Friday, 15 October 2010

Living, eating, breathing rural Nicaragua

In July 2010 I spent 6 weeks living with 2 different Nicaraguan families in the village of ‘La Naranja de Tiacan’ in the protected area of Miraflor, just north of Esteli.  During this time I was a project manager for Raleigh International working on a community centre building project.  Part of the experience involved living and getting involved with day-to-day life with the community.  This experience was incredible and one I will never forget.  For me, food is a major part of experiencing new cultures and different ways of life and so this post aims to give you a taste of what life is like in rural Nicarauga.

Life is simple and the food reflects this.  Much more of the daily routine is around basic survival tasks such as cooking, cleaning, feeding the children, and then earning a living perhaps from farming or baking and selling your produce.  The first family I lived with had their own land where they grew a few fruit and vegetables and herbs, as well as a large outdoor oven which the mum – Elizabeth, used for baking a variety of goodies which she sold to both her and neighbouring communities and even as far as Esteli.  The second family I lived with had their own large farm for animals, vegetables and fruits.  Both mums took pride in their cooking and were always delighted if you asked for seconds – providing you with a larger portion than the first!

It is incredible the amount of time and effort that goes into preparing food for the family each day.  Each morning my mum would get up at or before dawn (between 5 and 6am) and start the day by preparing enough corn tortillas for the day.  I had a go at making these myself and they certainly make it look easier than it is!  For a family of 2 children and 2 adults the mum used to make at least 60 tortillas each day – ensuring there were plenty for every meal!!

Breakfast was served around 7/7.30 am and you could always guarantee on a healthy chunk of cuajada cheese, and a plate of fresh tortillas, and then perhaps frijoles, arroz, (or gallo pinto) or huevos (eggs) to accompany along with a traditional Nicaraguan coffee – black and SWEET!  I will never forget my mum’s face when I asked for mine ‘sin azucra’ (without sugar), she seemed to think it was the strangest request in the world and after this she assumed that I didn’t like sugar in ANYTHING (i.e. I don’t like cakes?!).  This shows how foreign it is to drink coffee without sugar!

After a hot mornings work at the sight we would be faced with (to our dread admittedly) a boiling hot soup of chicken, ayote, potatoes or yuka and onions.  As nice as the soup was it was not always welcome in the heat of the day!  Other lunches (which we loved) would include gallo pinto, plantain, malanga chips, and if you were lucky avocado or tomato.  Again, without fail a healthy plate of tortillas awaited!

In the evenings, again similar food, perhaps some chicken, or beef if it was a special occasion, papas fritas occasionally.  We would also be given yummy roasted sweet bananas which occasionally we would add a little nutella to (a treat from outside the village!).  In addition we tried the local chocolates - samba, and became a little addicted to these small pieces of heaven!

The main thing I noticed about food in rural Nicaragua was the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables.  The most common vegetable we ate was ayote and chayote.  A handful of times we were lucky to have fresh tomato and avocado however, our mum explained that these were expensive and had to be bought from Esteli or Yali.  However, they love their food, especially the cuajhada cheese!

If you get the chance to visit Nicaragua I would really recommend living with a local family for the opportunity to experience the cuisine and lifestyle, its an unforgettable experience with the chance to meet and make friends with some of the friendliest, warm and most generous people I have ever met.  Click here to view some of the recipes from my time in La Naranja.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Food Glossary: Samba chocolates

My favourite Nicaraguan chocolate!  This small chocolate which cost 2.5 cordobas was there with me throughout my time in the village!  It is like a mini toffee crisp – v satisfying for a chocolate fix!  As you can see below I was not the only addict!

Food Glossary: Cuajada cheese

Typical Nicaraguan cheese eaten with most meals and made in the home traditionally.  A soft, fairly mild cheese (although with age it becomes harder and more sour!).  You may not like it to begin with but my advise is to persevere as you can acquire a liking for it.  The fresher the better in my view and a tip is to put cuajuada onto ayote or chayote (especially if it is too watery) as it adds a bit of flavour as it melts in!  It is also melted down to ‘crema’ and given with some meals…this has quite a strong, sharp flavour which is ok, but better fresh I think.

Food Glossary: Gallo Pinto

Hmmmmmm!  How did I live without gallo pinto before going to Nicaragua?!  The mix is simply rice with beans (arroz con frijoles) and it is the national dish in both Costa Rica and Nicaragua.  I personally prefer Nicaraguan pinto (its more commonly made with red beans whereas Costa Rican pinto is usually made with black beans).  Also Nicaraguans tend to use the juice from the beans to make the gallo pinto more ‘saucy’ whilst the costa Rican pinto is drier.  Gallo pinto can be found any time of day – especially at breakfast with eggs or tomatoes or cuajada cheese.  It can be plain or have onion, peppers and coriander added for extra flavour.  The name gallo pinto means ‘speckled rooster’ which comes from the look of the dish with the colours mixed together. 

Food Glossary: Beans/frijoles

Beans are an interesting ingredient which although I knew and had eaten at times before living in Central America, I had never really enjoyed or craved them so much!  They are very much a staple of the diet in this region which is easy to understand as they are affordable, easily grown and stored, rich in protein, and high in soluble fibre which helps to lower blood cholestoral levels.  There are so many varieties in the bean family, but it is the red (kidney) and black (turtle) bean which are most commonly found in Central American meals.  My personal favourite is the red bean.

Food Glossary: Achiote (annatto in English)

This is a seed of a fruit which is used as food colouring.  The seed is a rusty red colour, and in pre-columbian times the extracted dye was used to decorate bodies, clothes and utensils.  In Central America it is used as commonly as salt and pepper in the western world.  As well as giving a golden colour to food it mildly flavours also.  My Nicaraguan mum loved to use this seed in her cooking especially for soups.

Food Glossary: Malanga

Malanga, another amazing discovery in Nicaragua!  If you google this vegetable/root/corm you will discover a multiude of names and varieties!  I have tried to simplify it here as it didn’t all mean much to me!  This white, creamy potato/yukka like plant has purple lines running through it and is cooked in a variety of ways, baked, fried, boiled, stewed.  It is earthy in flavour, some even describe it as nutty.  It is a tuber, in the arum family, and along with being eaten in its common form it can also be formed into a paste and used to make a flour (which apparently is a great hypoallergenic alternative due to the starch particles being small.) Malanga are extremely nutritional as they are underground stems rather than roots, and I think they are DELICIOUS!

Food Glossary: Yuka

The yuka is another wonderful discovery from my time spent in Central America.  After doing some research I have discovered that it is part of the century-plant family and is native to southern North America, Central America and the West Indies.  The yuka can vary from 4 – 16 inches long and has a bark like skin which covers white flesh inside the plant.  The plant is fibourous and long and cylindrical in shape.  This vegetable must be peeled and cooked before eating.  Ideally they should be used swiftly after purchase to avoid dryness.  They are similar to potatoes but much denser and my preference for eating them is fried or in stews rather than boiled as they tend to taste quite dry.

Food Glossary: Plantain

Plantain is my favourite new discovery of 2010!  I love this relative of the banana.  It can be cooked in a variety of ways and depending on how ripe it is gives it a completely different texture and taste.
When green, the plantain is a savoury, and fairly bland and starchy.  When ripe it tastes very sweet and is mushy in texture.  The difference between sweet and savoury is about 8-9 days to ripen and the skin turns from green to black.  During my time living and travelling in Central America I was lucky enough to enjoy many a meal using plantain, such as patacones (or tostones), platanos maduros, and platanos chips!

Food Glossary: Chayote

The chayote, a member of the gourd family (along with cucumbers, squash and melons), was once the principal food of the aztecs and mayans.  It is a very popular vegetable along with the Ayote, and is often refered to as the ‘vegetable pear’ (it is usually the size of a large avocado or pear).  Skin colour can range from light green, to dark green or even white.  The chayote is abundant in Costa Rica and is therefore the country’s most popular vegetable.  The flavour can be quite bland (and as I mentioned about the ayote – rather watery) and so usually requires seasoning.  Both seed and flesh can be eaten.  They must be cooked to be eaten and be cooked in a variety of ways  - baked, boiled, steamed or sautéed.  The chayote is commonly used in picadillos, stewed, added to salads, battered and fried, mashed or stuffed.  Alone, they are fairly low in calories, however they are often served using butter or cream.  When buying this veg the ‘harder the better’ as they will keep for 2-3 weeks in the fridge.

Food Glossary: Ayote

A member of the squash family, this green vegetable is a common feature in the Nicaraguan meal.  Similar to Chayote and also known as Cuban pumpkin or squash.  They are round in shape and range in size and once purchased they can keep for up to a month in a cool, dark place.  When cooking remove the seeds and fibres (although the seeds can be cooked, just as usual pumpkin or squash seeds).  I find it hard to distinguish between the ayote and chayote but from memory both were fairly watery and so my advice would be don’t overcook them!