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A Central American cuisine as diverse as it is flavorful, Nicaraguan food holds so many delights in store, depending on where in the country you are.
Built on a foundation of indigenous, Creole, and Spanish influences, Nicaragua’s Pacific-facing side offers tender beer and rich produce, while its Caribbean side is renowned for its salty-fresh seafood.
Wherever in Nicaragua you find yourself, wonderful food is in abundance. On your travels, be sure to try these 15 popular and traditional dishes, as recommended by a local writer.
Nicaraguan Foods To Try
Mains and Sides
1 – Quesillo
The word quesillo literally means “little cheese”, and will likely refer to a different food product depending on where you are in Latin America.
In Nicaragua, quesillo is a popular snack, originally from the León Department: both Nagarote and La Paz Centro are recognized to be its birthplace.
It is prepared by wrapping a freshly cooked corn tortilla around thin slices of the soft and chewy cheese (that immediately starts to melt) and then adding some pickled onions, a pinch of salt, and a generous spoonful of sour cream. According to locals, it should be eaten with a fresco de tiste, a traditional cacao-based beverage.
Quesillo is often sold at bus stops, stations, on roadsides, and especially on the carretera (highway) that connects Managua to Leon, where it is easy to spot the very many quesillo stands.
It can be eaten from a plate, but it is normally served in a plastic bag. Locals will tie the bag in a knot, tear off one of the corners, and then enjoy this salty treat by squeezing the cheese through the gap. It sure sounds like an odd technique, but once you will try it, you will never eat it in a different way!
2 – Güirilas
Güirilas are thicker tortillas, prepared with pureed sweet corn kernels and a pinch of salt. The pureed mix is scooped on top of a buttered plantain leaf, spread out by hand, covered with a second leaf, and then cooked or grilled on a hot griddle on both sides.
The dish is originally from the Northern region, and the best güirilas are found in and between Sebaco and Matagalpa. Anybody traveling through this area will want to stop on the way back to buy a few güirilas and other local specialties to bring home.
Güirilas are normally served warm on a plantain leaf, topped with sour cream and a big chunk of cuajada cheese. Many Nicaraguans like to enjoy them with a cup of coffee.
3 – Nacatamal
Nacatamal could be considered a Nicaraguan variation of the famous Mexican tamal. It is prepared with a corn dough that is stuffed with pork, potatoes, a minty herb called yerbabuena, and sometimes rice and other vegetables, then wrapped in a plantain leaf to be boiled.
Many Nicaraguans like to have nacatamal for breakfast/brunch on either Saturdays or Sundays – or both.
As for what to eat with it, asking a group of locals whether nacatamal should be eaten with bread or tortilla will likely start a never-ending and inconclusive debate that continues to this day, even online!
Coffee is the ideal drink to pair with nacatamal, but you can also have a cold drink, like a local fresco or some soda.
4 – Desayuno Típico
Desayuno típico or desayuno nica is a popular breakfast choice at any hotel, hostel, or house in Nicaragua, either with a cup of strong coffee, or various drinks and juices.
Essentially a combination of foods that make up a breakfast dish, in a similar vein to the British Full English, Desayuno típico varies by region. However, it commonly consists of a generous amount of Gallo Pinto (beans and rice, see #10 on this list) with eggs (fried or scrambled, together with vegetables and/or ham), a few squares of fresh or fried cheese, fried sweet plantains and corn tortillas.
It is always possible to request some extras, such as avocado, sour cream, and pico de gallo, which is prepared with finely chopped onions, green peppers, and tomatoes in either vinegar or lime juice.
When ordering a Desayuno Típico in a hotel or comedor, chunks of fresh fruit may also be offered on the side, such as banana, pineapple, watermelon, and cantaloupe.
5 – Indio Viejo
Most Nicaraguans agree that indio viejo is one of the country’s most popular and oldest dishes, dating back to pre-Columbian times. Nowadays it is mostly reserved for special occasions, such as local holidays, family celebrations, and weddings.
Indio viejo is a thick stew, combining a simple but flavorsome handful of native and modern-day ingredients.
It consists firstly of shredded beef, quickly fried with vegetables, enhanced with ingredients such as the minty herb yerbabuena, bitter orange (naranja agria) and annatto paste (achiote).
Next, a corn mixture, prepared by blending old tortillas soaked in water or broth overnight, is added to thicken the dish, and the stew is left to simmer for about 10 minutes.
Finally, Indio viejo is served hot with tostones (fried green plantains) and cubes of a local curd cheese called cuajada.
A Nicaraguan favorite, its name even means ‘Old Indian’, reinforcing the dish’s importance as one of the foundation foods the indigenous people in the region used to prepare.
6 – Caballo Bayo
More than a dish itself, Caballo Bayo is a very typical and scenographic buffet, that demonstrates a variety of different traditional preparations from Nicaraguan gastronomy, kept in clay bowls and pots. These pots keep food warm for longer and are called inditos, as they are decorated to depict the face of indigenous people.
More than a dish itself, Caballo Bayo is a gathering of traditional Nicaraguan dishes, prepared and served in traditional clay pots known as inditos, that date back to the indigenous era.
Served buffet-style, the inditos allow the food to keep warm for longer and are decorated to depict the faces of indigenous people.
There are no written rules for Caballo Bayo, and it can be customized according to one’s taste and budget. Some of the most common dishes include mashed red beans, shredded or fried beef, pork and chicken, moronga (blood sausage), chicharrón (fried pork belly or pork rinds), fried sweet plantain, guacamole, pico de gallo, shredded or crumbled cheese and sour cream, and normally a typical sweet or dessert to end the meal with.
Caballo Bayo is largely prepared for celebrations and holidays, and the dishes are commonly served in clay or wooden dishes, covered with a plantain leaf.
7 – Gallina Rellena
Gallina Rellena means “stuffed hen”, and it is a traditional dish eaten in Nicaragua throughout December. The feast for the Conception of the Virgin Mary opens the Gallina Rellena season, and the dish continues to be popular right through Christmas and to New Year.
Traditionally, to prepare this Nicaraguan favorite the hen is first brined, then stuffed with a creamy, sweet and sour stuffing, before being cooked in the oven.
The stuffing, or relleno, varies from household to household, but commonly pork meat and a range of vegetables, including garlic, onions, celery, chayote, carrots, green peppers, and potatoes, are used in the stuffing.
Breadcrumbs, milk, wine, butter, mustard, and tomato sauce help bind the stuffing together, while a range of additional ingredients, such as raisins, capers, olives, and dried prunes, can be found in different variations.
Served with plenty of bread, Gallina Rellena is a must-try Nicaraguan dish over the Christmas period. Locals even enjoy the next day serving of stuffing, or recalentado, even more!
8 – Baho or Vaho
Baho is one of the most typical dishes of Nicaraguan cuisine, normally prepared or bought for lunch on Sundays.
The dish consists of a simple but flavorsome combination of beef (normally brisket), vegetables, plantains (both green and ripe) and yuca (cassava). The dish requires ample time to prepare because the meat needs to be either marinated overnight or covered in salt and left out in the sun to cure.
Once the meat is ready, the pot then needs to be prepared in a specific way so that the ingredients – that are placed in a specific order and wrapped in plantain leaves – do not touch the water.
Baho is finally steamed over water for about 4 hours and served on a plantain leaf. When served, each person normally receives a piece of both green and ripe plantain, one piece of yuca, and one portion of meat, topped with cabbage salad.
9 – Vigorón
Vigorón is recognized to be originally from Granada, where it was first created in 1914, but it is very popular everywhere in Nicaragua. It can be considered a street food, since it is mostly sold at bus stations and stops, markets, on the roadsides, or by street vendors.
It is sold wrapped in a plantain leaf, and locals will simply unwrap the leaf and eat the dish with their hands, no cutlery required!
Vigorón consists of a wholesome base of yuca (cassava), boiled to a soft and creamy consistency, with crunchy pieces of chicharrón or charrasca (fried pork belly or pork rinds), topped with a repollo salad made of cabbage, carrots, and tomatoes, drizzled in vinegar and seasoned with salt. It is utterly delicious.
10 – Gallo Pinto
While “rice and beans” is probably the go-to dish Latin America, you will find a slightly different version of this staple in every country and household.
Gallo Pinto (meaning along the lines of “spotted rooster” due to its color) is both the Nicaraguan and Costa Rican national dish. It can be served at any time of the day, but is wildly popular at breakfast, often as a component of the famous Desayuno Típico.
Gallo Pinto is the perfect recipe to “recycle” leftover rice from an unfinished meal – or better yet, the previous day – which is re-fried together with onions and local red beans (called seda). Of course, it can be made from freshly-cooked rice (rather than leftover rice), but it will not taste as good!
11 – Rondón
Rondón is a Jamaican one-pot dish, very popular on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua and many other Caribbean countries.
The name Rondón is one of the many ways people refer to this dish (run dun, fling-me-far, and fling me are three of many), as it comes from the term “run down”, referring to the act of using whatever ingredients you “run down” to at the end of the week.
In Nicaragua, Rondón is a thick, spicy and flavourful stew, that is served with toasted coconut and tostones (fried green plantain).
The dish traditionally includes seafood, such as lobster, shrimp, and fish, but it is not uncommon to see other kinds of meat in this stew, including beef, pork, or even turtle meat.
Many different root vegetables (potatoes, plantains, yuca, quequisque, carrots, peppers) and typical Creole spices are also used, cooked together with meat, fish stock, and fresh coconut milk.
Desserts and Beverages
12 – Pinol, Pinolillo & Co.
Pinol and Pinolillo are sweet traditional drinks and some of the most famous symbols of Nicaragua. In fact, it is very common to hear locals refer to themselves as Pinoleros or Pinoleras with pride!
Pinolillo is made of toasted white corn, a much smaller proportion of toasted cacao beans, and spices such as cinnamon, allspice, and cloves, all ground together.
Pinol is much simpler, consisting only of corn and spices. Both Pinol and Pinolillo are prepared by adding water or milk and the desired amount of sugar to the dry mixture to obtain a drink with a slightly gritty texture.
Variations of these recipes exist, such as tibio, which is a thicker drink that is served warm. It is prepared by cooking Pinol or Pinolillo powder in water or milk for some time, and traditionally consumed early in the morning or just before bed.
Tiste on the other hand is served cold, but the mixture used to prepare this beverage comes as a dough rather than powder, because of significantly higher cacao content.
All these drinks – and others such as semilla de jicaro and pozol – are traditionally served in special handcrafted gourds called jicaras or cumbos, which are often purchased by tourists as souvenirs in many countries of Latin America. These containers are made from recycling the shells from the jicaro (Crescentia alata) tree fruits, that are emptied and dried before they can be decorated.
13 – Pio V / Pio Quinto
Pio V is a dessert that is served for special occasions, particularly at Christmas. The origin behind its name is not precisely known, but it is believed to have been named after Pope Pius V by Dona Juana Lazo de Figueroa.
This is the name of the Spanish chef who was tasked with creating a dessert to impress the newly appointed Governor of Nicaragua, Don Alonso de Casaos, in León, December 1566.
She was able to combine native ingredients with recipes from the “Old World” in such a way that Pio V is still one of the most appreciated desserts of Nicaraguan cuisine to this day.
The dish consists of three elements, wisely combined to deliver an extraordinary contrast of flavors and textures: a soft sponge cake called marquesote, an alcoholic syrup called miel or sopa borracha (literally drunken soup, given the presence of rum), and a Spanish natilla-inspired custard cream (manjar or atol) that will reach the right thickness only with the addition of corn starch.
Sprinkled cinnamon is the final touch to this magnificent dessert, while raisins and dried prunes soaked in local rum are often added to the recipe for both flavor and decadence.
14 – Dulces Marianos
Dulces Marianos is one name given to the many different, colorful sweets that are typically sold from mid-November to January in Nicaragua. This timespan covers both the Christmas holidays and La Purísima, the most popular feast for most locals.
La Purísima is a nine-day devotion dedicated to the Conception of the Virgin Mary that is celebrated between the 28th of November and the 8th of December. During each novena day family, friends and neighbors gather together to pray and sing to the Virgin Mary, and exchange sweets, candies, and treats.
Such sweets can be bought per piece, in pre-packed trays, or handmade baskets, and always include some fudges. Common sights include bright pink coconut fudge (cajeta de coco), milk fudge (cajeta de leche), papaya fudge (cajeta de papaya or piñonates), and coyolito (fudge made from coyol, a special palm tree fruit).
Another beloved staple of Dulces Marianos is Bienmesabe, a dessert of fried green plantain strips, caramelized in cane sugar.
Finally, no La Purísima is complete without Gofio, a candy originally from the North of Nicaragua that comes in diamond-shaped pieces. It is made with pinol (toasted ground white corn), spices (ginger, nutmeg, anise, cinnamon), and a caramel prepared with black cane sugar, called miel.
15 – Buñuelos
Buñuelos exist in many countries in Latin America and originate from Spain. These sweet fried balls are a joy to try, and are often dipped or covered in syrup or honey.
What makes Nicaraguan buñuelos unique however are the ingredients used to prepare the dough. While in other countries flours and starches are mixed with local cheese and the rest of the ingredients (including baking powder, eggs, and so forth), this variation rather uses grated raw yuca (cassava).
In Nicaragua, the serving syrup is flavored with cinnamon, and either served separately in a little cup or poured on top of the buñuelos.
Nicaraguan Foods Summary
Central America is home to some truly undiscovered gems when it comes to cuisines, and Nicaragua is very much on that coveted list.
Nicaragua’s breathtaking geography and diverse landscape open it up to an astonishing array of natural ingredients, delicious meat, and tender seafood.
With both Pacific and Caribbean flavors layered atop a wholesome foundation of indigenous dishes, Nicaraguan food offers flavors and combinations totally unique to the region.
Any trip to this jaw-droppingly beautiful country is simply not complete without trying as many of the traditional dishes as possible. Food is an integral part of Central American culture and plays a huge role in shaping society, bringing families together for celebrations and quality time across the country.
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Contributor: Camilla De Totero is a multilingual translator and content writer, hailing from Matagalpa, Nicaragua, with a passion for sharing her home cuisine and culture through her writing.
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