One of the best parts of visiting Nicaragua is sampling Nicaraguan food. Meals are usually less than $5 (and often just $1-2) so there’s no excuse not to try everything! Here’s what to eat in Nicaragua.
Nicaraguan Food: 9 Foods and Drinks to Try
Rice and beans are a staple of just about all Central American diets and Nicaragua food is no exception. Gallo pinto, which translates to “speckled rooster”, is the staple of most meals. The rice and red beans are each cooked separately and then fried together to combine into a tasty side dish. You’ll find it at all three meals because it’s hearty, delicious, and cheap. Each restaurant makes it a little bit different, though I consistently found it cooked a bit al dente for my tastes.
Plantains are another one of those foods that you’ll find just about everywhere in Nicaragua. You’ll find yellow plantains sauteed and caramelized (such as in the breakfast picture above) as maduros, green plantains cut thickly and fried into tostones, and my personal favorite: thin, crunchy, crispy plantain chips. Tajadas are just like potato chips, just made from plantains. The combination of natural sweetness with a light coating of salt is delicious on a hot day. You’ll find them packaged at grocery stores, gas stations or offered as street food.
Do you love plantain chips as much as I do? You might be able to find them in Latino grocery stores at home, too! If not, order a case of Inka Chips on Amazon.
If you’re not a vegetarian, you should really try vigarón. It’s simple but downright delicious. The dish is served on a plate of boiled yucca (a tuber, sort of like potatoes), topped with chicharrón (crunchy fried pork skin), and topped with a cabbage slaw. Sometimes all of this is placed on a banana leaf, sometimes it’s simply plated. Either way, the meal is a great blend of starch, crunch, and fresh vegetable flavors. You’ll find this specialty in Granada in particular.
Have you ever had tamales? Nicaraguan tamales, or nacatamales, are a great variation. A plantain leaf is filled with masa (a cornmeal dough) and other fillings like meat, vegetables, rice, and achiote or other seasonings. You’ll be more likely to find them as street food than on restaurant menus, so plan on a casual lunch or mid-morning snack. Vegetarians take note: many contain lard even if it’s otherwise meatless.
Related reading: Love at First Bite (Link opens in a new window) Each country in Central America has their own cuisine, and Panama’s food was terrific! Check out some of my favorites.
Confession: quesillo is one a Nicaraguan food that is an acquired taste but nevertheless it’s a local specialty worth trying. Essentially, a quesillo is a fresh (often warm) tortilla that’s stuffed with local cheese and then topped with cream, onions (they seemed pickled, or at least stored in vinegar), and salt. You’ll also get your quesillo wrapped in a clear plastic bag with a small opening. Either eat it through the opening or close it off with a knot, then turn the bag upside down and bit a separate hole in the bottom corner. I have no idea why it’s eaten that way (for better flavor, I was told), but just watch the locals and give it a try.
Nicaragua has a lot of coastline and I barely saw any of it, but while I was at the ocean, I did my best to eat as much seafood as possible. Concha negra is a popular local shellfish, but I actually stuck to the fish. I had some amazing mackerel in a coconut sauce at El Barca de Oro in Las Peñitas and a super-fresh snapper dinner at a fritanga down the road. Most restaurants in the area didn’t have a set menu and would only offer two or three fresh-caught options, but your flexibility will be rewarded.
Nicaragua food is yummy, but their drinks are also worth mentioning. Pinolillo is made from ground, toasted corn and cacao powder mixed with either milk or water. It’s usually sweetened and may also have a pinch of cinnamon or cloves mixed in. It’s gritty from the cornmeal but is weirdly satisfying. It’s a very popular drink, so look for it at the market and bring a bag of the powder mix back home to share with your friends.
This also seems like a decent time to mention the Nicaraguan habit of serving drinks in a bag. When you buy a drink on the street, on the bus, or at the market, you most likely won’t get a cup or a bottle. Instead, they’ll pour or ladle your drink into a plastic bag. They knot it up securely (NEVER untie the knot unless you want a big mess) around a straw for easy drinking. It works better than you’d guess and you’ll find everything from water to juices to chocolate milk to sodas in these bags.
Is it a batido or a licuado? I’m not really sure, since the terms seemed interchangeable, but smoothie shops in Leon are like cupcake shops in the United States. They’re incredibly popular and an affordable luxury. Each is made with fresh fruit, ice, and sometimes blended with milk, yogurt or even ice cream. You can ask for it sweetened or unsweetened, though if you get in-season fruit unsweetened is probably fine. Although I think smoothies are always delicious, these hit the spot since it’s so darn hot in Nicaragua all the time. I bet you’ll be back a few times during your visit…
Flor de Caña
I was far from impressed by Nicaraguan beer (Toña is most common, followed by Victoria), but thankfully the local rum, Flor de Caña, is really great and incredibly cheap. You can buy a bottle of aged rum at the grocery store for about $6 and you’ll often find 2×1 specials at bars for the Nica Libre, a rum and coke with a generous squeeze of lime. Try the rum straight, get a mojito for about $2, or try the national drink: el macua is a blend of rum, guava juice, lemon, and sugar. I usually stuck with a nica libre, but you really can’t go wrong.
These foods and drinks should keep you busy for awhile during your visit, but if you’ve still got meals to fill, I’m sure you’ll find plenty of other things to try.
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