I´ve just finished eating lunch, so it seemed like an appropriate time to write about food. A lot of people asked me before I left whether it would be difficult to stay a vegetarian here. I knew rice and beans were a major staple, but I really wasn´t sure what else to expect. I´ve been pleasantly surprised that not only is it easy to be a vegetarian, it´s partially… required. Even the carnivores aren´t being fed much meat here. Not only is meat expensive for the families that we´re living with to afford, Raleigh as an organization only provides one meal per week when we´re at field base that includes meat because of the environmental, anti-humane, and other negative impacts of animal farming. Did you know that roughly 2,400 liters of water goes into the production of just one hamburger (150grams of meat, one bun, one slice of cheese)? Considering how precious water has become lately, given that our community has a limited and inconsistent supply (hence our project), it´s surprising to me that raising cattle is one of the main industries, alongside farming mainly corn (maíz) and beans (frijoles). Cattle farming is also one of the biggest detriments to the rainforest. Over 80% of rainforest destruction in the Amazon is a direct result of land being cleared to raise cows (http://www.fao.org/docrep/ARTICLE/WFC/XII/0568-B1.HTM). As trees are a major necessity to water systems like the one we are implementing here, deforestation also means less access to drinkable and consistent water.
Most of the venturers here are used to eating meat at least once per day, if not with every meal. While some of them are occasionally fed meat here in the community, they do all seem to be enduring the tough physical labor on the food they´re given without mention of being hungry. Rice + beans, when eaten together, create a complete protein that is cheap, filling and tasty. In addition to being better for the environment and animals, it makes sense that rice and beans central to the diet here in Nicaragua (and much of the rest of Central America).
This brings me to gallo pinto (pronounced “guy-yo pin-toe” for those of you who missed my last post)! Gallo pinto is essentially rice and beans fried together in a pan. It sounds simple, but something magical happens when the two are combined with a bit of oil. I´m generally most hungry at lunch, since I usually eat a smaller amount at breakfast and then do physical work all morning. (This is relatively speaking of course, as I feel like I actually eat quite a lot here compared to at home, although I snack less). It´s silly, but I´m typically just the slightest bit disappointed at lunch, because it tends to be the only meal where Maria Elsa serves us our rice and beans separately, instead of gallo pinto, which I find so much tastier!
After gallo pinto, the next biggest part of our diet is plantains. I get particularly excited about plantains – I absolutely love them in all their forms. Plantains were the first thing that I begged Maria Elsa to teach me to make. They´re incredibly simple, once you have the plantains – it turns out that the hardest part is picking the right ones to cook! By this I mean if you want to make plantain chips (salty like potato chips and thinly sliced), you have to use green ones that are still very firm. If you want to make sweet ones, then they need to be soft and nearly black on the outside before you prepare them. Once you´ve selected them, it´s only a matter of slicing and frying them, to which there is a little technique, but I won´t bore you with the details. I´m fairly convinced I can do it on my own now, and I am extremely excited to try this one at home.
One thing I don´t think I´ll be making on my own any time soon are corn tortillas from scratch. Also a staple here, as one of the major crops, making tortillas takes patience, perseverance, and love. I still don´t quite understand all of the steps in the process, but once the corn is cleaned, cooked, and left to soak so that it is soft (potentially in that order, although not necessarily), it is ground into a paste using a hand cranked machine. This is a workout. Maria Elsa has to be a strong woman given the number of tortillas she makes. Water is added to the corn paste, and then a small chunk is smoothed around the edges, smooshed flat onto a table, and alternately patted and rotated on a piece of wax paper until thin and circular. Each tortilla is then individually fried in a slightly curved pan over the wood-oven fire. You know it´s ready to flip when the back of your fingers sticks to the dough enough to lift the cooked side away from the pan. After both sides slightly brown, only then is the process complete. I´ve only helped crank, pat and flip so far, but I´m hoping to get some more practice in before I leave here.
Treats & Sweets
Every once in a while, Victoria, Maria Elsa, some other locals or the panaderia (bakery) in Salales (the closest town, roughly 30 min walking) will surprise us with some new and delicious food item. In addition to tortillas every which way (plain, folded over and fried with cheese inside called “repocheta,” torn into pieces and fried with chile sauce and lime, etc.), it is amazing how much they do with corn here. For example, there are a number of desserts involving corn. We´ve gotten to try a cakey, sweet version of cornbread and authentic tamales. The tamales are soft corn mixture on the outside with a sugary, cheesy corn mixture on the inside and baked in banana leaves. They make for a really interesting combination of sweet and savory flavours.
My favourite of the dessert-like items so far has been a sweetbread call pico, which is triangular in shape, flat on the bottom and puffy on top, filled with a cinnamon, sugary, slightly cheesy and buttery spread in the middle, topped with more sugar and then baked. So phenomenally good. Pico is followed by “arroz con leche” (essentially rice pudding) as a close second in my book. Victoria made it the other day, and it was all I could do not to have 3 helpings.
Victoria also makes different flavors of “ice cream,” which I put in quotes as it´s not exactly Ben and Jerry´s (or what you would normally think of when I say ice cream). It´s a flavoured, milky mixture that is poured into small plastic bags, which are tied shut and frozen. You eat them by biting a small hole in one of the corners of the bag and melting the area around it to suck the ice cream out. Sometimes there are crushed up cookies inside. My favourite so far has been plantain, of course, although I´ve found them all quite nice – even the chocolate. It´s no surprise I do have quite the sweet tooth, and no wonder the “treats & sweets” section is the only one to be 3 paragraphs long!
I think I mentioned before that coffee is served with every meal in Nicaragua, and pretty much available, if not expressly offered, at all other times during the day. It is customary to be offered some kind of refreshment upon entering even a stranger´s home here, and most often that refreshment will be coffee. I wasn´t initially excited about the prospect of having to drink much coffee here (if not because I wanted it, at least some out of politeness), but it has actually become my preferred drink next to water. That could be because coffee here is served excessively sweet – even for my tastes. One of our first days I tried to ask for just a little bit of sugar. Maria Elsa asked me how many spoonfuls, to which I responded just one, thinking it was the least I really could ask for. I didn´t realize that one still meant the tablespoon-sized mound that I got! It´s become like a little dessert at meals and each sweet sip nicely compliments and breaks up a very salty or savory meal. I always save some for after my last bites. There´s also nothing I enjoy more than coming back from a morning of work, washing up after lunch, and sitting all clean with a cup of coffee, a cookie and my book in my hammock… which now that it´s nearly stopped raining, I think I´m going to go do… right… now.