Nicaraguan Cuisine: Weird Fruits, Yummy Ice Cream, and Big Rats

By Pat Werner

April 16, 2015

Once in a blue moon, the Moon and Stars align, and some great invention emerges. In the case of Nicaragua, that cosmic invention is vigorón.   I really do not know if it was invented by a Spaniard or an Indian.  I really don´t care.  It contains yucca, an indigenous tuber, cabbage, a European import, and chicharrones, another European import.  It is one of those rare mixtures that work, and I thank who ever invented it, legend has it, in the plaza of Granada.  But that of the Oriental Market in Managua is almost as good, as long as you do not get knocked over the head eating it.

There are groups of other foods, not often eaten by expats,  that bear mention.

Weird Fruits.

Guanabana: this fruit looks like it was designed by a heavy metal band, complete with armored knobs. It is shaped like a misshapen soccer ball, and tastes like sweet citrus. The meat has some big seeds throughout, so you have to pick them out. It is well worth the trouble.  The Ticos make several varieties of ice cream out of it, all good, and it is worth sampling in Nicaragua, both as a fruit and as an ice cream.

Nispero:  The Nispero tree is a tropical hardwood that produces some of the finest and hardest wood, with a red tinge. I have a beam of Nispero on my porch that comes from a coffee beneficio 100 years old.  The wood looks new.  Wood eating critters take a bite and leave. In March the Nispero tree produces a fruit that looks like it is part of a horse, is sort of wrinkly and soft, and brownish color.  It surely does not look edible.  When cut into four sections, it yields its fruit that is sweet and delicious and unlike most citrus fruits in flavor. It is surely worth a try.  Just be sure to take out the four, really hard seeds, as you cannot bite them in two.

Sapote:  The Sapote tree is another tropical hardwood that produces in the Spring a fruit that resembles the Nispero, except it is larger, as part of  a larger horse.  Its fruit is soft like the Nispero, and has a distinct orange color.  It is delicious and will temporarily tint your teeth orange.

Ice Creams:

Nicaragua is lucky in that it produces ice creams that use a lot of cream, and natural flavorings, such as vanilla (a species of orchid that is a big vine and grows naturally in Nicaragua), chocolate, another Nicaraguan native (actually, the first chocolate that Nestle´s produced in 1860 allegedly came from an old Indian stand of cacao trees in Nandaime), Nicaraguan coffee, and a host of other flavors.  There is one small ice creamery in Jinotepe that specializes in making ice cream out of local fruits and flavors. It is located close by the market on the road that goes to Nandaime.  It is well worth a visit.

Game meat:

Nicaragua has a long tradition of eating native animals for food. Archaeological digs have disclosed that the ancient diet included fish from the large lakes, and marine shellfish, freshwater turtles, turkeys, deer (the same species of white tail deer native to the United States), some big rats, guardtinajas and guatusas, and the small, barkless dog, now extinct, somewhat like the Chihuahua.  The diet also included a several kinds of ducks, blue winged teal,  Fulvey´s whistling duck, and the Muscovy duck that also is native to Nicaragua. They probably also ate the Olivaceous cormorant, locally called the pig duck, pato chancho, because it grunts just like a pig.

For the contemporary connoisseur of Nicaraguan game meat, several of these species are commonly eaten.  To mention a few:

White tailed deer: it is the same deer as in the states and tastes exactly the same. I slightly prefer goat or pelibuey, or hairless sheep, but it will do.  Much depends on how it is cut up and prepared.

White winged doves: they migrate to Nicaragua by the million in November-April, and are the same dove that is found in the states, along with the mourning dove, that migrates to Nicaragua in much lesser numbers.  It is only a bite per bird, but if you like doves in the states you will like doves in Nicaragua.

Blue winged teal, locally called zarcetas, a Oto Mangue Indian word that stuck:  They also migrate to Nicaragua from northern regions by the millions in November, and go back by the end of March. As any wing shooter will tell you, they are a sort of pygmy duck, and may be the fastest flying duck in the world, clocked at 100 feet per second.  A flock of teal up close sounds like a bunch of arrows flying through the air.  There are a lot of them to shoot at, but they fly so fast that few get bagged. They are great for the shotgun shell manufacturers.

Piches, the Fulvey Whistling duck, locally called piches: Another Oto Mangue Indian word that stuck are actually two species, and they do not migrate.  You can hear them a long way away as they do not quack but make a whistling peep.  They are sort of like a mallard duck with extra long legs. As with the teal, they make excellent table fare.

Pato Real, or Muscovy duck:  They are native to Nicaragua and the size of a small goose. They are pretty wary, but fly like a B 17 bomber and are relatively easy to bring down.  Unfortunately, they usually taste pretty fishy; I have never eaten one that tasted good, and they can stink up an oven and kitchen when you roast them.

Pato  chancho, or Olivaceous Cormorant:  They are really on all the big rivers and lakes and like to sit on a rock and hold their wings out to let them dry.  Some people eat them, I do not.  They eat mostly fish, and they really taste like second hand fish.  I suggest leaving them alone.

Bobwhite quail: The king of Nicaraguan game birds.  It has a huskier voice than its northern relatives, and may or may not be a separate species.  It gathers in large flocks, not coveys, of maybe 100 or more animals. One time my German shorter pointer Gypsy went on point, and I shot both barrels and bagged a bird.  When I went over to pick it up, the entire field exploded in a cloud of quail.  My shotgun was empty and Gypsy gave me a dirty look.  As table fare they have no equal, and I once put on a dinner for the American Embassy and an OAS disarmament group, the CIAV-OEA who were working in the northern mountains. The quail were magnificent, and as I write these words the quail are calling in the fields around my home in Diriamba.

Various mammals and creepy crawlies:  There are various types of mammals that are regularly eaten by many people living in the countryside; the Brazilian rabbit, that is kind of a really small cotton tailed rabbit, four kinds of raccoon, the pizote, a swivel nosed raccoon, several species of opossum, none of which I find  tasty with the tallow quite strong, and the various alligator type caimans, which are really quite tasty by the tail.  Nine-banded armadillo, or cusuco, are commonly eaten, as a kind of cusuco on the half shell.  These are best left alone, as they may harbor some nasty diseases.  Like leprosy.

Several types of snakes and lizards are regularly eaten.  The iguana and its cousin, the garrobo, are commonly eaten and made into a soup.  There are some really big garrobos on the flanks of Momotombo volcano and are succulent.  As to snakes, the boas tend to be full of parasites, and since they eat mostly rats, should be left alone.  The tropical rattlesnake, Crotalus durissus, is found in cow pastures in dry savannah, and is quite tasty, just like its northern cousins.  I have never felt bad about bagging the tropical rattler, especially if found close to a farm house where they can bite a heifer, which they will kill, or where there are little children.  They have a tinge of cucumber musk, which mostly disappears when they are fried.  My son Stuart and I have killed snakes by confusing them in front and back with a dance like the Mexican Hat Dance and stomping them.  Don´t try this at home.

Farther to the east, where it is more humid, is found the fer de lance, Bothrops asper, called locally the barba amarilla, or yellow beard.  They really do have a bad bite and can get aggressive.  They taste great, with the same essence of cucumber as the rattler, of which it is a close relative. They are fat and have a lot of meat, for a snake.




If you ask anyone in the countryside what is the best and tastiest meat of all, they will most likely reply, guardatinaja.  And with reason. In much of Central America it is called the tepezcuintle, an Aztec word meaning dog of the forest. They can weigh up to 25 pounds, have a spotted coat like a faun, and very succulent meat. They are also the second largest rodent in the Americas with a head unmistakably that of a big rat, and they really do taste as good as, or better, than suckling pig.   The campesinos are right.  In both Honduras and Costa Rica there are breeders associations, who grow guardatinaja as a farm product.  Their hides yield a very soft leather, and with the hair on they are quite attractive.

A close relative of the guardatinaja is the Guatusa, which looks like a guardatinaja except it has a uniform, brown coat.  And its name has two meanings.  If Americans universally know the meaning of flipping the bird to someone, Nicaraguans universally make the Guatusa to their enemies, with equal social effect. I will leave how to do the Guatusa hand gestures to my Nicaraguan readers.  It is not a custom of Honduras nor Costa Rica. It is pura Nica.  Where it comes from no one knows.  There is a famous story about General Luis Mena in the Revolution of 1912. When confronted with the US Marines, General Mena, an ally of General Benjamin Zeledon, made a reply to them.  When one asked what was the general´s reply, the exchange was made:  What did General Mena Say?  With the hand gesture of the Guatusa, this is what General Mena said:

( Que dijo Mena?  Este dijo Mena! With the hand gesture.)

In its normal meaning Guatusa tastes, at least to me, like Guardatinaja.

Finding wild game to eat is not easy.  There is a restaurant 10 km south of Estelí, called Antojitos, which has live animals that you can pick out and later eat.  In the past I have put on game dinners at Charly´s German restaurant in Granada.  I gave him the birds, and he did a good job cooking them.  For the casual expat tourist Charly´s is the only restaurant I know of that regularly serves saddle of venison, jaeger schnitzel, and guardatinaja schnitzel. All that I have eaten there has been excellent, as is his spaetzle, German potato salad, wursts, and of course sauerkraut.  It is worth a try.

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