Posted by Joe Smith
A gastronomic tour of Nicaragua can be as varied as in any other country. From lobster ceviche and fried plantains, to corn tamales steamed and served in a banana leaf, there is plenty on the menu.
In a typical market a foreigner may find a whole range of foods they never knew existed. And the ‘exotic’ fruits they pay through the nose for back home are much more affordable. Pick the right season and you could buy a pineapple or a watermelon for under $1, or a dozen mangoes for 20 cents.
Enrique Bolaños, Nuevas Esperanzas’ agricultural engineer, went door to door in the community of El Ojochal to find out a bit more about eating habits on the slopes of the Telica Volcano. I had a look through his surveys to see how varied diets really are in the remote areas of Nicaraguan society.
Enrique first asked which different food groups individual families eat. From a random selection of ten surveys, the results appear promising at first glance. Ten out of ten eat fresh vegetables, ten out of ten eat meat, nine out of ten eat fresh fruit and only two out of ten drink fizzy drinks.
He then asked how often families eat from these food groups. The results were less encouraging. The ten surveyed reckoned they eat fresh fruit and vegetables every other day and in some cases less often than that.
Enrique also suspects that there would be big seasonal fluctuations. At certain times of year families will have more mangoes than they know what to do with. At others, fruit may be off the menu entirely. He believes that the situation in other communities is worse still. Apart from the odd avocado, many people simply do not eat fresh fruit and vegetables at all.
The infrequency and variation in fresh fruit and vegetable consumption is striking on its own. When compared with staples such as beans, rice and corn it is even more so. Across Nicaragua, rice and beans are cooked up in big batches and, served separately, make up a traditional lunch. Then for dinner the two are fried together as gallo pinto. The following day you could well eat this again refried for all three meals. It will almost certainly arrive with a side of corn tortilla.
Out of ten randomly selected families in El Ojochal, eight serve beans every day. Of these, seven eat them more than once a day. Corn tortillas and rice are almost just as popular.
I personally cannot remember a meal in El Ojochal when I was not served all three together. It is therefore surprising to hear that even a small percentage of families abstain from one or the other from time to time. However, Enrique believes that they are not doing this to vary their diet. What the surveys do not show is that, when stocks run low, families are forced to alternate between the trio of rice, beans and corn tortillas until they can afford to serve all three.
A gastronomic tour of Nicaragua would not be complete without a healthy serving of gallo pinto. It provides much needed carbohydrates and protein which are essential for the campesino’s active lifestyle. But when its constituent ingredients begin to dominate the menu at the expense of all else, that serving is hardly healthy.