How the Nacatamal Became Nicaragua's National Dish 

Nacatamal and patacones in Nicaragua
Nacatamal and patacones in Nicaragua | © Arturo Sotillo / Flickr
Photo of Jack Guy
24 April 2018

Nacatamals are a kind of tamal, the traditional Mesoamerican corn dough dish that remains popular in many Latin American countries. Here’s your need-to-know guide.

A traditional Nicaraguan nacatamal and coffee | © Russell Maddicks / Flickr

What makes a nacatamal so special?

The corn dough is mixed with different ingredients in different countries, before being wrapped in a corn husk or banana leaf and boiled. In Nicaragua and Honduras, banana leaves are used to make nacatamales, with pork the most common ingredient.

However it is Nicaragua that shows the biggest attachment to nacatamales as a national dish. Since colonial times nacatamales have usually been served at weekends, when there was more time to prepare them on a Saturday, and they could be saved to avoid cooking on Sundays.

Market day in Nicaragua | © Henderson Hills / Flickr

A sentimental attachment

To this day you will see nacatamales served for Sunday brunch with bread and coffee. They are a regular fixture on special occasions, and friends and family are often invited round to share them.

This connection to special events likely explains the widespread love of nacatamales. While the classic recipe calls for pork and chili, you can ask for yours without if you can’t eat pork for religious reasons or you have a sensitive stomach.

Barbecued beef is popular in Nicaragua | © Russell Maddicks / Flickr

Look our for the dish on your travels

Make sure you try one on your next trip to Nicaragua, whether you’re in San Juan del Sur or Leon. You will also find nacatamales in places where lots of Nicaraguan migrants live, such as the US city of Miami or parts of Costa Rica.

When the weekend rolls around, find a Nicaraguan nacatamal, a couple of fresh tortillas and a cup of coffee to start your day the right way. Later on, try other Nicaraguan dishes such as barbecued beef, or vaho, a mixture of meat and vegetables wrapped in banana leaves and cooked underground, as well as vigorón, a mixture of yuca, pork scratchings and cabbage that is supposed to give you a burst of energy.

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