The Truth About Nicaraguan Food

It pains me to write this, but I finally found a country whose food didn’t speak to me.

I spent a few weeks in Nicaragua, mostly the west coastal areas of León, Granada, Ometepe and San Juan Del Sur, and fell madly for this country. A lot of the infrastructure and characteristics of its people reminded me of my first country love, Thailand.

But the food. The food was the exact opposite of love.

The food of Thailand is so rich with flavors. The noodle bowls have the rich broth, the bright citrus notes, the spicy herbs and chilies. The curries have peppers and coconut and chili paste blended together in unison. Even their cheap on the go snacks like sticky rice are often laced with coconut cream or other sweet pastes. Everything about that cuisine makes my mouth water. Thai people take great pleasure in their food. You can see the pride in the faces of those preparing meals for others.

In Nicaragua, food was seen and used more in necessity than something that could provide tasty experiences. This is for a reason.

The majority of Nicaragua is not financially sound; it is the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Many of its residents can’t even afford to add meat to their diets. Ingredients for dishes are chosen to fulfill a nutritional need instead of a flavor need.

Beans and rice in the form of gallo pinto are overwhelmingly plentiful. In many regions, beans are the primary source of protein that compensates for a diet lacking in meat. Yucca root in the form of a popular dish known as Vigoron is a vegetable extremely rich in vitamins and nutrients but lacking in substantial flavor.

Often this food culture made it challenging to understand this country. Its people were so vibrant. The land of lakes and volcanoes was so diverse and unique. Even its transportation, chicken busses, were a riot.

But the food culture of the country was tough to chew (sometimes literally).

It was hard to find the bustling street vendors who shared their passion of cooking with customers. Which meant it was hard to find the true, local flavors. Although the street vendors that I did find were often boasting traditional Nicaraguan dishes like Vigoron and nacatamales they were typically in tourist spots and had jacked up rates and bland ingredients. There was no passion in their cooking.

A chicken nacatamale

In León, there is only one small stretch of 3-4 street food vendors. A typical meal here will set you back close to $5USD. Oftentimes, you can find meals in restaurants for cheaper than that.

I grew to loathe gallo pinto. I can really get into some good rice and beans, but gallo pinto was far from that. It didn’t matter where I found this dish, it was always undercooked and under seasoned. Does anyone actually like crunchy rice?

Even the restaurants trying to cater to tourists lacked anything special and many had prices that were extremely inflated to accommodate imported ingredients. Taco joints weren’t great, seafood spots struggled hard, and burgers left a lot up to the imagination.

Tostones con queso frito

One thing I have to give it to Nicaragua for is their plethora of vegetarian options. Even at the few street vendors I found, vegetarian options were prevalent. I probably wouldn’t have noticed this if I wasn’t traveling with a half-vegetarian… It makes sense once I learned of Nicaragua’s food economy. Without being able to afford meat, Nicaraguans learned to sustain themselves on purely starch and veggie diets. I found zucchini cakes, bitter leafy greens mashed together with potatoes, and plantains everywhere.

As a disclaimer, like I mentioned, I stayed on the west coast. I also stayed on the beaten tourist path. I’ve heard that the cuisine on the Caribbean coast differs greatly from the west especially because of the inclusion of coconuts, which always makes food better!

Oh, Nicaragua, my tummy is still grumbling for you, my dear,

Megan Stetzel

Megan is a girl that shouldn’t travel. She’s gluten free, allergic to everything else, falls off motorcycles, poops her pants, gets bit by stray dogs and yet she’s still been traveling the world. She's the co-founder and editor of Why Wait. Read More About Megan here.

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25 thoughts on “The Truth About Nicaraguan Food”

  1. I was also just in Nicaragua and didn’t love the food. I got food poisoning more than once which never happens to me! I’m a vegetarian and I actually think it was from the undercooked/poorly reheated rice I kept being given. I haven’t been able to touch rice and beans since I got home! I did have a couple of lovely meals. One was when I did a wonderful community tourism tour near Matagalpa and we ate at someone’s house on a farm. The other was a tiny restaurant (if it can be called that- it was more like someone’s house) that I randomly stopped at in a village on Ometepe. There was no menu, I just asked her to make me something vegetarian and it was wonderful.

    1. I’m sorry you didn’t get food poisoning from the food, but your stomach reacted to the water that it was cooked with. Trust me!

  2. Yes! I’m still here in the Isla de Ometepe and completely agree. I actually love gallo pinto still but I don’t love eating it with every.single.meal haha. Coming down from Mexico & Guatemala where food is such an important part of the culture, and so readily available it’s been a disappointment here. Especially on the island where everything seems to be either pizza or fried chicken (not useful when your gluten free like me). It’s nice to hear someone being honest about it, thank you! 🙂

  3. Gonçalo Duarte

    Oh so sad to hear this…
    We just came from the Philippines and we had this experience as well: the worst country to eat. And Nicaragua was on our next destination top list… Have to rethink ;(

  4. You know, I felt exactly the same about the food in Nicaragua. It seemed bland and without flavor. Luckily, what it lacked in taste, it made up for in beautiful nature and crazy adventures like volcano boarding.

  5. Never would I have thought that a Central American country could fall short on flavours! Thanks for the insightful perspective! Checking out the local cuisine is probably my most favourite thing experience when visiting a new place. Thanks for that tip about the Caribbean coast. Are the vegetarian options well done though?

  6. went to the west coast the food was awesome. now it wasn’t nico food but the sea food Canadian food etc. was great and cheap. also the beer too. tonia

  7. I totally desagree. The Nicaraguan food is different and tasty, with flavor and interesting. As i see, your experience wasn´t enough, and it don´t means that the entire Nicaragua food is bad. Did you taste the local “fritangas” or a kind of soup? And what about natural yogurt or juice with tropical and local fruit? You should visit that beatiful country again and write another post with more information not with just 2 or 3 different flavors. There are mary restaurant with delicious local food. Where did you taste it? . And of course… rent a car, the chiken bus are not the best option to move around and taste local food.

  8. We have delicious food in Nicaragua! The flavors the colors and the textures. Rice and beans are indeed a staple, as bread rolls are in American restaurants. Perhaps next time do some research, try the gorgeous jugo de pitaya, fritangerias, etc.

  9. David Gonzalez

    Wow that is some dry and nasty looking food. You clearly didn’t do any research or take anyone with you that knows were to go. Piss poor review. Fried plantains with with cheese WTF. There is all kinds of food you missed out on. vuelve a la vida and chacalines cocktail, Rondon, Indio Viejo, Caballo Bayo, pico de gallo, guapote, ext. You completely went in blind that’s like going to Chipotle and thinking that’s authentic Mexican food.

    1. The plantains with cheese are actually really tasty. I just spent a few weeks in nica, spent time in Managua, masaya, masatepe, San Marcos, ometepe, jinotepe, several beach towns including the tourist trap that is SJDS. Food was generally bland with the exception of fritangas and “mondongos” and cafés. I got the worst food poisoning ever in popoyo beach, ruined the trip.

  10. I’m from Nicaragua and I can tell you that your review is trash. I don’t know why you’re writing a review on touristy-Nicaraguan food. You didn’t go to any authentic places. Go to the actual parts of the country that aren’t for tourists, maybe then you’ll love the food. It’s def better than the food you eat in America anyways. Also, it’s a third world country… of course theyre not going to have the best cuts of meat readily available for your prissy American self. They’re main concern is to survive. Seriously, get over yourself and appreciate the country for what it’s worth. Go to Chipotle and stay ur ass in America.

  11. 100% agree! For sundry reasons, Nicaraguan dishes and cooking fall short on many counts when compared to the cuisine of countries in Asia, Europe, and even Latin America (Perú, México). Lack of a great variety of flavors and dependence on a few ingredients are just two of the weaknesses of Nicaraguan cooking.

    Few Nicaraguans are either aware or out of pride will admit to the fact that in general the traditional Nicaraguan diet is not very healthy and/or nutritious. As noted by several articles published in Nicaragua’s main newspaper, La Prensa — “Nicaragua con serios problemas de alimentación”, “¡Qué mala es la dieta nica!”, “Nicaragüenses con poca educación nutricional” — one of the main problems with local dishes is their lack of nutritious value, and the over dependence on unhealthy ingredients such as pork lard (manteca). Nutritious vegetables are usually removed from dishes once they are half cooked or only used for flavoring but not eaten. And most everything is fried in grease and drinks call for tons of sugar!

    Many of the local dishes are bland and not truly reflect the great variety of ingredients available in Nicaragua. When it comes to condiments, hardly any of the recipes call for spices other than maybe ‘achiote’ or cumin, or a little salt and pepper. None of the popular spices used in the tropics or even elsewhere in Latin America or the Caribbean are part of traditional Nicaraguan culinary offerings. In general, herbs are seldom if ever used. Other than yerba buena, naranja agria and occasionally ginger, for instance, hardly any of the other local ingredients are included in Nicaraguan dishes, beverages, etc, even though a number of them are grown in agricultural areas such as the north.

    By the way, I am Nicaraguan not some foreigner putting down Nicaraguan cooking. I also happen to be very good cook that knows more than a thing or two about nutrition and healthy eating.

    And before I am criticized and called a “mata mama” that has betrayed my country’s culture, let me make it quite clear that my comments in no way make me love Nicaragua any less.

  12. I think food is such a sentitive topic. With whomever you speak, they will have their own preferences and opinions. People take offense when you criticise their food because whether we recognize it or not, food is very personal and emotional. We acquire food customs from our parents and culture we acquire without ever stopping to think about it. I live in Spain, it has some of the best food (ask any Spaniard) and chefs in the world (El Buli), and yet, I love Nicaraguan food because it is was what I grew up with. Nicaragua food is very simple, and yes, to many, it may seem very bland and boring, which there’s no point in trying to argue against this claim. There’s a problem in comparing countries such as Thailand’s cuisine with Nicaraguan or even Mexican cusine. They each should stand on their own ground, and there’s no point in comparing them because they may have similarities and differences, but taste buds are very subjective. It’s also important to note Nicaragua’s recent (last 60 years) history and economic situation. Many Nicaraguans already have a hard time affording rice and beans. It is also true that unlike some cultures, our culture doesn’t revolve around food or the eating table, at least this is the case in my family. We have other customs like sitting together to chat over a cup of coffee. Coffee in Nicaragua is absolutely amazing.

    My parents are from Nicaragua and I’ve visited the country several times and yes, food is not as rich nor as sophisticated in elaboration and taste. My Spanish husband at the end of the trip was also tired of rice and beans, and corn. I enjoy the simplicity. I had good food that was very basic and delicious, and perhaps that is because we have a vacation home, so we can afford to hire help and get cooked homemeals. As in anywhere, I think it depends on your personal dietary choices and habits. My family hates fried food, and my mother and I are healthnuts. We don’t like Fritaga, and prefer to eat lots of fruit and vegetables, of which Nicaragua has an inmense variety. My mother says, “you can’t get any more local than going to the mercado early in the morning and buying fresh food.” We also tried to eat in places that had fish or picked the healthiest option in the menu. If you are a vegan or vegetarian, ther are many options for you. I would say it is easy for you to have vegan and vegetarian options. I know that when you travel food is part of the experience, and some places offfer better experiences than others. I am sorry your experience was bad and that people are hammering you for your comment. But I also think it all depends on your expectations, and honestly, budget as well. Anthony Bourdain has a show on Nicaragua and he was quite content with his food experience.

  13. I’m terrified to think the amount of people following gluten free diets or vegetarians that will read this post and take what is being said like the gospel. I agree that at places where they’re obvious tourist traps you will find that the food is expensive but look around and you’ll find places offering better choices at a much more reasonable price. I definitely can’t say there are many food choices for those with special diets which is probably why the ones giving bad reviews of Nicaraguan food couldn’t find anything they liked.
    Also, gallo pinto is a staple but you can also ask for white rice, yellow rice or valencian rice which has chicken, sausage, pork and veggies. You can also ask to not be given gallo pinto .
    As for the water being the reason for some people getting sick, also not very common since that would be like saying that just because the good people of Michigan were drinking contaminated water, than the rest of us in the US are also doing the same.
    Lastly, please rent a vehicle next time. Even Nicaraguans traveling to Nicaragua use them. I wish I knew where you saw chicken buses being used as transportation. Nicaraguan bus drivers pimp out their donated school buses with good stereo systems and obnoxious led lights that you see even in the daytime.

  14. Nicaraguan food is not rich in spice or exotic herbs, which is what most travelers are expecting to find nowadays. Nicaraguan food is not Mexican like or Thai like which is consumed and cooked with lots spicy chile’s and citrus. Nicaraguan food uses chilies a side and pickled relishes on the side for those who want to add more spicy flavor to your taste. There are a lot of grilled options, fresh fruits and plenty seafood flavors. Many entrees are citrus or vinegar base marinades. Many items cooked are often grilled or pan fried. If you go to the Atlantic coast, you will find great seafood flavors. Obviously, based on your first stated choices and represented experiences; you were expecting spicy and that is not the case in Central American or South American cooking. Unfortunately, many just like you only know and taste Mexican food. The rest of the Americas is waaay different with flavors. If you are looking for spicy, you need to visit Jamaica.

  15. Just the fact that you had a chicken nacatamal tells me how clueless you are about Nicaraguan food.

    It is a shame you had a bad experience, but for what I read I can tell you missed a lot of good dishes and barely scrapped the surface of Nicaraguan cuisine. If you can next time get some info on actually good places, ask locals, etc before actually speaking about a country’s cuisine.

    Best of luck and don’t take other people bad comments at heart 🙂

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