A gastronomic exploration of Nicaragua's post-war highlands reveals renewed talent for suckling and a stubborn joie de vivre.
"Chicken, chicken, soda, soda!"
I was sweating in a parked bus, serenaded by barks from Managua's take on curb service. I didn't believe the vendors would be able to stand tall enough to push their products through the high safety windows of the bus, a reincarnated Bluebird that used to haul American kids to school. But greasy plates tilted their way in, as if I were sitting in the innards of a giant row of slot machines.
Not to feel left out, I shouted out an order just before the bus left the terminal. With help from a vendor's beanstalk arms, I received not-so-recently fried chicken, more bone than meat, and a plastic bag of Coca Cola. My confused Gringo hands allowed me to slurp out about a nickel's worth of Coke before I dropped the squishy thing during the jolts of the geriatric engine. Thus my culinary journey of Matagalpa, the mild-aired mountain city in the belly button of Nicaragua's coffee country—our destination—prematurely began.
As my sneaker treads stuck to corn syrup, I wondered how the Matagalpa area, rich in crops and livestock, rebounded from the abuse of the Contra War during the 1980s. But you wouldn't know that Matagalpa survived some of the nastier guerilla fighting of the conflict if you glanced at the cheerful folks on the bus en route to the city. Hemorrhaging distorted classic rock through speakers mounted on the ceiling, the bus turned into a carnival when a tiny bird made the mistake of flying into an open window. In a country full of comically rabid baseball players, I knew the bird wouldn't last long before being caught with a pair of bare hands.
I would soon discover from where Nicaraguan shortstops had inherited their coordination. When the bus spilled us onto the tight sidewalks of Matagalpa, I had to duck around a procession of women balancing wooden trays of food on their heads. They swung both arms at their sides without a crumple of concentration. Smooth and unhurried, their steps ended up creating an odd elegance, as if the women were flaunting peculiar hats topped with fruit patterns.
Matagalpa inhales and exhales food. It's a playground for provisions. Such a reality seems contradictory in light of the country's economy having been ravaged by wars, hurricanes, and presidents pocketing international relief money. Yet none of those gruesome setbacks prevent farmers from bringing down produce from the surrounding mountainsides and making a living.
With the city's avocado stands and stew carts and head-balanced produce blocking pedestrians, I realized I wouldn't need to walk inside a restaurant to eat. Or maybe that was their plan. How else could I explain a vendor setting up a grill on a sidewalk so narrow she makes pedestrians walk in a sluggish single line past her cart, forcing them to snort up sweet puffs of grilling banana leaves and corn tortillas? I was helpless. Like flies stuck in a web, pedestrians became ensnared in banana leaf smoke and found themselves ordering 9-cordoba (50-cent) guirilas, thick tortillas wrapped in said leaves and stuffed with fresh cuajada cheese.
The streets of Matagalpa were about to get more crowded, thanks to a truly Nicaraguan brand of Catholicism. Across from the city's central supermarket, a deejay's boxing-arena announcements shot from speakers aboard a truck trailer painted with advertising for a canned tuna company. The trailer had no walls, all the better to watch three caramel-colored young ladies grinding hotpants and spinning miniskirts to the beat of the company's jingle. "La Sirena tuna is the richest," screamed the tweeters, as the girls shook their spandex-slung, sun-ripened produce for the approval of a crowd collecting on the sidewalk. Holy Week and Easter were approaching in a few weeks, and the city decided that the best way to butter up God was with lent-friendly offerings of hotpants (no meat, right?) and spiced fish in a can.
The trailer kept bouncing up and down more than a mattress in a love hotel. People emerged from the store with armfuls of the chili flavor. Shaky pyramids of the lemon flavor. Oranges scattered as fruit stands tipped over, smacked by the spasmodic knees of men trying to get a better look at what exactly makes La Sirena the richest. And that is how tuna is sold in Nicaragua.
In Nicaraguan street take-out, cups and bottles are viewed as strange extravagances, because everyone sips their on-the-go beverages out of plastic bags. The factory-sealed varieties look like melted ice packs the little league coach would toss at you after you slid into second base all wrong. But unlike the home-poured sandwich bag of Coca Cola I fumbled in the bus, the factory-made bags don't come with a straw. When confronted with such a quandary, the Nica drinker bites a hole in the corner and squeezes the bag while cradling it, like suckling on a boob.
The burbling breakfast pots along the edges of Parque Morazán, adjacent to the city's inescapably gigantic cathedral, provided me with rice, beans, and roast chicken, all of which I washed down with a bag of chicha de maiz, a corn drink. A little fermented, a little sweetened, and unsettlingly pulpy, the bright purple juice matched the jovial paint jobs and neo-colonial architecture of the buildings, so much that I almost forgot that the city was constructed out of concrete.
The city's brightness and bustle have also obscured the effects of the recent war, aside from the city's monument for the tomb of the unknown Sandinista soldier and a few veterans hopping around on crutches in the parks. When I met Rafael, a middle-aged science fiction author, I was going to ask him how Matagalpa survived the war so well. Rafael, like many Nicas, left the country during the war and didn't return until the Contras disbanded. So instead, he and I ended up debating whether recent teleportation experiments in physics actually moved particles themselves, or merely information about the particles. It was a conversation I hadn't anticipated having while drinking corn beer out of a plastic bag.
Snacks call for an equally simple container: the napkin sheath...unless you're a superhero. When Spiderman visits Nicaragua, he must be bored without the Green Goblin around, so he stays sharp by snagging hotdogs with his web-shooter. Or at least that's what the hand-painted artwork on the side of the park's pushcart vender depicts.
Don't Just Watch it Grow
I often wonder if Nicaraguans laugh at Americans who cultivate chia pets. Not because of the pets' campy, stuttering jingle on late-night commercials. Not because chia pet owners are more likely to own Clappers than passports. When an American grows a chia pet's hair only to chuck the sprouts after a few weeks, a Nica would probably view the practice as a waste of tasty food. Since chia (also spelled chilla) is native to Central America, the many cultures that have lived there during the past few millennia—including the Maya—have been eating the sprouts as well as the seeds.
Don Chaco's restaurant, Matagalpa's epicenter of natural shakes, mixed the seeds in a tall glass with lemon juice and sugar to make their tangy drink chilla con limon, Nicaragua's answer to Taiwan's bubble tea. The seeds, when wet, form little gelatinous spheres around themselves, and when I sucked them up through a straw, they gave me the same exciting sensation of not knowing whether I've just sucked up a tapioca ball or a fly.
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