Nicaraguan Plant-Based Traditions

“Are you hungry?” my cousin asks as we walk into his warm and inviting home, bright yellow walls adorned with traditional Nicaraguan art, knick knacks, and family photos. I smell one of my favorite smells in the world, freshly brewed Nicaraguan coffee harvested in the mountains that are my home for the next week. “No,” I reply, and cringe- so does my mother sitting next to me. You are not supposed to say “No” to a Nicaraguan offering you something in their home. Hospitality is big with my people. Even the humblest of homes here have something for their guests: beans, coffee, bread. Anything. However, being vegan for a few years now, I’ve grown weary of this offer. It’s not that I want to reject this kind offer. I want to say, “Believe me I’m saving us a lot of trouble by simply saying no.”  A “Yes” can go a variety of different ways, and frankly, I’m worn out from having to have this conversation with my family again. Also, seasoned vegan that I am, I already ate before leaving the house. 

My “No” is met with knitted brows and looks of concern and confusion between my mom and me. “We just ate,” my mother tries to save the moment. Which of course means nothing to my cousin’s wife. She proceeds to list a string of dishes she’s made, indio viejo, rice, tortillas. She’ll serve us some. You have to eat, she insists.  “Ok”, my mom gives in, but Anita is Vegana.  They nod, and I am momentarily relieved. Do they get it? Except the next words out of my cousin’s mouth is, “Ok I have fish.”  I half laugh half groan feeling as my mind immediately travels to one of my very romantic comedy movies, My Big Fat Greek. If you’ve seen it, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Loca, I’ve been called more than once since my visit.

I am in the highlands of Nicaragua with my huge extended Nicaraguan family who have no concept of veganism and think that vegetarians eat fish and chicken. This essentially is what Veganism is equated to in Nicaragua and for Nicaraguans. Even my mother, who often acts like my spokeswoman at family parties, still catches herself explaining things and turning to me for clarification. It reminds me of when she tells people that I’m a librarian, half prideful have confused, “I don’t know what she does exactly, but she has a master’s degree and she works with books…” Understanding as she is though, she doesn’t quite get it. Not many do.

Modern-day Nicaraguan cuisine is influenced by Spanish, Creole, and Indigenous cultures, and the ironic thing is that the average Nicaraguan diet, on the Pacific side of the country at least, is very vegan-friendly. In fact, it’s essentially vegetarian. The list of staple foods includes beans, rice, tortillas, avocados, plantains, fruit juices, and root vegetables. Nicaragua, along with Mexico, Brazil, and Paraguay, is among the highest countries that consume beans in the Americas. Beans are integral to the Nicaraguan diet, and they are the highest source of protein for many rural communities, not to mention high in complex carbohydrates, magnesium, calcium, potassium, and folic acid. And yes, dairy and eggs also make up a large portion of the staple diet, but the list of vegan options outweighs the nonvegan items. Our national dish is Gallo Pinto which a mixture of beans and rice. Serve me a plate with some avocado, fresh corn tortillas, and a side of plantains with some salsa, and I’m in heaven.

Of course, there are plenty of meat-heavy dishes, but these meals and usually reserved for a few times week or special occasions. You enter a Nicaraguan household on any given day and chances are you’ll catch plenty of people munching on the previously mentioned deliciousness that is Gallo Pinto. This isn’t an accident, of course, because meat in Nicaragua, like most developing nations, is more expensive and harder to get. My mom often says that growing up, meat was only served a few times a week and when it was served, it was in small quantities. Presently, it’s easier to obtain than in the past due to the United States’ influence, but it is still not the most practical or easily accessible for many in the country.

If you’re not caught up on your Latin American history or geography, Nicaragua rests in the middle of the Central American isthmus. It’s above Costa Rica and below Honduras. It enjoys a tropical climate and touches both the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean. The country is very ethnically diverse, and the Pacific side bares influence from the Spanish colonizers, while the Atlantic side is more Caribbean and English influenced due to freed slaves who made a home on the Mosquito Coast, or came to find work when the English established sugar plantations. Nicaragua has endured many hard times since its independence, from dictators, civil wars, natural disasters, economic strife, and recent political turmoil that has ended 11 years of peace. A very poor county to begin with, Nicaraguans have had to find creative, accessible ways to feed their families and historically that has been plant-based foods.

This also stems back to pre-colonialist times, and the indigenous practices of the native people of Nicaragua. The tribes that lived in these regions before the Spanish and the English had very rich cultures that enjoyed trade with each other. Some of the native peoples of Nicaragua were the Rama, Miskito, and Chototega who traded with the Aztec and Maya. This is evidenced by the names for certain foods such as our usage of ahuacatl, the Nahuatl word for Avocado, and the prominence of beans in our foods. The tribes ate according to their resources, and although they were not vegan, they enjoyed and lived off many plant foods. For example, the Miskito people who live on the Eastern coast of the country lived by hunting, fishing, and slash-and-burn agriculture, however, root crops (especially cassava), plantains, and pineapples were the staple foods.

Traditional Mesoamerican diets consist of cassava, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and of course beans. Beans were superfoods then as they are now, and archaeologists have found evidence that beans were among the earliest domesticated plants in ancient times. It wasn’t until Europeans came to the Americas and brought foods they deemed “good” that we started to see the shift from plant heavy cuisine, to meat-intensive meals. Europeans brought with them chicken and beef, among other animals, all of which are seen in “fancy” Nicaraguan food. For example, we see the beef in vaho, the chicken in indio viejo, the pork in nactamales and so forth. When the Europeans came to the Americas, they believed the people they encountered were inferior to them, and a large part of their argument was based on the foods that the Native Peoples ate. These foods, as I’ve mentioned, were not entirely vegan, but they were largely plant-based, and naturally produced different body compositions. In an attempt to retain their “healthy” constitutions, Europeans began importing and harvesting foods from the old world. They felt that the native foods of the land- cassava, potatoes, fruits and such- were not healthy and offered minimal nourishment which contributed to “unhealthy” outwardly appearance. This racist and xenophobic ideology was used to justify not only the many atrocities that the native peoples endured but also the mass introduction of foreign foods, which includes meat at the top of the list.

We often feel that we lose a part of our cultures when we go vegan, and we often hear this from our Latin American families, but I truly feel that going vegan has brought me closer to my culture and its traditions.  I’m not only honoring the animals and the Earth, but I’m going back to my roots, back to the earliest Nicaraguans who lived off the land and respected it in a way that is slowly dying a painful and unnatural death. When I try to explain this to other Nicaraguans it isn’t always easy, but I’m hopeful that one it won’t be so far-fetched.  I tell my family my friends and the occasional stranger about the history of Nicaraguan and Latin American food in the hopes that it plants the seed that will lead them to veganism or at least making more conscious choices. I hope that veganism in our culture won’t be viewed as outlandish, but as radical in all the right ways, and the foods we used to eat will be center stage at family events and celebrations. There was nothing wrong with us to begin and its time that we reclaim our stories, our histories, and our food.

Karla Vargas