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Food
Latin legends: Black beans for breakfast, plantains for lunch, ceviche for dinner

Sunday, June 23, 2002

By Diana Nelson Jones, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Last fall, I avoided rice and beans, thinking I would be eating "nothing but" once I got to Central America in November. But food is like most things you think you know about a place -- always more interesting and, at times, surprising.

You can't walk far anywhere in Central America without tripping over a plate of rice and beans. It is the combo-staple of most Latin American countries.

Yet, other foods of El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua pop to mind first. I visited these countries during a six-month sabbatical last fall and winter.

My research was unscientific, but even on a shoestring it was thorough. In fact, the food was one of the highlights of my trip.

Take the pupusa (poo-POO-suh) -- no, take two or three. The signature food of El Salvador, it is a thick tortilla roughly the size of a fast-food hamburger patty, filled with refried beans, cheese and sometimes pork rind.

One evening, coming home from the beach at Costa del Sol, my companions and I stopped at a line of pupusarias along a rural roadside. They were all open at the front and sewn together with a string of twinkling Christmas lights. The evening had cooled slightly, our skin glowed from the sun, and at each entrance, aromas and smoke poured forth from griddles tended by smiling, round ladies slapping pupusas into shape.

A huge glass jar of curtido sat like an anchor on each picnic table inside. Curtido is a salad of cabbage, onion and carrot marinated in vinegar, and it's a perfect complement to pupusas.

An acquaintance named Raoul said he owed his girth and much of his happiness to the pupusa, and I can understand why. It's puzzling that the pupusa has not caught on among El Salvador's neighbors. Then again, maybe not.

Bound loosely by the effects of Spanish conquest and the structure of the Catholic Church, the nations of Central America have for centuries frustrated efforts to unify them. They are like siblings with different recipe books -- much alike, but you always know at whose table you are sitting.

Guatemalans will eat a concoction of refried black beans for breakfast with eggs, fruit and a block of salty white cheese. They also eat black bean soup, whereas in El Salvador and Nicaragua, the beans are red.

If Central America were to unite behind any food, it might be the plantain, which I had as often at lunch as at breakfast. Like bananas but larger, meatier and a shade toward orange, plantains are delicious sliced and fried in oil to a golden brown.

Something seemed right about black beans for breakfast and plantains for lunch. I wish I could find good, ripe plantains in Pittsburgh, but nothing's good when it has to travel green, except coffee.

Central American cuisine is understated and unsung, but more healthful and more subtly prepared than the "typical" foods we eat in the States. It's no surprise considering the bounty of fresh fish, the long growing season and the occurrence of a wide range of extraordinary fruits. The papayas taken for granted there would be freaks at our county fairs. And the avocados and mangoes -- swoon city.

I also had my first draw from an honest-to-goodness coco. It took both hands.

During our day at the beach, the groundskeeper/manager at the hacienda scaled a coconut palm, threw down a bunch of cocos as big as bowling balls and made holes in them for us to drink the water. (The actual coconut is inside the coco.) Then he brought us freshly caught fish, grilled heads and all, and we ate like starving cats.

From all the evidence, grilling is the most popular meat preparation, and my meals of grilled meat were usually quite delicious. But one of the most popular dishes in Central America is ceviche (also spelled seviche), a raw fish salad. I ate enough of it to grow my own set of fins.

The best I had was prepared by Sergio Canudas, a chef from Mexico who lives in Granada, Nicaragua. You can use any kind of white fish, and there is a variety of fish in the Pacific. A firm fish that does not shred is essential, and it should be very fresh, which should go without saying. Ceviche varies more in its other ingredients.

All ceviche is "cooked" in lime or lemon juice -- lime is better -- but some do not include cilantro, which Sergio's does. I had some in El Salvador with diced celery in it, an ingredient I would not consider using.

Sergio left his restaurant job a couple of weeks into my stay in Granada and began cooking for the guests at the inn where he lived, where I also stayed. The guests would gather in the kitchen, give Sergio cordovas worth about $7, grab a beer, squeeze around wooden tables and make happy eating sounds while Sergio held forth with magic tricks and stories. You travel to have rich, quirky, charming experiences like Sergio's family dinner theater.

My duplication of his ceviche was good, and pretty close to his.

The meal that most influenced my idea of Nic-araguan food was nacatamal. When you order a comida typica, or typical meal, this is what you get. It is served in a banana leaf. And

if that weren't delightful enough, it costs less than a buck. You get a heaping helping of the exceptionally nutritious combo of cabbage, plantain or yucca and bits of pork. I would get a nacatamal and walk through Granada's Central Park eating it with my fingers, like the locals.

I wish I knew how to make it the way they do.

Luckily, I gathered up enough recipes to make an all-Central American meal, its crowning touch the popular layer cake called Tres Leches, which means Three Milks. Here are the recipes, in case you want to try it.

Related Recipes:

Pupusas
Curtido
Ceviche
Tres Leches

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