Food in Nicaragua: Corn, Corn, and Corn

Nicaraguans enjoy good food and good times, and being too dainty while eating signals that you’re not pleased with the meal. There are limits, so keep an eye on your dining companions for what’s appropriate and what’s not, but don’t be afraid to enjoy what’s on your plate. If you’d like to get a laugh out of your Nicaraguan hosts or waiters, after you’ve finished your plate, tell them, “Barriga llena, corazón contenta” (“Belly full, happy heart”).

Nacatamales. Photo © Daniel M. Hochbaum.
Nacatamales. Photo © Daniel M. Hochbaum.

Maíz (corn) is central to the Nicaraguan diet. Beans are just as critical a staple (and a nutritionally critical complement), but in Nicaragua, corn is prepared with more variety, taste, and frequency. Corn is prepared and consumed in more than a hundred different ways.

Tortillas are flat cakes of corn dough softened with water and cooked on a slightly rounded clay pan known as a comal. The only place you’ll find flour tortillas is in a Mexican restaurant in Managua. Nica corn tortillas are thick, heavy, and (hopefully) hot off the woodstove. When the same dough is fortified with sugar and lard, then rolled into small lumps and boiled while wrapped in yellow corn husks, the result is a tamal, steaming heavy bowls of which market women balance on their heads and loudly vend in the streets. Nacatamales, a Nicaraguan classic, are similar but with meat, often spiced pork, and often potatoes in the middle. Atol is corn pudding, and güirila is a sweet tortilla of young corn, always served with a hunk of cuajada (soft, salty white cheese).

Elote is corn on the cob, which is especially tasty when roasted over open coals until the kernels are a little chewy. When harvested young, the ears of corn, called chilotes, are served in soup or with fresh cream. Corn is also oven-baked into hard, molasses-sweetened cookie rings called rosquillas, flat cookies called ojaldras, and many other shapes. The same dough is also combined with cheese, lard, and spices to produce dozens more items, including perrerreques, cosas de horno (usually sweet corn cake), and gofios.

What do you wash it down with? More corn, of course. Pinol, drunk so frequently in Nicaragua the Nicaraguans proudly call themselves pinoleros, is toasted and ground corn meal mixed with water. Pinolillo is pinol mixed with cacao, pepper, and cloves; tiste is similar. Pozol is a ground cornmeal drink prepared from a variety of corn with a pinkish hue. The ultra-sweet, pink baggies of chicha are made from slightly fermented cornmeal (especially strong batches are called chicha brava). Then, of course, there is crystal clear, Nicaraguan corn tequila, or cususa.

Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon Nicaragua.