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They say it takes a village to raise a child; it also takes a village to celebrate a birthday in high Nica style!

This year to celebrate my birthday Nick and I decided to try making Carne en Baho, a traditional Nicaraguan party dish that everyone loves, and ask everyone to bring fresh tropical fruit juices instead of big bottles of coke that most parties consume loads of.  Celebrating traditional Nica culture is very important to many people, even though on a daily basis hot dogs and coke are consumed in vast quantities in the city.  Although it was an odd request to ask of people, everyone enjoyed it and there were plenty of rum shots dropped into glasses of fresh watermelon, mango, and passionfruit juice!

We started out with a vague idea of how to make Carne en Baho and then began asking around.  After getting five or six recipes with conflicting tips and instructions we were possibly even less sure we knew what to do, but we carried on somehow.  The village continued supporting us, calling and dropping in on the well-meaning foreigners the whole time to make sure we were on track.  I’ve included all the little dos don’ts and maybes so you can make your own choices of what to follow.  Our next door neighbor Griselda and friend Melaña from Achuapa ended up walking us through the process.

Carne en Baho starts with the salted meat.  The cut is called tapa barriga, which is the fat and meat around the stomach, but make sure you get a section that is neither too fatty (like we ended up with at first) nor too little fat (like the extra five pounds of meat we went to get afterward to make up for the difference).  It comes in giant flat sections which are scored, and need to be washed four times very well and then cut into long skinny strips.  We started with 20 pounds and then went to get an extra five to have enough meat for the anticipated 40 people, and ended up serving over 60 plates!!!  Nicaraguans don’t leave their houses empty ever, and so it is customary to send guests home with a plate of food or peice of cake for the generous person left guarding the house.  Which means, cook for twice as many!

A marinade is made by blending half the total amount of onions, garlic, sweet peppers, and juiced bitter oranges (or you can mix bitter and sweet) and all the celery and if you like some Worcestershire sauce and/or tomato puree and/or ketchup and/or fresh tomatoes and/or mint.  DON’T ADD SALT, if you washed the meat correctly it still has more than enough for the whole dish. Another suggestion is to not get your recipe amounts specified in cordobas (10 cordoba of peppers for example) because foreigners routinely pay the highest imaginable prices for everything and you will end up with a little bit less of everything than you actually need.  Try pressuring your village into providing useful quantities such as pounds, kilos, and dozens.

Marinate the meat in the sauce mixing it well in.  If you are used to making big roasts you should satisfy your basting urge in this stage because once the lid goes on this dish it doesn’t come off till it’s done.  Period.

While meat is marinading, you can start getting your pot ready.  If you don’t own an olla that is big enough to bathe in, than you will need to go around to all your neighbors until you find one suitable.  Kudos if your neighbor also has a giant metal bowl that fits in upside down as a lid.  Asking around for giant pots is also a great way to start spreading party anticipation and invitations.  The branches are guayaba branches, which are not sold in any market but essential for a proper Carne en Baho, so there’s another great way to involve the neighborhood and even make some new friends (when the neighbor’s sister’s mother-in-law has a guayaba tree).

Take all the leaves off the guayaba branches and use the fattest parts to create a screen at the bottom of the pot.  This keeps a space for the water to boil initially, for the juicy fatty liquid to gather at the end, and keeps the bottom layer from burning.  It’s a good thing this dish isn’t any easier to make, because if it was made more often we might have guayaba deforestation issues.  At least in my house the leaves all went straight into the compost instead of being burnt in trash piles in the street.  After the guayaba branches comes the banana-leaf lining.  The leaves should be the young tender ones used for wrapping Nacatamales, not the tough older ones sold for plates and wrapping materials.  They go shiny side down, covering the bottom and then the butt end in and the pointy end hanging over the edge to fold over the top.

Now, the layering part.  This became a bit of a sticking issue.  It seems there are two schools of en Baho makers, one of the All-the-Yucca-at-the-Bottom mind and the other of the Layer-Everything-Twice mind.  Our consultants were split about fifty-fifty, and in the end we decided:  the fattest yucca on the bottom layer and the skinnier ones the second time around.  That meant starting from the bottom we layered: fat hunks of peeled yucca interspersed with peeled green plantain, then one layer of marinated meat, some chopped onions, garlic, sweet peppers, and mint sprigs if you like, then more yucca, plantains, meat, vegetables and finishing everything off with the unpeeled ripe plantains (some say yellow others say black, we went for yellow and they ended up soft and tangy sweet delicious).  Finally pour all the remaining marinade and bitter or sweet orange juice over the top.The finished masterpiece…

…is covered up with the remaining plantain leafs…and firmly capped.  We added boiling water – 3 liters – to the bottom.  Better to pour it in the side along the outer edge of leaves, not over the top where it will wash off marinade.  We chose to cook it over firewood, which even in the city is the standard for dishes as big as an en Baho.  I’m pretty sure the small tin gas stove in the kitchen was not made for pots of food that weigh more than I do, nor is the size or our natural gas tank sufficient to keep it at a rolling boil for four hours.

The best part of this dish is that it is a ton of work which is completely done six hours before the party starts.  Even unlike roast turkeys which need gravy and carving, there is no last-minute prep work.  So I had the most relaxed set up for a party ever, with plenty of time to make the shredded cabbage, cucumber, tomato and carrot salad that is eaten with Carne en Baho, blow balloons up and even slip away and plant some seeds and garden for a bit before 2 pm.  Just keep the fire going strong for four hours and battle the smoke which wants to fill the house and all our lungs.

When the first people showed up we opened the pot and the most amazing odor escaped.  People lined up with plates and I was stuck serving for the first hour of the party, which also was a good way to say hi to everyone.  The yucca had softened and absorbed the salty meatiness, the plantains were cooked perfectly, and the meat and fatty bits were tender.  As it should be, it turned out to be a nearly bottomless pot which kept on feeding the masses until 9pm.

Brigido and Will sang me birthday songs for such a long time that the candles were about to light the cake on fire!

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     To celebrate Nick’s birthday this past week he decided to do another Carne en Baho, a traditional Nicaraguan dish that we first tried making two years ago.  The party was planned in a casual, informal style – word of mouth, calling friends, making sure that we invited everyone we ran into out town – but there was no facebook invite or big email sent out.  As the date got closer, friends of friends began asking us what they could bring, and we realized that the word really had gotten out!  So the baho plans became more ambitious and in the end we made the most enormous single pot of food I’ve ever seen.  Possibly too big – although passing out all the leftovers to neighbors and friends was fun and earned us quite a bit of social capital points in the neighborhood (and maybe helped to mend any bad feelings left after having played loud music until the wee hours of the morning).

Putting together the baho is an creative endeaver.

     My favorite part of making baho is actually layering all the ingredients into the giant pot.  It’s a very artistic endeavor, and the aesthetic of packing all the ingredients in to the pirol as tightly as possible is visually very pleasing!  The colors of all the raw ingredients are vibrant and beautiful, but when you open the pot after steaming them for 4 hours they have all faded to a dull brown in the meat juices.  But if you’ve done it right, the smell that then fills your whole house makes up for the not-as-pretty-anymore dish.

     We have learned some things since taking on this endeavor  – this time we sat down before hand with our Nica friends and worked out the ingredient list in weight and volume measurements rather than in prices, so we didn’t have to worry about getting ripped off at the market and coming back with less than what we needed.  In the end, we ordered 50 lbs of salted beef from our neighbor across the street, and got a half a sack of yuca, 50 ripe plantains and 20 green plantains, 5 lbs of onions (enough for salad and chili sauce too), a bucket of tomatoes, a bucket of big green peppers, two dozen each of sweet and bitter oranges, three big bunches of mint, a head of celery, and four heads of garlic at the market.  Don’t forget the plantain leaves to line the pirol too – they need to be shiny green and fresh.  The first batch we bought in a hurry as a thunderstorm began at the market, and when we opened the roll of leaves they were moldy so we had to go find more.  We didn’t add up what we spent, but it probably came to around $150 with the meat included, which is a really good deal considering we served at least 150 plates of food in the end!

Our little friends Naomi and Yulisa, relaxing together after actually helping us with a lot of food prep and sweeping!

     Everyone loves a good party, and thank goodness some people love putting together a good party too!  Two of our good friends Melania and Maria Jose spend the whole day helping us chop and prepare and clean, giving us the space to run some last minute errands.  Hooray for our village.  They have been very supportive!  Somehow we managed to create a space that all sorts of people could enjoy – early in the evening our friends with small kids came and had popcorn and played with balloons and helped with last minute setting up.  Some of them left when the house really started filling up and we opened the Baho.  We asked the DJ from our favorite salsa bar in town to come play, and he has such good taste in music that everyone danced – the real Nica indicator that it was a good party!  At the very end of the evening (er, that is, pushing 4am!) the DJ stopped and some of the guests who are musicians played piano and sang, which was a super sweet ending to a rather exhausting but fun evening.

Oof, just barely too much food even for such a giant pot….

 One of my main objectives was to throw a big party without creating a load of awful plastic and styrofoam trash afterward.  I think we were quite successful at that – we shopped at the market using canvas bags instead of buying packaged produce from the supermarket, and also got a few dozen re-usable plastic cups and plates that are light and pack tightly together so we can store them away easily for most of the years.  We served the Baho on the re-usable plastic plates on top of a banana leaf, so after a person finished the leaf could be put in our compost bucket (oh man, our chickens are having a three-day post-fiesta feast now!!!), and the plate could just be rinsed quickly before another leaf was put on and Baho served to someone else.  We were definitely short overall cups, but when someone asked for a cup we just asked them to find an abandoned one and we (or they) would wash it, and no one ever failed to find a used cup sitting under a chair to grab.  With the largest party that has ever been thrown at this house (probably 120 people in total!), at the end of the night we generated – one giant tub of compost for the chickens to enjoy, one large sack of empty plastic soda and rum bottles (which will be recycled), and one medium kitchen garbage bag of paper and plastic trash.  Not bad!

     As before, we were reminded that it’s important to make extra, because it’s customary here to ask for a plate of food to bring home to the person left watching the house while everyone else is at the party.  Some of our neighbors even came the next day asking for leftovers – a true compliment!  My favorite response was from our next door neighbor, when her daughter remarked to her that the baho was really tasty: “well, my goodness, he (Nick) has lived here in Nicaragua for long enough to have learned something useful by now!!”

Can you smell it?!

Here is my running list of Nicaraguan food and fruits that you might not have ever had…I am probably spelling some of them wrong, if you notice, let me know. Also, not all of these are strictly Nicaraguan, you can probably find some of them in other Latin American countries.

alfiñique

A log of Alfiñique

Alfiñique – sugar cane candy, swirly foamy dark sugar cane juice boiled down until it’s pulled into hunks and hardens like hunks of driftwood, grate little bits off to sweeten drinks or just break chucks off and munch.

Ayote en Miel – candied pumpkin.  Look for them in the sweets section of the markets, dark brown hunks of pumpkin cooked for hours in dulce, unrefined brown sugar.  As rich and sticky as it sounds, like pure pumpkin pie filling.

Buñuelos – lovely fried crispy bits of dough made from yucca or corn, with a cinnamon brown sugar honey sauce poured over them.  Tune your ears for the lady selling these on the street from the tub on her head in the afternoon – it’s worth dropping what you are doing to run and catch her.  In León, the ladies that sell them at the entrance to the Guadalupe Cemetary are famous for their buñuelos, and on Nov. 2, the Day of the Dead, the street leading up to the cemetary is lined with stalls selling the hot crispy treats.  I like the yucca ones best.

Arroz con Leche – rice pudding.  Pretty much always delicious, often with hunks of cinnamon bark in it but no raisins.

Cusnaca – Jocote fruits cooked with milk, sugar and cinnamon.  Typical treat around easter-time.

This impressive fruit is the size of a large cantaloupe.

Soncoya – After three years here, I was excited to discover yet another a new fruit.  Similar to the Guanabana but the flesh is a brilliant orange, and it is larger and round.  The outside skin is leathery but the texture is spiky and reminds me a bit of the bark of an older pochote tree.  It is creamy and soft and very sweet.  A very striking fruit!

Carne en Baho – a favorite holiday and weekend dish; labor intensive but when well done it has as sophisticated a blend of flavors as a high quality English beef stew.  Salted beef is layered with plantains, yucca, peppers, garlic, tomatoes, and mint in a large pot lined with plantain leaves and steamed for hours over guayava branches.  We have made carne en baho, and it’s a fun and adventurous experience!

Requesón- what do you do with spoiled milk?  Nicaraguans make requesón.  Boil the spoiled milk until it curdles, and then strain out the curdles (feels like you are making cheese).  Then add lots of sugar and some cinnamon and start stirring over a low flame in a saucepan.  If you leave for a second you will be left with black smoking burnt sugar and a hell of a saucepan to clean, but if you succeed in garnering the patience necessary the reward is a sticky, cinnamony creamy caramel treat for snacking.

Tiguilote – Part of my quest to learn all the fruit from the famous song Nicaragua Nicaraguita. Tiguilote is a berry, small and sweet with a good taste but also seriously slimy.  I gagged.  Apparently an excellent remedy for intestinal parasites.  I suppose without any other option I would find a way to choke them down and clear my system out.

Breadfruit tree’s dramatic foliage.

Breadfruit – an Atlantic coast fruit.  I’ve only eaten it fried like french fries.  Starchy and tasty, an excellent carb to accompany a dinner of fish and vegetables. It’s giant, the size of a small watermelon, and the trees are beautiful.

Guanabana – Soursop in English.  Creamy white sweet and tangy fruit with lots of black pits, in a Dr. Seuss-ish bright green spiky peel.

Pijibay for sale on Corn Island

Pejibay – a starchy palm fruit that is cooked and peeled like a potato.  I think they taste like artichoke hearts, and consider them a big treat.  They only grow on the Atlantic coast.  I recently discovered they have made it to Matagalpa, and so am bothering all my friends there to bring them to me to satisfy this new craving.

The electric color of Pitaya is impressive

Pitaya– All of the passion of Nicaragua in a fruit!  Called Dragonfruit in english, I am blown away by the color and flavor of the hot pink kohlrabi shaped fruit.  “Imagine a pineapple on acid”, says my friend Sarah.

Güirila– A large grilled pancake made from cooked corn that is then ground and patted flat like a tortilla.  It´s warm, sweet, and deliciously filling, usually served with soft cuajada farmer’s cheese and sour cream.  The best I have found in Nicaragua are in a tiny restaurant across from the gas station in Sébaco.  The women also come out to sell them at the gas station in banana leaves.

Garroba– Iguana.  The environmentalist in me is not proud of eating this rapidly disappearing animal, but I couldn´t refuse the woman at the farm coaxing me to try a little piece.  She cooked it with achiote and lime, and it was definitely tasty.

Ubre – Udder.  Part of assimilation here is transcending our strange habits of eating some parts of animals while finding other parts disgusting.  Udder is pretty much what I expected it to be, spongy texture and not too much flavor.  That was a stretch for me, and I’m definitely going to draw the line before balls come into the picture (or rather onto my plate)…

Cusuco – Armadillo.  I’ll admit I did not understand what animal I was eating when I tried this.  It’s tasty, a texture kind of like chicken but a gamier flavor.  The traditional way to eat it is sautéed with onions and peppers, with fresh bitter orange squeezed on it and a tortilla.

Albondigo – a round dumpling made from corn masa and served in chicken soup.  They remind me of matzah balls.

Dulce – literally translated dulce just means sweet, but here it refers to unrefined cane sugar.  Dulce is sold in bricks in the markets, and used in place of refined sugar in many candies and sweets.  It’s the same product that I learned as panela in Ecuador.

Gofio – A candy made from pinol, which is fine corn flour, cocoa flour, dulce, and spices like cinnamon and cardamom.  It’s a little dry but not overly sweet, and I like it a lot.  A small diamond-shaped very soft crumbly cookie.  In León, it’s the traditional homemade sweet given out in the griterría on the 7th of December.

Achiote – A spice grown here in abundance, used to color meat red.  In English it is known as annatto.  Achiote are the seeds that fall out of a woody pod when the plant is dried.

Vigorón – pork, sautéed in spices and achiote, served over a mountain of yucca with salad on top.  Never imagined I would enjoy this, but it is soooo flavorful and there is a little stand in the street near my house where they serve it hot on a platter of banana leaves, with chili sauce that is actually really spicy.  From here on is where my pants start to become too small.

Salpicón – ground beef, cooked, and mixed with minced sweet peppers and lots of lime.  Eaten as a platter with rice, maduros or tostones, tortillas.  It’s dry but tasty.  The lime gives it a unique fresh and light flavor that I’m not used to in meat dishes.

Leche Burra – toffee candy made from milk.  It tastes like it has molasses in it.  For me they are tasty little morsels reminiscent of gingerbread, just 5 cents each.

Cajeta de Coco – soft candies made from shredded coconut.  Some of them are dyed bright pink. (They don’t have yucca, as many have corrected me.  I think the person who told me that was confusing them with buñelos.)

Coyolitos – soft ball of tamarind and banana rolled in sugar.  I think there might be cinnamon in them too; they are very sweet, very flavourful and very filling.

Empanada de platanos – yummy little dumpling made from platanos maduros and filled with cheese and then fried.  I am seriously going to get a platanos belly here, there are various ways to cook them, but most of the variations are fried.

Caimito – another fruit in the same family as the nisporo and sapote. It is dark purple on the outside and absolutely brilliant magenta inside, fantastically beautiful.

Tajadas – lengthwise strips of plantain, fried in oil like potato chips, and eaten out of a bag on the street with a small handful of salad (shredded cabbage in a light vinaigrette) and chili if you want.

Nispero, small brown fruit with a think leathery skin, soft dark golden flesh, and two beautiful black almond-shaped seeds inside. It is so sweet I almost gagged when I first tried it, but since have come to really like it on pancakes (it does have a sweetness similar to maple syrup), and as a substitute for applesauce in apple cake and muffins.

Sapote, another fruit, this one about the size of an avocado but round, with similar brown leathery skin. It has one big pit inside, and the flesh is dark, smooth, with a rich earthy and also incredibly sweet flavour.

Maduros Horneados con Cuajada, ripe plantains broiled in an oven with no extra oil (so they say), sold in the market with a small pat of salty soft cheese called cuajada and wrapped in a young plantain leaf. I love maduros, asados o hornados, no me importa!

Tiste– very finely ground corn mixed with cocoa powder into a paste. You can buy little logs of them from corner stores, and mix it with sugar, water or milk, and ice. It´s a little bit grainy because the corn flour never completely dissolves, but I find it very satisfying.

Chicha- Red corn, ground and cooked and then fermented for a few days. The pulpy mush is sold in bags at the market, or in the morning also as a finished drink. To make the drink, you mix the pulp with water, sugar, and ice. It tastes sweet and slightly fermented, kind of like kefir, but I don´t like it too much.

Jocotes- Small fruits slightly smaller than a plum. The ripe ones are golden in color. They are honestly 90% pit, and 2% skin (which you can definitely eat, it´s slightly bitter and a little tough but not bad), and the rest is good, yellow fleshy fruit also not unlike a plum, but not quite as juicy.  Eaten hard and green (and sour!!) with salt, and sasón (which is not quite ripe but not green), and around Easter sold ripe and cooked on the street.  A great street snack – but I have friends who have gotten quite sick from them, so like all fruit that you eat the skin of better to bring them home and wash them first!

Nacatamales – similar to Mexican tamales, but larger, usually made with pork, and if they are all like the one I had last night, saltier. Soft cornflour dough around rice, pork, potatoes, tomatoes, onions and mint, all beautifully wrapped in a banana leaf and tied with string, then boiled. Traditionally eaten with coffee and a roll or tortilla.

Tostones – double-fried green plantains. Plantains are cut into chunks, fried, then smashed flat and fried again. Greasy, and good. An excellent substitute for french fries.

Chia con TamarindoChia suspended in Tamarind Juice, served cold like lemonade. Chia are seeds of Salvia Hispanica, a plant in the mint family. They are tiny little seeds that become mucilaginous when soaked, like flax seeds. They are super high in omega 3 fatty acids. And, apparently in Mexico they eat them sprouted, and someone started selling little ceramic animals so the sprouts stood up like hairs on their backs. Which inspired…chia pets!

Gallo Pintoliterally, speckled rooster. Actually, red beans and rice.

Cojolitoslittle fruits, similar to cherries, that have very think tough skins and are super sour, like eating fresh raw cranberries. People eat them with salt!

Teasing is an important part of Nicaragua humor. Sometimes people say the opposite of what they mean, and if you are lucky they’ll accompany it with a smile or a wink to convey it’s a joke.  Usually I get it – it’s fun to joke around with friends this way, and sometimes a creative way complimenting someone.  Like most types of humor it generally works best among close friends or coworkers, people who you know well enough to be able to detect the double meaning!

This is a type of humor I have learned well here, and can really enjoy.  For example, while I was serving plate after plate of food from a giant pot of carne en baho this weekend, every now and then I would look up from the monotonous task of selecting the right proportion of yucca, plantain, meat and salad to put on a plate and handing it to the next person waiting and see an old wonderful friend who I haven’t seen in a very long time.  “Hi!!! Que bueno que veniste, pero que lastimo que ya se acabó la comida y no hay nada para ofrecerte….disculpe…”  “Hi!!!  So nice of you to come, but such a shame the food just ran out and there is nothing to offer you…” All while standing obviously in front of a giant pot of steaming dinner.  And smiling.  Of course it’s a joke, and received with a good laugh and a hug.

Sometimes the humor is a bit harder to detect, though.  The following day we delivered plates of leftover baho to some of our neighbors, and friends who couldn’t make it to the party.  I walked a heaping plate of food down the block to where a family has a small pulpería (corner store) that we always shop at.  We don’t know the family very well, but we see them nearly every day (sometimes several times a day if our shopping is disorganized!).  There are so many little stores scattered around the town, that almost anything you want is dangerously convenient.  It suddenly becomes an incredible nuisance to have to walk the five blocks to the nearest supermarket for something because the pulpería a half block away doesn’t stock it!

The older señora who is super sweet wasn’t attending the store at the moment, so I left the food with her grand daughter and asked her to just hold on to the ceramic plate and we would pick it up later.  An hour later I was walking down the street and the older señora waved me over.  “Su plato!” she called to me.  I went over to get our plate, and she said thank you for the food and asked whose birthday we had been celebrating.  Then she said, “Gracias, pero fue muy poquito, fue solo poquito.” “Thanks, but it wasn’t very much.  It was just a really little bit.”  She said it so seriously, and wrinkled her brow just a bit, and I was totally taken aback.  We don’t even really know them, they aren’t really friends, and she was complaining that I didn’t give her more than one plate of bah0!  “Well, we just divided up what we had and gave it around to everyone, to all the neighbors, even the drunk who is always on the corner you know….” I was kind of flustered and felt silly making excuses but was also a bit offended.  Man, some of the people here sure are hard to please.

Nick laughed when I explained that I was a bit offended by her reaction.  Apparently, saying that food is “just a little bit” is a common way of saying it was really delicious and they could have eaten much more of it!  Well, come to think of it  I guess she was smiling after she said it, and thanked me again, but I was so caught off guard by her words, I didn’t pay much attention to that.  Even after several years here, it still pays to talk things over with a person whose been here longer before getting annoyed at someone.  Imagine if I hadn’t, and stopped shopping there or chatting with this nice woman because I thought she had been so ungrateful.  The layers of culturally specific information cast over a simple phrase can so easily obscure its true meaning!