León, Nicaragua: Land of Lakes, Volcanoes, and Unforgettable Food
Nicaragua, land of lakes and volcanoes, is just as much a land of food. On a recent four-day trip to visit a close friend living in León, I learned to travel, drink, and eat like a Nica. My only regret? That I didn't get to try iguana, á la Anthony Bourdain (apparently it's illegal).
All photos by Dana De Greff Fresh mango
León is a hot, steaming city in the west of Nicaragua, about two hours from Managua. The original site was founded on the banks of Lake Managua in 1524, but after a powerful earthquake in 1610, it was moved to the Indian capital Subtiava. Between 1978-79, León was also a place of heavy fighting between Sandinista guerrillas and army troops, which left much of the city center destroyed.
Despite its shaky history, these days León is bursting with students, tourists, artists, and out-of-this-world cuisine.
Standing in the mercadito de Subtiava, central market in León, sweat running down my back and into my eyes, I marvel at the fact that so many women are able to cook over steaming pots and flaming grills without a hint of discomfort. My companion suggests we share a chancho con yuca, a popular dish in the region. It's relatively simple -- pork seasoned with achiote, a seed that adds a reddish color and a nutty, peppery taste, and boiled yuca, which is served on a banana leaf, topped with cabbage salad with enough vinegar to keep it bright.
All photos by Dana De Greff Chancho con yuca
At home, we unwrap the leaf and dig in; the meat is tender and super porky, the yuca thick and slightly sweet. The dish costs 40 Cordobas, about $1.50, which, split between two people is a pretty delectable deal.
My next tasting came on a street corner, where I was hypnotized by the smoke curling up from cuts of grilled chicken and various goodies hidden under plastic, protected from swarms of flies. After 10 minutes of debate, I went for the Nicaraguan version of an enchilada, which resembles a large, fried empanada. The corn tortilla is stuffed with grilled chicken, rice, and vinegared cabbage, and wrapped in a banana leaf. As a side I bought some tajadas -- fried plantain chips -- that added a nice crunch to the meal. This is a meal for the hands, and it was crazy tasty, all for 15 Cordobas, or about 60 cents. For that price, you can splurge and get two.
Enchilada hot off the grill