There are two ways to reflect on this intention from last May: the long way, and the short way.
Days in Nicaragua we’ve had rice and beans for every meal = 0
Times I’ve eaten rice and beans and felt sick of them = 0
Even the casual follower of our blog can tell that we eat well. Of our Foto Fridays, on average, at least once a month, there is a picture of a dish I’ve cooked. I’ve written 21 posts from my personal perspective, and 12 mention food. Just to be clear, I’m gonna come out and say it, straight up:
I love Nica food!
Thinking back, gastronomical monotony in Nicaragua was legitimately one of my biggest fears leading into Peace Corps. OK, “fear” is probably too strong a word for it, but you get the idea. This was mainly due to my limited experience during the 24-hour home-stay portion of the trip I took to Nicaragua with the anti-poverty NGO Outreach International in 2007.
While definitely the most rewarding & memorable moment of our two week trip, the full day and night that I spent with a local family in the town of Santa Lucia was not a very exciting culinary experience. I shared breakfast, lunch, and dinner with the family, and each meal consisted of plain rice, bland beans, and aggressively salty cheese. Please don’t get me wrong, I was profoundly grateful for the food, and the opportunity to share with this family of quite humble means, but by the third meal I found myself physically struggling to swallow the dry, bland fare.
The rest of our stay in Nicaragua we were eating catered meals at the hotel or at restaurants, and we even went to Papa John’s pizza a few times, so my experience with the host family became what I associated with “Nicaraguan food.” Therefore, one year ago I wrote this intention, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but also somewhat terrified.
It didn’t take long for me to find out that my fears were unjustified. My first full day with my host family during training consisted of nearly non-stop eating, with not a rice nor bean to be had. Unsolicited, my host mom even turned to me and said “See, we don’t just eat rice and beans for every meal.” She was right. I was treated to some truly delicious, and varied dishes during my three months living in the house of Doña Juana Gutierrez. I was greeted daily by vegetable stews, chicken soups, tasty ground pork patties, nacatamales, tomato salads, liver with mixed veggies, plantains prepared all the ways, all accompanied by a variety of cold frescos made with fresh fruits. Yes, dinner most every night was gallo pinto (the traditional nicaraguan rice and bean combo), scrambled eggs, and cheese, but I found that adding a little hot sauce and mixing it all together ended up being the perfect way to fill the belly after a long day of Pre-Service Training.
In November of 2014, we transitioned from being Peace Corps Trainees to being Peace Corps Volunteers and moved out on our own to our site. As we were suddenly cooking for ourselves in a foreign and new city, gaining confidence in navigating the grocery stores, markets, and restaurants of Estelí on our new budget became a integral part of our settling in process. We found that we were incredibly fortunate to be in a site with three supermarkets, three open-air markets, and more street vendors than you can count within walking distance of our house, not to mention the plethora of restaurant choices. We are truly spoiled when it comes to food. In fact, I now find myself craving traditional Nica food, and convincing Emily to eat my Super Pinto with fried plantains and eggs.
Far deeper than our nutritional needs and hedonistic desires though, food has a been a cultural bridge that I try to cross every time I meet a new acquaintance. The conversations usually go like this:
Random Nicaraguan: What country are you from?
Andrew: I’m from the United States.
Now Curious Nicaraguan: And how long have you been in Nicaragua?
Andrew: So far, about 8 months.
Now Hopeful Nicaraguan: And do you like Nicaragua?
Andrew: I love it! It is a beautiful, safe country. The people are so nice, and I LOVE the food!
Now Nicaraguan Friend: Oh really? What foods do you like?
Nicaraguans, generally speaking, are friendly and quick to chat. They also love their cuisine and country. If in a conversation I am able to express my sincere appreciation for their nation and devotion to their dishes, in no time it’s as if we were long lost friends (even more so if I can manage to toss in a dicho or two). We’ve so far been guided through the market by a neighbor, taught how to make sopa de queso by the family of a man who we became friends with over the course of him showing us a house for rent, and instructed in the art of tortilla making by the departmental delegate of the Ministry of Education (who’s an absolute sweetheart), all due to our shared love of food. And we have many more invitations pending!
One specific aspect of the Nicaraguan food culture that I love is that there are so many truly Nicaraguan platos típicos (typical dishes). The specialties and exact preparations may vary by region, but Nicaraguans have a strong sense of what their food is and how awesome it is. Gallo pinto, queso, tortillas, platanos (at least 10 different preparations), nacatamales, quesillo, baho, vigorón, sopa de gallina con albondigas, guiso de pipian, sopa de res…the list goes on, of course, but Nicaraguans strongly identity all of these foods as part of their culture and heritage. And rice, beans, and corn do play a central role in the diet, as they are inexpensive and critical sources of nutrients.
Invariably, in our culinary cultural exchanges our new Nicaraguan friends will ask us, “What are your typical dishes in the United States?”
It quickly became obvious to me that we, in the U.S.A., don’t have a food culture that unites the entire nation. Different regions certainly have their specialties, but I still can’t think of dishes that truly stretch across the entire country. We also have so many different influences from various countries and cultures, that in thinking back to my eating habits in the states I realized I was a culinary chameleon, cooking and eating different styles of foods as my fancies changed and morphed. This is definitely not a bad thing; on the contrary I derive great pleasure from being privileged enough to be able to live the self-indulgent life of a foodie.
I’ve realized that living in a country where rice and beans may very well be served at any given meal does not signify a lack of culinary imagination, but rather a recipe for shared cultural identity. My belly and heart are so happy that we still have 18 months left to experience the rich tapestry of tastes here in the land of lakes, volcanoes, and gallo pinto.
To track our progress in learning to make these delicious dishes, see our Personal Peace Corps Goals page.