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Typical Meals

Rice and beans are the bases of most meals -- all three of them. At breakfast, they're called gallo pinto and come with everything from eggs to steak to seafood. At lunch or dinner, rice and beans are an integral part of a casado (which translates as "married" and is the name for the local version of a blue-plate special). A casado usually consists of cabbage-and-tomato salad; fried plantains (a starchy, banana-like fruit); and a chicken, fish, or meat dish of some sort. On the Caribbean coast, rice and beans are called rice 'n' beans, and are cooked in coconut milk. A seafood and coconut stew is called rundown.

Pupusa is king in El Salvador and hard to avoid, especially if you are on a budget. The stuffed tortilla comes with queso (cheese), frijoles (beans), and chicharrón (pork rinds), amongst other fillings.

However, you don't have to look too far to see that the region boasts an abundant variety of other local dishes to sample, which incorporate unique vegetables, fruits, and grains. Though rice and beans will be on almost all menus, in coastal areas, you'll also come across an incredible amount of seafood, especially lobster and shrimp. There is a growing controversy around eating lobster, due to overfishing and the extreme danger lobster pickers are put in for very little money. Avoid eating huevos de paslama (turtle eggs), since turtles are an endangered species.

In the highlands, you'll find more beef on the menu in the form of caldos (stews) served with yucca (manioc root or cassava in English), along with chicken dishes -- just don't be too surprised if your chicken comes with the feet still attached. Everywhere you will find corn-based treats like tamales (stuffed cornmeal patties wrapped and steamed inside banana leaves), along with patacones (fried green plantain chips), often served streetside. Nacatamales are banana leaves stuffed with cornmeal, pork, potato, and onion. Guirilas are fried corn pancakes topped with cheese and are popular in Nicaragua's northern highlands.

On the whole, you'll find vegetables surprisingly lacking in the meals you're served throughout Nicaragua and El Salvador -- usually nothing more than a little pile of shredded cabbage topped with a slice or two of tomato. Topped with pork skins, this is a popular dish in Nicaragua known as vigorón.

The most common fruits are mango, papaya, pineapple, melon, and banana. Other fruits include marañón, which is the fruit of the cashew tree and has orange or yellow glossy skin; granadilla or maracuyá (passion fruit); mamón chino, which Asian travelers will recognize as rambutan; and carambola (star fruit).

Fruit is often served as dessert in both countries, but there are some other options for sweets, as well. Queque seco, literally "dry cake," is the same as pound cake. Quesadilla is a cheesecake popular in El Salvador. Flan is a typical custard dessert. It often comes as either flan de caramelo (caramel) or flan de coco (coconut). Numerous other sweets are available, many of which are made with condensed milk and raw sugar. Cajetas are popular handmade candies, made from sugar and various mixes of evaporated, condensed, and powdered milk. They are sold in differing-size bits and chunks at most pulperías (general stores) and streetside food stands. Rosquillas are corn biscuit rings topped with cinnamon and are popular in Nicaragua.

Beverages

Nicaragua produces some of the best rum in the world, the most famous brand of which is called Flor de Caña. The whole region is known for chicha, a sweet, fermented corn beverage, and an even stronger variation known as chicha brava. La cususa, a crude cane liquor that's often combined with a soft drink or tonic, is popular in Nicaragua; its counterpart in El Salvador is called Tic Tac or Torito.

You can find imported wines at reasonable prices in the better restaurants throughout the region. You can usually save money by ordering a Chilean wine over a Californian or European one. Cerveza (beer) can be found everywhere, and each country has its most popular native brands, with Victoria and Toña the most common in Nicaragua and Pilsener and Suprema the best known in El Salvador.

Popular nonalcoholic drinks include pinol, which is toasted, ground corn with water; and tiste, a variation made with cocoa beans and corn. Soda in the form of gaseosa is everywhere, as are vendors selling small bags of ice-cold mineral water -- much more environmentally friendly than bottles. Look out for excellent fruit juices called liquadas or batidas that can be served with milk or water. Among the more common fruits used in these shakes are mango, papaya, blackberries, and pineapple. Order un fresco con leche sin hielo (a fresco with milk but without ice) if you're avoiding untreated water.

If you're a coffee drinker, you might be disappointed here. Most of the best coffee has traditionally been targeted for export, and the locals tend to prefer theirs weak and sugary. Better hotels and restaurants are starting to cater to American and European tastes and are serving superior blends. If you want black coffee, ask for café negro; if you want it with milk, order café con leche. For something different, ask for agua dulce, a warm drink made from melted sugar cane and served with either milk or lemon, or straight.

Although water in parts of the region is safe to drink, bottled water is readily available and is a good option if you're worried about an upset stomach. If you like your water without bubbles, request aqua mineral sin gas or agua en botella.

Dining Customs

The capital cities have the best choices regarding restaurants, with everything from Italian, Brazilian, and Chinese eateries to chains like T.G.I. Friday's. For cheap meals, buffet-style restaurants are very popular, as are street grills on the side of the road. Informal types of restaurants are known as pupuserías and comedores.

Outside the major tourist destinations, your options get very limited very fast. In fact, many beach destinations are so remote that you have no choice but to eat in the hotel's dining room. Even on the more accessible beaches, the only choices aside from the hotel dining rooms are often cheap local places or overpriced tourist traps serving indifferent meals. At remote jungle lodges, the food is usually served buffet or family style and can range from bland to inspired, depending on who's doing the cooking, and turnover is high.

People sit down to eat lunch at midday and dinner at 7pm. Some downtown restaurants in big cities are open 24 hours; however, expensive restaurants tend to be open for lunch between 11am and 3pm and for dinner between 6 and 11pm. At even the more expensive restaurants in the region, it's hard to spend more than $50 per person unless you really splurge on drinks.

Fish

Almejas -- Clams

Atún -- Tuna

Bacalao -- Cod

Calamares -- Squid

Camarones -- Shrimp

Cangrejo -- Crab

Ceviche -- Marinated seafood salad

Dorado -- Dolphin or mahimahi

Langosta -- Lobster

Lenguado -- Sole

Mejillones -- Mussels

Ostras -- Oysters

Pargo -- Snapper

Pulpo -- Octopus

Trucha -- Trout

Meats

Albóndigas -- Meatballs

Bistec -- Beefsteak

Cerdo -- Pork

Chicharrones -- Fried pork rinds

Cordero -- Lamb

Costillas -- Ribs

Jamón -- Ham

Lengua -- Tongue

Pato -- Duck

Pavo -- Turkey

Pollo -- Chicken

Salchichas -- Sausages

Vegetables

Aceitunas -- Olives

Alcachofa -- Artichoke

Berenjena -- Eggplant

Cebolla -- Onion

Elote -- Corn on the cob

Ensalada -- Salad

Espinacas -- Spinach

Frijoles -- Beans

Lechuga -- Lettuce

Maíz -- Corn

Palmito -- Heart of palm

Papa -- Potato

Pepino -- Cucumber

Tomate -- Tomato

Yuca -- Yucca, cassava, or manioc

Zanahoria -- Carrot

Fruits

Aguacate -- Avocado

Banano -- Banana

Carambola -- Star fruit

Cereza -- Cherry

Ciruela -- Plum

Durazno -- Peach

Frambuesa -- Raspberry

Fresa -- Strawberry

Granadilla -- Sweet passion fruit

Limón -- Lemon or lime

Manzana -- Apple

Mango -- Mango

Maracuyá -- Tart passion fruit

Melón -- Melon

Mora -- Blackberry

Naranja -- Orange

Papaya -- Papaya

Piña -- Pineapple

Plátano -- Plantain

Sandía -- Watermelon

Toronja -- Grapefruit

Basics

Aceite -- Oil

Ajo -- Garlic

Arreglado -- Small meat sandwich

Azúcar -- Sugar

Casado -- Plate of the day

Gallo -- Corn tortilla topped with meat or chicken

Gallo pinto -- Rice and beans

Hielo -- Ice

Mantequilla -- Butter

Miel -- Honey

Mostaza -- Mustard

Natilla -- Sour cream

Olla de carne -- Meat and vegetable soup

Pan -- Bread

Patacones -- Fried plantain chips

Picadillo -- Chopped vegetable side dish

Pimienta -- Pepper

Pupusa -- Grilled corn tortilla filled with pork and cheese

Queso -- Cheese

Sal -- Salt

Tamal -- Filled cornmeal pastry

Tortilla -- Flat corn pancake

Drinks

Agua con gas -- Sparkling water

Agua purificada -- Purified water

Agua sin gas -- Plain water

Bebida -- Drink

Café -- Coffee

Café con leche -- Coffee with milk

Cerveza -- Beer

Chocolate caliente -- Hot chocolate

Jugo -- Juice

Leche -- Milk

Natural -- Fruit juice

Natural con leche -- Milkshake

Refresco -- Soft drink

Ron -- Rum

-- Tea

Trago -- Alcoholic drink

Other Restaurant Terms

Al grill -- Grilled

Al horno -- Oven-baked

Al vapor -- Steamed

Asado -- Roasted

Caliente -- Hot

Cambio or vuelto -- Change

Cocido -- Cooked

Comida -- Food

Congelado -- Frozen

Crudo -- Raw

El baño -- Toilet

Frío -- Cold

Frito -- Fried

Grande -- Big

La cuenta -- The check

Medio -- Medium

Medio rojo -- Medium rare

Muy cocido -- Well-done

Pequeño -- Small

Poco cocido or rojo -- Rare

Tres cuartos -- Medium-well-done

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.