As in the rest of Central America, lunch (around 11.30am–1.30pm) is the main meal. Central markets in Nicaraguan towns are guaranteed to have snack spots, with several small comedores or cafetines offering cheap comida corriente (everyday food) – a set lunch of meat, rice and salad, for around US$3. Throughout the country streetside kiosks sell hot meals; you’ll soon become familiar with their plastic tablecloths, paper plates and huge bowls of cabbage salad. The food is cheap – around US$2 – but generally well prepared. Restaurants are more expensive (around US$6), and generally open daily for lunch and dinner from noon–9pm in smaller towns and until 11pm in the cities of Managua, Granada and León.
Nicaraguan cuisine is based around the ubiquitous beans, rice and meat, and everything is cooked with oil. Lunch usually includes chicken, beef or pork, most deliciously cooked a la plancha, on a grill or griddle, and served with beans, rice, plantain and shredded cabbage salad. For breakfast and dinner the rice and beans are generally fried together to make gallo pinto, served with an egg for breakfast or cuajada (curd cheese) for dinner. Roast chicken, pizza and Chinese food also crop up in the bigger towns.
On the Atlantic coast the cuisine becomes markedly more Caribbean. Here rice is often cooked in mild coconut milk, and the staple fresh coconut bread is delicious. Rondon is a stew of yuca, chayote and other vegetables, usually with fish added, which is traditionally eaten at weekends.
In the rest of the country weekends are the time to eat nacatamales, parcels of corn dough filled with vegetables, pork, beef or chicken, which are wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed for several hours, or baho – beef, green plantain and yuca slow-cooked in a huge pot.
Tropical fruit is abundant, cheap and delicious, and throughout the country you’ll see ice cream-sellers pushing their Eskimo carts. The quality isn’t great, but you will find an extraordinary range of flavours, including many made with local fruits and nuts.
Given Nicaragua’s heat, it’s just as well that there’s a huge range of cold drinks, or refrescos (usually shortened to frescos), available. These are made from grains, seeds and fruits, which are liquidized with milk or water. Some unusual ones to look for include cebada, a combination of ground barley and barley grains mixed with milk, coloured pink and flavoured with cinnamon and lots of sugar; pinolillo, a spiced corn and cacao drink; and semilla de jícaro (or “hickory seed”), which looks and tastes a bit like chocolate. Just about every fruit imaginable is made into a fresco, including watermelon, passion fruit, papaya, pitaya (dragon fruit) and melon.
You might want to ask whether your fresco is made with purified water, as tap water is generally worth avoiding, especially outside major cities. Alongside a fairly standard mix of soft drinks, bottled water is found everywhere; if you buy a drink to take away it will usually come in a plastic bag – bite off the corner, and you’re off. Nicaragua has two local brands of beer, Victoria and Toña, both light and refreshing lagers. For spirits, it is common in bars to buy local Flor de Caña rum by the bottle. It comes in dark and white, gold, old, dry and light, and is an excellent buy at just US$5–10 per bottle. It’s usually brought to the table with a large bucket of ice and lemons, but you can mix it with soft drinks for something a little less potent.