Beware What You Order! Food in Central America
Crossing borders, changing currency, and changing staples of your meals from week to week can get really confusing. When I arrived in Nicaragua, I remember trying to figure out if I was getting ripped off when the woman in the market wanted one cordova for each tortilla. My initial instinct was "What!? She's trying to rip me off!" But then I saw the tortillas. In Guatemala, I could get 8
tortillas for one quetzal. Four tortillas, or 50 centavos usually were enough for one meal. In Nicaragua, one tortilla, or two max, would fill me up. Now it's 6.75 quetzals per dollar, and 11.4 cordovas per dollar...was I getting ripped off?
Want to make sense of all these different kinds of money? Check out this website! It will tell you just how much your money is worth in these different countries!
Gearing up for this two-year World Trek, one of the things I was most excited about was the food!!! I mean, I LOVE Mexican food, and Central American food is the same, right? Tacos, guacamole, burritos.......mmm.......
Actually what I found was quite a surprise. Not only is Central American food different from Mexican, but each country in Central America has it's own unique variation of cuisine...making crossing borders a confusing and delicious new frontier!
Think tortillas are all the same? Think again! In Northern Mexico and Belize the tortillas are mostly made of white flour. The rest of central America generally eats tortillas de maize (corn): in Mexico they are flat and thin, made in a press, like the ones we can buy in the grocery stores back home. In Guatemala, they are smaller and thicker, hand made from freshly ground corn, while in Nicaragua, they're thick and huge - the size of a plate!
Even something as simple as rice and beans, the staple throughout the continent is a different experience in each country. In Mexico, beans are pinto or black, and whole, while in Guatemala, they're always black and refried. In Nicaragua and Costa Rica, you'll find gallo pinto, which is beans and rice already mixed together--in El Salvador, this mixture is called casamiento. In Garifuna
communities, like Livingston, on the Caribbean coast, it's all about red beans and rice!
Tamales aren't the same wherever you go either. Tamales are corn meal stuffed with different fillings, wrapped in banana leaves or cornhusks, then steamed. In Mexico you can find all kinds of tamales...filled with meat, or beans, or for dessert, try a pineapple or banana tamale...yum! The rest of Central America was not as exciting for the tamale lover...and forget about it if you're
vegetarian. The rest of Central America generally fills tamales with some sort of meat.
As you get further south, empanadas become more popular. Empanadas are
usually a flour pastry stuffed with meat and vegetables and sauce, and either baked or fried. I knew these were popular in South American countries like Argentina, but I was surprised to find them common in Costa Rica and Panama as well. Sometimes you can be lucky enough to find dessert empanadas like the yummy pineapple empanadas we bought in San Jose, Costa Rica. In Livingston, I met a sweet woman selling what she called empanadas in a basket covered with a towel. I kept telling her I was vegetarian, and she kept persisting in trying to sell me one. To my delight, I was surprised to find what she called empanadas
were just corn tortillas filled with black beans-no meat!
Even something as basic as salsa picante (hot sauce) is different everywhere you go. In Mexico it was a joy, each restaurant makes it's own mixture of chilies, tomatoes, cilantro, onion...yum! In Guatemala, I was disappointed to get a bottle of Guatemalan tabasco sauce instead of homemade salsa. Sometimes you'll find a pickled mixture of carrots, cauliflower, and chilies when you ask for hot sauce. In Belize and Honduras, a popular hot sauce is made with habanero peppers and carrots...a completely different taste to tabasco or tomato salsas, and HOT!
Garifuna cultures in Belize, Livingston, and Honduras also has their own unique style of cuisine. Gone are the meals of tortillas, rice, beans, eggs, and meat...now you're in the land of seafood. Delicious stews made of seafood, coconut milk, and coriander are quite common, as are fried fish and shrimp.
Oh yes, any story about the food in Central America would be incomplete without mention of the wide variety of delicious tropical fruits available everywhere. Papayas, pineapples, mangoes, bananas, tangerines, watermelons, cantaloupes, oranges.... aahhh! So delicious, and sweet, and a wonderful treat on a sunny, hot day.
I love food, so one of my favorite things about travelling is trying new treats in new countries. But after 2 months in Central America, I must admit, rice, beans and corn tortillas is getting a bit old...can't wait to get back to San Francisco to get a big burrito with guacamole!
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