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Passport to Nicaragua

1 Oct

As an anthropology major during my undergrad, I took a course on Nationalism and Ethnicity and much to my delight, identity creation through food was a theme we explored during the term. Provocative questions arise in anthropological discourse such as: what are the symbolic aspects of food for a certain community, how do people situate themselves within different culture groups depending upon their dietary practices and how can food create boundaries between different ethnic groups? Undoubtedly, we can think of many examples in our daily lives where food unobtrusively plays a role in shaping and maintaining group identity and creating stereotypes of ‘other’ ethnic and religious groups.

I have been very interested in exploring questions such as these. As a project for this course, I undertook my own spin on the concept of “ethnographic fieldwork” by penning my friend Jose’s narrative of what can essentially be termed a food biography. Although, this conversation took place 3 years ago, it has inspired me to continue to learn more about the relationship between food, culture and identity through the personal life histories of my friends in various cities who have over the years graciously shared their food memories, recipes, and cuisines.

From being lost in translation in Italy, to having cars towed away in front of stripclubs in L.A (!!), Jose and I have certainly come a long way. Thank you for sharing your story!

Born and brought up in Managua, Nicaragua, Jose moved to Los Angeles, USA with his family in 2001 at the age of 15. Both his parents consider themselves to be Nicaraguan although his father’s family is originally from The Cayman Islands (located in the Western Caribbean Sea) and have been living in Nicaragua for the past three generations. 

He vividly recalls that during the years that the family lived in Managua, a typical daily meal in their household would consist of the popular traditional dish called gallo pinto (combination of rice and red beans traditional to Nicaragua and Costa Rica), a meat dish made of either beef or chicken and occasionally pork, and bastimento. The presence of bastimento (loosely translated as a side dish or accompaniment) such as tortillas or fried and boiled plantains was considered essential at every meal.

The Sunday morning breakfast was a significant meal in the family. This was a time for the family to eat together and reflect upon the week’s happenings since both his parents worked full-time. The breakfast would consist of nacatamales, café con leche, tortillas and leche agria. Nacatamales are a typical Nicaraguan dish eaten by people regardless of socio-economic status. They are prepared by using dried corn dough as a base for a topping of meat, vegetables, rice, olives etc which is then wrapped in banana leaves and cooked by the steam of boiling water. Leche agria is curdled milk that is a Nicaraguan specialty, infact Nicaraguans are often mocked by other Latin Americans for consuming such a variety of milk.

Christmas is particularly momentous in terms of food. A typical Christmas meal in Jose’s family when he lived in Nicaragua was rather elaborate and the preparations would start in the morning and culminate in the form of a delicious dinner in the evening. All members of his family contributed in cooking the meal in some manner. His father’s speciality was making bon, a type of bread that is a specialty of the people from the Atlantic Coast. It’s a family recipe that contains coconut milk, dry fruit, cinnamon and cloves. Another important dish eaten during Christmas is pati, which is a semi-circular stuffed pastry with a grounded beef filling. His mother cooked a dish called ‘gallina rellena,’ that is essentially roasted chicken stuffed with vegetables and apples and they would drink ensalada de fruta, a mixed fruit drink prepared by boiling different natural fruit juices together. His maternal grandmother’s specialty was making canelones, very thick spaghetti-like pasta, which is stuffed with chicken, cheese and a special sauce. His grandmother also prepared a dish called Maduro en Gloria made of ripe plantain baked with cheese, cinnamon stick, sugar and a thick sauce. 

Given the gastronomical ambience that Jose seemed to be accustomed to in Nicaragua, the family experienced a transformation in their food practices after moving to Los Angeles. When his family moved to L.A in 2001, he recalls that one of their first outings was to McDonalds. He remarked, “for us it was a symbol of American fast food which we had never had the opportunity to taste in Nicaragua.” According to him, the meals that they eat at home haven’t changed in their content significantly since it is relatively easy to find tortillas, plantains, beans etc in Los Angeles although the flavour is not exactly the same as it would be in Nicaragua. However their Sunday morning breakfast routine is no longer the same as it used to be since it is nearly impossible to find nacatamales in the U.S. Their breakfast now includes typically American breakfast food items such as pancakes, varieties of cereal, eggs etc in addition to tortillas and café con leche. His father still makes bon at Christmas but it does not have the same flavour as it did in Managua since all the ingredients are not readily available in the U.S. When Jose’s family moved to the U.S they still continued to cook Nicaraguan food at home while also adapting to certain American food practices over time such as changing the composition of the ritual Sunday Breakfasts. This reflects how they have held on to their traditional food as a symbolic display of their national identity while at the same time being subject to the processes of acculturation and hybridisation to some degree.

Although Jose’s paternal side of the family migrated from The Cayman Islands several generations ago, the culinary traditions of that region still continue to be reflected in their usage of typical Caribbean food items such as coconut milk and plantains over other typical (typical in a Latin American context) ingredients used by his maternal side of the family such as tortillas, maize and corn. Jose has only visited the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua once and therefore has little personal affinity with the region but for him the fact that his father cooks dishes with a distinctive Atlantic Coast flavour has contributed in creating a linkage with those roots till today.

Jose who has inherited his father’s love for cooking is fond of cooking for his friends occasionally (I stand testament to that!). Surprisingly, he usually prepares enchiladas and burritos that are trademark Mexican dishes. He claims that not all Latin American countries have a uniform cuisine that can be considered representative of a Latin American identity. Most certainly, enchiladas, burritos and tacos are Mexican dishes and not Nicaraguan and do not represent the country in any way but he can relate to them and relish them more than Chicken Tikka Masala or Spaghetti Bolognese. When he cooks these dishes he wants his friends to get a flavour for the region that he comes from if not specifically the country that I come from.”

His father’s active engagement in the kitchen especially on holidays such as Christmas evoked a sense of curiosity and led me to question whether it was common for men in Nicaraguan society to assume such responsibilities. According to Alejandro, it is not common for men to be very involved in domestic tasks as those are seen as being a woman’s domain but in his household it was never seen as being odd that his father would occasionally cook and infact not just cook but cook rather well.

When he talked fondly about his grandmother’s cooking and the recipes that his father inherited from her I was motivated to question the symbolical position of grandparents as representing continuity with the past. In the movie, A Touch of Spice where the grandfather is central to the development of protagonist Fanis’s fascination with spices and food in general he serves as a link to his past and his childhood life. In a similar way, for Jose the grandmother symbolizes the vital link to his Caribbean heritage.

R

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