Generally speaking, Nicaraguan food is not terribly exciting. That is not to say that it’s bad, as some visitors to the country seem to think. But after spending five months in China, where depending on the English proficiency of the proprietor, the menu might include items like the famous “fuck the duck until it explodes” (a dish I never personally encountered or tasted, but it certainly sounds exciting). Even with more accurate translation, menus can include eyeballs and fish heads and body parts not usually discussed in polite company.
In comparison, Nicaragua is tame. It’s national dish is “gallo pinto,” which directly translates as ‘spotted rooster.’ Gallo pinto is actually rice and beans, generally free of eyeballs or other organs. It is delicious, cheap and ubiquitous. But exciting it is not.
Other than gallo pinto, however, there are some specialties in Nicaragua to look forward to. Most importantly, it would be negligent to visit Nicaragua without eating at least two nacatamales.
Most readers are probably familiar with the Mexican second-cousin of nacatamales – tamales. Nacatamal means ‘big tamal” in Nahualt, one of the indigenous languages spoken in Nicaragua in centuries past. But the difference between nacatamales and tamales is more than just size: The Nica version is more flavorful, more filling and more difficult to make.
My first nacatamal was in Bluefields, the Saturday after arriving in Nicaragua. In front of one of the houses in the city center there was a large pot simmering over a wood fire, and a sign that said “Hay nacatamales.” (There are nacatamales). My husband and I inquired and got a nacatamal to share, eating it on the family’s front porch. A 17-year-old girl fished the nacatamal out of the pot and took it back into the kitchen to unwrap and plate up – her aunt, who was sitting outside, explained that making nacatamales was a family tradition, and that the girl makes a batch every weekend and was saving the money for her university studies.
Like their more well-known relatives, nacatamales are basically a corn-based dough cooked in a plantain leaf. In addition to the corn masa, nacatamales are filled with rice, potato slices, pork or chicken, tomato, olives, and sweet peppers. They are seasoned with achiote and, occasionally, hot peppers. They are then boiled, not steamed, for at least three hours, so that the rice gets thoroughly cooked and the corn masa is infused with the flavors from the leaves and all the savory fillings. The final product weights more than a pound.
It’s time consuming, and most nacatamal producers make them once a week, on Friday evening or Saturday morning; nacatamales are generally available only from Friday evening through Sunday morning. Since most nacatamales are made in private homes, it’s also hard to say exactly where to go to buy them. Either you have to just keep an eye out for that sign – “hay nacatamales” or, even better, ask around. People generally know where to find a decent nacatamal.
In my opinion, the best nacatamal we had was in Matagalpa, at a house on the hill overlooking the city’s market. We just happened to be walking by on a Friday afternoon when I saw the nacatamal sign on the window. We grabbed two nacatamales and my husband put them in his backpack so we could have them for later. They were so hot and fresh that the water in our water bottle heated up and my husband complained that his back was burning from the heat.
I liked that nacatamal because it was spicy – but my husband’s favorite nacatamal, by far, was in Granada. He had spent days surveying neighbors, tortilla vendors and random passersby about where to buy nacatamales, and they had recommended one place about two blocks away from our Airbnb rental. When we showed up on Saturday morning, there was a big red sign that said “se vende nacatamales.” When we inquired, we were led inside by a middle-aged woman, who took the lid off of an enormous pot sitting over a wood fire in her home’s courtyard. At 50 cordobas each, they were the most expensive nacatamales we had had yet (30 cordobas seems to be the going rate), but they were also quite delicious.
If you’re in Granada and want some amazing nacatamales, go to Nacatamales de La Teodosia, located at: Ztxchen 1 cuadra oeste, 1/2 cuadra al norte, Granada (address seems non-standard? Welcome to Nicaraguan navigation). The woman who runs it, Maria, is carrying on the tradition of nacatamal production started a hundred years ago by her grandmother. Her nacatamales are super fresh and super delicious, and they’re also the only nacatamales we tried that didn’t have bones, which makes them a little less hazardous for consumption.
I ate nacatamales in Bluefields, on Ometepe, in Matagalpa and even at a small shack on the road from Matagalpa to Jinotega. If it’s Friday, Saturday or Sunday morning, ask around and keep your eye out: There is sure to be a nacatamal somewhere close by.