We arrived sweaty and hopeful at La Siesta Perdida in Leon for our cooking course – sweaty, thanks to a ten-minute walk through the unforgiving 9am heat; and hopeful, since the course had already been rescheduled once the day before. We stepped through the still-closed hostel doors and the bar reeked of that unmistakable morning-after party smell. A Dutch girl sitting behind the bar jumped up and introduced herself as our guide for the day.
Not exactly who we had expected to teach us to prepare a traditional Nicaraguan dish, our looks turned confused, before she explained she would accompany us to the market, help us pick up the necessary ingredients and together we head over to Doña Ana’s house, where the cooking course would take place.
By 930am, Leon’s market is always buzzing. Fruit and vegetable sellers interrupt gossip sessions to shout prices and deals to passersby who bargain their way along the rows of stands. The two of us feel right at home shopping in Central American markets, and were excited when handed a list of ingredients and set off to hunt out all the ingredients for Indio Viejo, or ‘Old Indian’, a traditional Nicaraguan dish (though normally cooked with meat, we were making a special vegetarian version).
Despite being fluent in Spanish, there were several items we did not know, like achiote, a red powder that both flavors and colors soups and stews. We chatted more than usual to the vendors, learning about new spices. We were introduced to a national drink, a pink milky corn-based drink called Chicha, sampled some very salty cubes of fried cheese and were shocked to discover the dubious culinary specialty of freshly prepared lizards. Of these, thankfully only the achiote was on our list, along with fresh tomatoes, peppers, plantains, oranges, onions, corn meal, salt and oil.
Hands full with small plastic bags, we joined 20 locals in the back of a pick up truck, the local public transportation, and held on for dear life as we lurched forward and slammed on the brakes across town to Subtiava, the indigenous area of Leon. Although it was fascinating to see this part of town where few tourists visit, this neighborhood was not quite what we pictured when we signed up. This was our first cooking class ever, and we had both always imagined standing behind a large counter with stainless steel knives and large pots and pans sizzling and boiling away on a fancy electric stove. Perhaps we had been picturing the course in Italy, not in Nicaragua.
We hopped off the still moving truck, walked ten minutes, turned into a dirt yard, walked past a wooden ring used for cock fighting and were greeted by Doña Ana, who showed us where we could set down the ingredients in the outdoor kitchen next to her tiny tin house. Here we would prepare the ingredients, and the cooking itself was to be done in a giant steel pot on an open flame out in the yard.
But first we were led three houses up the dirt road to prepare our own tortillas to accompany the dish. The four women who work here each make over 2,000 tortillas per day at this mini tortilla factory – some for the neighbors, a few restaurants, but mostly enough for the hospital in town. The women were too busy flattening, patting, twisting and flipping tortillas (and singing along to evangelical gospel music between giggly gossip sessions) to do more than quickly show us the ropes.
Tortillas were surprisingly difficult to make, and the two of us must have looked pretty silly saddled up to the table making one tortilla every five minutes. After we churned out ten, we paid the ladies and went back to make lunch.
Doña Ana couldn’t have been a better teacher, and while we prepared the Indio Viejo, we learned all about her husband, her children, the grandchildren, and many of the neighbors as well, played with the cats, laughed at the roosters and ooh-ed and aw-ed over the week old puppies in the back yard.
The dish itself is actually a breeze to make, similar to a nice, thick stew, and as soon as it was ready, we sat down with Doña Ana and her daughter, who told us more stories as we stuffed ourselves silly with our vegetarian version of this classic Nica dish.
Although cooking this old Indian wasn’t exactly the type of cooking class we may have had in mind, the entire experience went way beyond preparing a recipe. The insight into the Nicaraguan way of life was priceless, from meeting the tortilla makers to seeing inside Dona Ana’s very simple two-room house, meeting her family and hearing all the neighborhood gossip. It was an unforgettable cultural experience which we can highly recommend to anyone. Speaking Spanish is a definite advantage, and this is definitely the perfect way to practice your skills as well.
This tour was available through Nicasi Tours at La Siesta Perdida. The company focuses on intercultural experiences rather than adventure tours.
How to Cook an Old Indian
(for the veggie version, just leave out the meat)
Ingredients for four people
3 yellow plantains
Tomatoes to taste
Onions to taste
2 tsp of achiote paste (similar to paprika)
Orange juice to taste
¼ liter of vegetable oil
1 bunch of peppermint
Tortilla dough (enough for 10 tortillas)
500 gr of beef
If making a non-vegetarian version, cook the meat with salt until it softens. In the meantime, cut the veggies into long slices and plantains in cubes. Mix two liters of water with the tortilla dough and achiote and mix until there are no lumps. Mix in salt and orange juice. Add beef and vegetables into the pot and place pot over a high flame. Stir often while mixture boils – lumps will occur if you don’t stir. To thicken, add more dough. For a more colorful dish, add more achiote.