Español Nicaragüense

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!


In honor of World Food Day, October 16, an entry on one of the most important staples of culture and cuisine in the western hemisphere: corn. 

Anyone who attends a concert in Nicaragua, especially at a bar or hostel, is practically guaranteed to hear Luis Enrique Mejia Godoy’s popular song Los Hijos del Maiz (Children of Corn).  It’s hard to miss, although you may not understand all the lyrics very well because everyone in the room will be shouting them out full volume.  The song begins, “If they take away our bread (a direct referral to the 1980’s trade embargo) we will be obliged to live as our grandparents, with the fermented corn that runs through the blood of our ancestors”.  The song continues with a long list of food products derived from corn, many of which have odd indigenous names like perrerreque.  The complete lyrics can be found here, on the website of an excellent spanish school that takes its name from the song.

Although pan simple can be found in every corner shop in urban Nicaragua, corn remains a food staple, and the success of the annual corn harvest is highly important both for Nicaraguan diets and for the economy.  Although the majority of the corn is harvested dry for storage, the corn harvest actually last for months and begins with the harvest of chilote, or baby corns.  Baby corns are an essential part of all Nicaraguan soups, and are also the central ingredient in guiso de chilote, a side dish of creamed baby corns that accompanies meat dishes at the local comedors.  If you’re lucky, the chilote harvest coincides with first harvest of red beans, called frijol comagüe. The beans are harvested mature but not dried, and they cook quickly and are sweeter and creamier than the regular cooked dried beans.  They make a wonderful pair with sweet freshly steamed baby corn, and I can only imagine a campesino’s elation to eat this fresh dish after months of tortilla and heavy cooked dried beans.

The next stage of the corn harvest is elote.  It is understandable but actually a big mistake to think of elote as corn on the cob.  It is young dry corn, and so immensely tougher and starchier than the sweet corn varieties we plant in the US.  I had to learn to think of it as a completely different food before I could really enjoy it.  Elote is boiled or grilled, and the kernels can be shaved off the cob raw to be used to make atol, a thick sweet corn pudding, and guirilas, a kind of sweet grilled corn pancake cooked like a tortilla and eaten with cream and fresh cheese. The proper way to eat boiled elote is to carefully bite each kernel off whole and chew the rubbery sweet kernel, then suck the sweet juice out of the empty cob.  It’s a very enjoyable bus food, and when it is in season women carry buckets of steaming ears of corn up and down the bus routes.

After the elote harvest, the remaining corn in the field is left to dry.  The stalks are doubled over to protect the ears from rains and moisture, until the kernels are dry enough to be stored for months in sacks.  The food products derived from this dried corn are endless, from the three-times-a-day tortilla to indio viejo, a polenta-like dish with vegetables and meat, and cosa de horno, a sweet corn bread sold in busses and bus terminals.

The tortilla is the standard corn accompaniment to Nicaraguan dishes.  In the countryside, every meal is eaten with a tortilla, and they are rolled up with cheese inside or toasted for snacks, too.  It’s pretty easy to distinguish the flavor and texture of a tortilla made of real corn from one made of maseca, the pre-ground tortilla flour purchased at a super market.  The following pictures were taken in a village in Achuapa, where María makes 60 tortillas a day by hand for her large family.  The corn is first cooked with ashes from the fire, a process that can also be done with lime (calcium hydroxide).  The ash helps to split and remove the skins from the corn kernels and also helps our bodies absorb the vitamin B and calcium in the corn.  The best explanation for how this works is in the beginning of Michael Pollen’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  After the corn is cooked and washed, it is run through a hand mill, patted into tortillas (not pressed, like in Mexico), and toasted on a clay comal over a wood stove.  If you make the corn tortilla properly, it puffs up in the middle while it is toasting on its second side.

Possibly one of the most distinctive uses in Nicaragua for corn are the corn flour drinks – posol, pinol, pinolillo and tiste. Each of these variations begins with toasted corn – which is ground and then mixed with ground cacao, and/or cinnamon and sugar, and then with water or milk.  The corn and cacao flours don’t entirely dissolve, so people who drink these drinks are constantly swishing their glasses around to mix them up.  Inevitably the last few swallows are mouthfuls of sandy wet flour.  It takes a little getting used to.

Finally, after all the corn is harvested and eaten or stored, only the plants and cobs remain.  There are a few scattered projects promoting a way of making charcoal out of corn cobs, but the most cobs and left-over dried corn plant, called rastrojo, are shredded and fed to cattle or tilled back into the earth as organic matter. There are thousands of varieties of corn in Nicaragua – blue corn, white corn, yellow corn, and a dark golden orange corn.  Nearly everyone in every part of Nicaragua plants corn wherever they can.  It’s not uncommon to see houses along the highway surrounded with corn.  It is also one of the crops whose seed production remains in the hands of small producers here, and hopefully it will remain that way.