What’s Cooking in Central America – Exploring the Local Food

I knew I was in for a treat in Central America when I was flying to Managua for two weeks of independent travel before joining the Overseas Adventure Travel tour, Route of the Maya. I should have known that I was in for some interesting food when I was talking to a Nicaraguan woman next to me on the plane. She gave me some interesting food tips. Not only did she mention plantains to me which I love anyway, but also told me that they are often served with hot cow cheese. This turned out to be a daily routine for me at breakfast while in Nicaragua. It looked like feta cheese, but there were no goats that I could see in Nicaragua. Truly a unique culinary experience.

What I learned about the coffee there was fascinating too. Not only is it rich in flavor because of the volcanoes, but the traditional way it is prepared. During the flight, the woman said the tradition is not to brew it, but put it in a tea ball like device and let it sit in hot water, adding more and more hot water gradually until it’s just right.

A unique dish in Nicaragua that many seem to know all over Central America is vigaron, which is said to come from Granada where I in fact ate it. It is a salad type dish with pork rinds, cassava (yuca), chopped tomato, baby lime and spicy cabbage. But oh, is it yummy! Try it with their fresh chocolate milk (made with their fresh local chocolate) and you won’t need another meal for a while.

In El Salvador, the big dish that all locals make is pupusa. I saw some in Nicaragua, but it’s a national dish in El Salvador, with pupuserias in many areas. These small pancakes are filled with beans, cheese, a combination of beans and cheese, some with jalapeno, and I even had one with the seasonal favorite of pumpkin. These are served any time of the day including with breakfast, and are served with the options to top them with cabbage, more cheese, and even more peppers if desired. They are great with dark beer for lunch, dinner or appetizers, and the specialty of the handicraft beer is often recommended. I had them at breakfast when I could, along with plantains. And at a popuseria rather than a local stand, you purchase an entire meal first served cafeteria style, then get 4 or 6 popusas after you finish the meal. This was a real treat in San Salvador, and certainly eliminated the need for dinner later in the day!

The OAT tour started in El Salvador and ended in Belize. We visited Honduras and Guatemala along the way. We ate dinner one night at a “must do” Conde Neste recommended restaurant in Copan, Honduras. And I must say…They sure piled on the meat and kabobs  to such a degree that nobody could finish their food! I went with lighter fare. It seems mine was considered just an appetizer, but by my standards, it was a beef quesadilla. They didn’t consider it that, however. So many of the same Latin foods we know here at home can be found in Central America, just with different names. And the people who ordered the kabobs? They could barely eat half. Many wished that I had shared with them. I hardly expected a meat intensive kabob experience in Honduras, but well, we had one.

By the time we reached Antigua, Guatemala, we had tried the Guatemalan version of empanadas which were wonderful, and very similar to those in other Latin countries. This was my fourth trip to Central America, and it was about to be my second full week in Guatemala. I wanted to return to see and experience certain things (food related, actually) in Antigua. I had longed for five years to return to, the Hotel Santo Domingo and have a full meal there. I got my wish and had lunch at the lovely five star restaurant and hotel, a converted convent that was also part museum. Along with dark beer, I had some pumpkin ravioli to die for, and sat inside looking out over beautiful gardens and ruins and listening to McCaws. It was pure bliss.

For desert I returned to another favorite from five years ago, Cafe Condesa. I couldn’t find the pumpkin pie with raisins I so fondly remembered, but I had some terrific apple pie. In between those two food events, I purchased chocolate items famous in Guatemala, coffee, and wandered the colorful streets and took photos of local life. I ended the day on a rooftop bar with drinks as the sun was wanting to set and looked at the volcanoes all around me. Five years prior, I had eaten lunch on a similar rooftop restaurant, very popular in Antigua. That time, I recalled having a very typical dish of Guatemalan food (chicken, rice and beans as I reacall) overlooking the volcanoes.

By the time we reached Belize, I was exhausted from my five weeks of travel. I stayed a few extra days in Belize City to enjoy Thanksgiving, a meal almost all Carribean nations serve for their American tourists. Many have started to adopt the holiday themselves and serve all the typical Thanksgivings trimmings (I confess that I was missing cranberry sauce).They are very clear that it is not their holiday, but one they have started to enjoy.

So if you are going to any of the Central American countries, think food. It’s not a stretch. You will be inundated with many of the traditional foods that will also include rice and beans. But you can also have some very special dishes there, which will create lasting memories. I will always remember Antigua and my two trips there  – and that fantastic pumpkin ravioli. And even though it’s been five years, I still have never forgotten that pumpkin pie with the raisins. Maybe more next time.

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