(Disclaimer: this is not a recipe or “how-to” post)
On the last day of my week of Spanish school in San Juan Del Sur, around 4 in the afternoon, a small group of us walked about a kilometer to a house on the main road going out of town. A sign in a window announced “Nacatamales” and we walked down a flight of steps beside a house to find ourselves in a yard surrounded by several homes. Mama’s house was the big two-story building behind the yard, and 2 or 3 other homes were the residences of her various children and their families. Under a covered area we found a table neatly set out with bowls of ingredients for our Nacatamales. Our teacher asked us first to wash our hands in her house, and then brought out a bowl of corn dough, and added some final ingredients, which, I confess, I didn’t quite grasp except that a powder from a packet was added purely for color, while other ingredients, including the juice of sour oranges, added flavor. The dough (more like a mash texture, really) was hand-mixed to the desired consistency and then we were shown how to assemble a Nacatamale.
Briefly, we learned how to lay down two rectangular-cut banana leaves, and a third on top. We added a generous dollop of corn dough, then two slices of potatoes, one on each side, sticking up like two ears, and between them a couple of pieces of raw meat (pork, in this case) on top of the dough, then a handful of well-soaked rice, thin-sliced green peppers, a round of sliced onion, a handful of mint, and a slice or two of tomato. We learned how to fold over the edges of the banana leaves and roll them down, then around the food, and to tie them with raffia string so the food would remain snugly inside the package.
Our teacher then showed us her outdoor stove-top—a concrete platform over a wood fire, on which was boiling merrily a gigantic vat containing many packets of Nacatamales, the whole surface covered with large banana leaves. She told us it takes about three hours for the Nacatamales to cook, so those we were invited to eat after our efforts had been prepared for us earlier and were perfectly cooked and piping hot. My little bundle had an extra strip of leaf hanging from the string to indicate that it contained chicken, not pork.
I have to confess to not being a huge fan of everyday Nicaraguan food: I don’t generally eat dairy products and a lot of cheese is used here (even in sushi!!) I don’t eat pork and beef, and generally don’t eat very much rice at all. If I had to choose a country by food alone it might be Japan, or somewhere in the Mediterranean or the middle east, so opening my quintessentially Nicaraguan Nacatamale and seeing and smelling the glorious golden corn dough topped with the chicken and vegetables was a delightful surprise.
Man, did it all taste good! So there’s at least one Nicaraguan food on my list of favorites to be sought out again.