Customs and Cuisine of Nicaragua
By Vinola V. Munyon
Location: Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America, located between Costa Rica and Honduras. It is home to the largest freshwater lake in Central America, Lago de Nicaragua.
Name Origins: Nicaragua’s name is believed to have been conferred by the Spanish conquistador, Gil Gonzalez Davila. It is a combination of the name of the largest indigenous settlement, the “Nicarao” and the Spanish word for water, “agua” in deference to it being home to the largest lake in Central America. Some other interpretations state that the name translates to “here united with the water.”
Population: The population estimate for 2022 was 6.3 million. A majority of the population, almost 69 percent, identify as Mestizo (of Amerindian and white), 17 percent identify as white, while 9 percent identify as Black.
Religion: While Nicaragua has no official state religion, its people are overwhelmingly adherents of the Christian faith. About 50 percent of the population identify as being Roman Catholic, while 33.2 percent identify as being Evangelical. A very small portion of the population identify as Jewish.
Language: Spanish is the official language in all parts of Nicaragua save the east Coast, and 95.3 percent of the population speaks Spanish. On the East Coast, per the 1987 constitution and the Atlantic Coast Autonomy Law, Miskito, Sumo, Rama, and Creole English have equal status with Spanish as official languages.
CLAIM TO FAME/INFAMY
Present-day Nicaragua still bears the scars of civil war and a history with dictatorship. This has been exacerbated by it being governed by an administration that is viewed by a large part of the world as having gained power in an undemocratic manner. In January of 2022, Daniel Ortega (76) was sworn in as President and Rosario Murillo (70), his wife, was sworn in as Vice-President. This would be his fourth consecutive term and her second term. On the same day, sanctions were imposed on Nicaragua by the United States and the European Union. This rose from reports that among other undemocratic actions, Ortega and Murillo were responsible for the jailing of several opposition leaders including at least seven presidential candidates who were challenging their candidacy. The US Treasury Department released a statement that said, in part, “Since April 2018, the Ortega-Murillo regime has cracked down on political opposition and public demonstrations, leading to more than 300 deaths, 2,000 injuries, and the imprisonment of hundreds of political and civil society actors. More than 100,000 Nicaraguans have since fled the country. Nicaragua continues to hold 170 political prisoners, with many of those detained suffering from a lack of adequate food and proper medical care.”
Nicaragua was the poorest nation in Central America pre-pandemic and one of the least developed. Access to basic services was a challenge and it is anticipated that the current political climate will only further this crisis.
Nicaragua is also susceptible to natural hazards such as earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, and hurricanes. Its volcanoes are both famed and feared, so much so that a volcano is featured in the country’s coat of arms and in its flag. One of the well-known formations includes 25 major volcanoes that run along the Pacific coastline in Western Nicaragua. One of Nicaragua’s most active volcanoes is Cerro Negro. Standing 728m tall, its last eruption in 1999 caused significant damage.
THE NICARAGUAN SOCEITY
Traditionally, Nicaraguan society has been governed by norms that are prevalent in cultures of Latin America. Marked by gender-specific norms and social hierarchies, the life of Nicaraguans is in keeping with the expectations of these cultural mores. Division of labor was along gender lines, men worked in factories and the fields while women stayed at home and were responsible for all the duties that went toward caring for the home and the family. Childcare was almost exclusively the domain of the females in the family. In some rural communities it was not uncommon for children to work in the fields, especially during the busy harvest season. In urban societies, a large proportion of unskilled labor was filled by men belonging to what was classified as “lower classes.” The class system was rigid and governed most aspects of life in Nicaragua. The priests and the nobles made up the upper classes, the merchants made up the middle class, while the laborers and enslaved people constituted the lower classes. Social mobility and its associated economic mobility was almost impossible, given that one’s social standing was determined at birth.
Some of these traditional societal mores were changed, for the better, by the 1979 Sandinistas revolution. Seen somewhat as revolutionary “Robin-Hoods,” the Sandinistas were rumored to have confiscated assets from the rich and distributed them among the poor. They were globally recognized for developing the plans for and executing the “Cruzada Nacional de Alfabetizacion” (Nicaraguan Literacy Campaign), a national literacy campaign that is credited with reducing the national illiteracy rate from 50.3 percent to 12.9 percent. In 1980, they won the UNESCO “Nadezhda K. Krupskaya” award for the success of the literacy campaign. The Sandinistas would also form a Ministry of Culture, then only one of only three in Latin America and a new editorial group, the Editorial Nueva Nicaragua. This editorial sourced and printed more accessible versions of books that were until then unavailable in Nicaragua.
Following this period, the status of women underwent some changes in Nicaragua. The country began to score well on health indicators such as relative life expectancy and sex ratio at birth. Women’s enrollment in higher levels of education got higher than that of men. According to data from the World Bank (2012) in 2006, of the women who had access to education, women had on average 7.5 years of education while men had 6 years. However, when looking at the bigger picture, the illiteracy rate among women remained much higher than that of men, so while a small percentage of women were getting to go further in educational attainment, the majority of them had little access to formal education. Women had increasingly begun participating in the labor market. Modeled estimates from the International Labor Organization, estimated that women’s labor force participation increased from 39 percent in 2000 to 47 percent in 2010, and then to 50 percent in 2016. At that same time, the labor force participation of men was about 85 percent (World Bank 2018). So, while there was improvement, the bar had been set very low.
These modest increases in educational attainment (for women) and in labor force participation (by women) were not, however, accompanied by a change in gender norms on paid and unpaid work. Women who are engaged in paid labor were viewed as “being an aid to the men,” and over half the men and women surveyed (Latinobarómetro Survey, 2008) were of the view that paid labor should only be the resort of women whose household is wanting for income. Also, women who took on work responsibilities outside the home were still expected to handle all the work responsibilities within the home as well as childcare. The absence of childcare is a huge constraint to women’s labor force participation. The gender income gap between men and women in Nicaragua is the largest of any country in Central America and sixth in the world (based on date from World Economic Forum, 2017).
In other areas, women’s rights have continued to have scant improvement. Violence against women and abuse is a prevalent issue nationwide. Data from 2017 indicates that a little over half (52 percent) of the married Nicaraguan women reported being abused by their spouse. It is reported that about 28 percent of Nicaraguan women give birth before they are 18, sexual violence is attributed to be a contributing factor. Additionally, women’s ownership of agricultural assets, participation in agricultural activities, and use of credit are all quite low.
Nicaraguan cuisine is an amalgam of Latin American, indigenous Native American, Creole, and Spanish cuisine. Corn, rice, and beans are staples, with beans being consumed as an inexpensive source of protein fairly frequently. Of the beans, the most popular one is a small red bean that is in a dish, often known as the National Dish of Nicaragua, called gallo pinto or “spotted rooster.” As with other Central American nations, the corn tortilla is an important element of meals. The Nicaraguan corn tortilla is made of white corn and is large and thin. The yucca root is another staple, and it takes the place of the starch in a lot of the meals, often in combination with a protein, typically pork. Fruits such as mangos and plantains are plentiful in Nicaragua. The following are some popular Nicaraguan dishes:
Nacatamal: The Nicaraguan tamale, the nacatamal consists of corn dough stuffed with pork, potato, pepper, tomatoes, and onion and topped with different toppings: olives, raisins, and fresh chiles, for example. They are wrapped in plantain and steamed.
Quesillo: A very popular snack that consists of a cheese (which is named quesillo) wrapped tortilla. Pickled onions and cream are added as toppings to the melty cheese.
Vaho/Baho: The traditional Sunday meal (akin to a Sunday Roast), Vaho consists of beef, plantains, and yuca (cassava) wrapped in banana leaves and steamed over water in a large pot. The beef is marinated overnight with tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, orange juice, lime juice, and salt. In a pot lined with banana leaves, ripe and unripe plantains are arranged in layers. The marinated beef forms the next layer. The yucca forms the final layer. The marinade and vegetables are poured over this assembly and the banana leaves are used to cover all the layers. This is then steamed for several hours. The Vaho/Baho is served in such a way that every plate gets some plantains (ripe and unripe), beef and yucca. It is then topped with a cabbage slaw known as repello. In some parts of Nicaragua, the meat is salted and cured in the sun (instead of being marinated).
Vigoron: Served typically as an appetizer and a popular street fooid, Vigoron consists of boiled yucca that has been cut into chunks, topped with chicharrón (fried) and a cabbage and tomato slaw. Sometimes Vigoron is made into a meal of itself by adding pork.
Indio Viejo: Indio viejo (“Old Indian”) is one of the oldest native dishes in Nicaraguan cuisine. It is a stew of tender shredded meat in a broth that is thickened with old tortillas that are blended with water or broth. Sour or bitter oranges and achiote are other ingredients in the stew that add flavor and color.
Tajadas and Tostones: Tajadas are slices of ripe plantain that are cut either horizontally or vertically and fried. The ripe plantains confer a natural sweetness to them. Tostones are their savory counterpart and made with unripe plantains. The unripe plantains are slices or pounded and fashioned into discs before being deep fried.
Rosquilla are donut like sweet treats made with masa flour. Incorporated within the dough is queso seco, a local cheese. Baked twice, not fried, they are crunchy on the outside and soft and melty on the inside. They are typically eaten as an accompaniment to coffee, often dipped in the coffee.
Beverages: Nicaragua is the birthplace of Flor de Caña, which is regarded as one of the best rums in the world. The alcoholic beverage of choice in Nicaragua is Nica Libre, a cocktail of rum, coke, and lemon. The nonalcoholic drink of choice is coffee. Nicaraguans drink coffee with hot milk at breakfast and black with sugar the rest of the day.
THE NICARAGUAN WAY OF LIFE
Nicaraguans, affectionately known as “Nicas,” are known for their easy-going nature. “Live and let live” is the general motto that underpins their social interactions. They are also known for their cheerful and friendly nature and the mindset to make a celebration of any occasion. Greeting each other (and guests) with physical contact, be it shaking hands, a kiss on the cheek, a pat on the shoulder is socially appropriate.
Nicargua is known as the land of poets, and poets are often afforded the status of rockstars. The annual International Poetry Festival held in February is attended by poets and fans of the spoken word from different parts of the world. Ruben Dario, Latin America’s most celebrated poet, was Nicaraguan. While soccer is the most popular sport in most Latin American countries, in Nicaragua, baseball is actually afforded that honor. Boxing is the second most played sport, while soccer is the third.
The constitution grants religious freedom, so while there is the choice of faith, religion does play a major role in the lives of Nicaraguans. Every city has its own official Saint, the “Santo Patrono.” “Fiestas Patronales” are celebrations where the Saints are bestowed with gifts and blessings sought. Lasting several days, these celebrations are colorful, joyous and filled with music and dance.
Carlos Herrera, Geske Dijkstra & Ruerd Ruben (2019) Gender Segregation and Income Differences in Nicaragua,Feminist Economics, 25:3, 144-170, DOI: 10.1080/13545701.2019.1567931
View Recipes from Nicaragua