Let's Talk Cooking and Ingredients

First, the good news. There are lots of interesting and useful local ingredients. In particular:

  • Lots of type of fruit. That includes some temperate climate typicals such as melons, tomatoes and avocados plus everything tropical from banana to zapote. While you find lots of pineapple, mango, papaya and guava there are lots of other interesting things from matazano to guyabana.
  • For root veggies, we have an assortment of not really that exciting potatoes (I am saying that because most potatoes in the world and not that interesting) plus malanga, kikiste and other root veggies that actually have flavor. Carrots are very common as well.
  • While garlic is grown here, most of what you find in the markets comes from China. In any case, garlic, onions, and ginger are easy to find.
  • Lots of greens from lettuce to mustard to broccoli are grown locally. If the demand is there, they will appear where you shop.
  • Cashews and peanuts are local crops and are readily available. I have been told that almonds are grown here and I can buy little bags of almonds but I have not found a buik supplier.
  • Corn, red beans and black beans are grown in much of the country. Black beans are grown mainly as an export crop (to Costa Rica) but you can easily find them in public markets, generally at a lower price than red beans.
  • Chia and flax are readily available in spite of the fact that most people here don't seem to appreciate how useful these two products are.

There are lots of items that are packaged and imported. You won't find them in the pulpuria on the corner but medium-sized stores (Las Segovias and Del Hogar are good examples in Estelí) will have them.

  • Garbanzos, lentils and split peas. These are from Goya. While you may think that means they are from Spain, they are probably grown in/imported from the US.
  • TVP. Made in, as I remember, Guatemala and cheap. My concern is that it is made with GMO soybeans.
  • Brown rice. This used to be hard to find (only Naturaleza in Managua) but it is becoming relatively easy to find in one pound packages imported from Guatemala.
  • Olive oil. Lots of brands/types, all imported.

What's missing:

  • Quinoa. This, to me, is the most important missing ingredient. Most of it is grown in Bolivia, an ALBA sister country so I assume this is a demand issue. A couple of years ago I tried and tried to find a supplier in Bolivia that had any interest in exporting to Nicaragua. No go. One huge exporter of organic quinoa told me that they export everything to the US so I should go shop there. Groan.
  • Olives. You can buy cans of so-so olives but nothing exciting. I assume this is a demand issue as it was easy to find excellent black olives in bulk in Costa Rica.
  • Tofu. It is made in Managua but I have never seen it elsewhere. Clearly a demand issue as it is easy to make (but not worth the effort for individual consumption.) My concern is that the soybeans available here are GMO.
  • Mushrooms. Readily availabe in cans with the flavor or cans. This seems like a good business opportunity for someone in the northern mountains. (If I wanted a business, I think this would be an excellent place to start and, yes, I even have a basic plan that takes advantage of existing demand and distribution systems.)
  • Tamari. That is, real brewed soy sauce without wheat.
  • Miso. Particularly for vegetarians, an important ingredient.
  • Kombu and other sea vegetables.
  • Nutritional yeast. (This is another business oportunity for someone.)

I am sure I forgot some important items but, for me, that's a good start. For fresh produce items (bell peppers, basil, ...) it is just a demand issue. All can be grown here but are not items you can leave on the shelf until a customer comes in.

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I'd try substitutes

Quinoa -- try growing it or amaranth. http://www.seedsofchange.com/enewsletter/issue_38/quinoa.aspx. I've read somewhere that its nutritional profile has been somewhat exaggerated, much like the Hunza life spans (in reality, average 54 years; in legend, into the 100s; reality -- lots of dead babies and lung problems, legend -- superb health into old age; reality -- the Hunza who moved to the modern village with modern conveniences live longer).

Olives -- try pickled chunks of unripe mangos. Play with picking various unripe fruit and see what's interesting.

Tofu -- cuajada. Or make your own tempeh. Adding grains to tempeh reduces the risk of poisonous toxins. I don't know where you'd get a culture, but you could take your chances on a wild culture. The process seems less labor-intensive than making tofu. I've never made it, but when I bought it, generally used it in ways similar to tofu. Buy beans you trust and grow them out. Chicken breasts for those of us who prefer eating tasty animals.

Mushrooms -- basically, I think the only ones worth having that can be easily obtained are the dried ones. The oriental places in Managua should have these. Some time when I'm there with someone patient enough to go around looking, I plan to get a pound or so of them. I also suspect that someone somewhere up in the campo knows which mushrooms are edible or not. Given the rather unpleasant way mushrooms kill (some by slowly destroying one's liver), it's possible Nicaraguan doesn't have enough edible mushrooms to have a mushroom-eating community, so people from cultures that do eat mushrooms are the only possible customers. Chocolate in stews does some of the same things that mushrooms do, just not quite in the same way.

Tamari -- True tamari is the liquid that runs off miso as it matures. What is sold by the organic health food places as tamari generally isn't this. Look for Yìnyóu in shops that cater to Taiwanese. It's brewed strictly from soy beans, not grain. I've also found Pearl River soy sauces to be better than most commonly available commercial brands (mainland Chinese product, so the Taiwanese might not have it). Japanese soy sauces are more likely to have wheat in them than Chinese or Taiwanese soy sauces. Korean soy sauce might be worth looking at if there's a place in Managua that caters to Koreans. Check labels. I think Peal River was a pure bean soy sauce. La Choy doesn't have wheat in it, either, but uses hydrolyzed soy beans and has added corn syrup, so better than Kikkoman for the gluten intolerant, but could do with less corn syrup. See the Wikipedia article on soy sauces for more information. We've got Taiwanese and Koreans in Nicaragua. See how they solve the problem.

Miso -- chocolate and lentil paste makes a great substitute for miso. Or meat broth (judging from average life spans, countries with sensible meat-eating live longer than countries that are more vegetarian).

Kombu and other sea vegetables -- strips of dried beef.

Nutritional yeast: use baking or brewing yeast -- it's all little one celled plants. If you can find moist cake baking yeast, I've heard that some people find that very tasty.

I find that my market has larger chiltomas that are undistinguishable in taste and ease of use from bell peppers. Basil -- there's a bush that has leaves that aren't basil as we know it but which have some of the characteristics. My dog ate mine.

importing cooking styles is a whole lot easier than trying to import identity foods. I can do pretty much anything in French or Chinese cooking with Nicaraguan ingredients.

Rebecca Brown