The above audio-clip is a short recording from our afternoon with a neighbor who often cooks with my host-parents, talking about her favorite types of food in Nicaragua. During the clip she talks about Sopa de Mondongo, Arroz a la Valenciana, and other traditional dishes, as we cook up some Nicaraguan chop suey for lunch. I thought it might add something to the blog to share some of the voices we interact with on a daily basis.
One of the things that excites us most about getting to site next month is the prospect of being able to cook for ourselves again. Pre-Service Training leaves us with virtually no time to do this and living with a host-family entails eating whatever’s being served. Fortunately, nearly everything I’ve had so far has been pretty delicious – aside from a maybe one meal which included mushrooms on cow tongue. Even then, it wasn’t so much that it tasted bad, but rather that it felt like I was being tasted back.
I should also mention that food experiences can range pretty drastically from family to family. The food I eat with Michaela’s host-family tends to be a little more adventurous and probably what most would consider “traditional” for Nicaragua, while my family tends to be more generous with the vegetables. It probably helps that my host dad was an agro-economist and constantly expounds on the benefits of eating a healthy portion of veggies everyday.
Nevertheless, there’s something about cooking that we really miss. The process of food preparation at the end of a long day can be pretty calming and I can’t even claim to be particularly good at cooking. But I still love being able to see a plate of food and say, “I made this.”
A challenge we know we’ll end up facing in the future is how to cook well and within our means. As much as we loved cooking salmon and shrimp with tons of leafy greens like kale and spinach back in the states, that just ain’t gonna happen here. Fresh fish can’t really be found unless you’re on the coasts and the availability of certain vegetables depends on which department you live in.
We have to work with what we’ve got, which, for the time being, appears to be lots of carbohydrates, starches, and grains. Beans, rice, corns, and tortillas are a staple for most Nicaraguans (Gallopinto, the country’s traditional dish, is pretty much just rice and beans). In my experience so far, the main vegetables of choice are yuca, quequisque, cabbage, tomatoes, carrots, and chayote. Once in a while I get lettuce, onion, beets, cucumber, broccoli, and bell pepper. For fruit, I often have plantains, bananas, avocado, mango, papaya, sopodilla, jocote, and guava.
Of course, there are a lot more vegetables and fruits available, but these are the ones I’ve encountered the most in my two months here. For example, apples are indeed on the shelves in at least one store in my training town, but they’re ridiculously expensive since they’re all imported from either Costa Rica or California.
One thing we definitely won’t ever have too little of are beans. I rarely eat beans back in the states. Even as a proud New Mexican, pinto beans are an afterthought on a plate full of green chile cheese enchilidas and posole. But for some reason I’m a big fan here, maybe even on my way to becoming a connoisseur. I’ve been catching myself analyzing the quality of beans with a surprising amount of intensity, able to distinguish between weak, mediocre, and superior batches. The other day I asked my host-mom six or seven times what she did differently with her beans, convinced she had tried some new recipe, but she kept assuring me it was the same as before. I still don’t believe her; those beans were choice.
To avoid filling our bellies with nothing but beans over the next two years, Michaela and I have made it a priority to learn how to prepare meals with some of the aforementioned fruits and vegetables. Fortunately, I live with a family that also loves to cook with these items and were gracious enough to teach us how to prepare a few meals this past weekend. Our first lesson was with my neighbor who often cooks for my host-family. Not only did we learn how make a traditional dish, but it also gave us an opportunity to learn new vocabulary for the kitchen.
The following day, Hugo, one of my host-brothers who lives in Managua, dropped by to teach us how to make his signature pasta dish, which included bell pepper, onion, carrots, and ham. Nothing too exotic here, but it was great to learn how cook something quick and easy with some basic ingredients, all of which can be purchased at a local Pali (a Central American grocery store based in Costa Rica and owned by Walmart).
The big elephant in the room, of course, is where we’ll be doing all this cooking. Will we even be in a city that has a Pali? Will we have to travel two hours to the nearest grocery store? We simply don’t know. But we don’t have to wait long. The big reveal of where we’ll be living for two years is this Wednesday. Stay tuned…