with cinnamon and sweetened (sometimes way too much!) with sugar.
Arroz con Piña
Any of the ‘arroz’ frescos are made in a similar way to the cebada – cooked rice is soaked in water, then liquified. Cinnamon and cloves are usually added, as are some kind of fruit juice – in this example, pineapple, but there are plenty of other types of fruit that can be blended with the rice drink.
There are many, many more flavors. Grama, for example, is iced tea. There is also chia, made from chia seeds, that is often mixed with tamarindo. I’m not going to list them all, because I would inevitably leave something out. Just go to Nicaragua and try some frescos.