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A Taste of Nicaragua: Three Traditional Drinks

How to drink in Nicaragua.

In Nicaragua, drinks begin in powder form.
In Nicaragua, drinks begin in powder form.
Clarissa Wei

In the marketplaces of Nicaragua, drinks are condensed into powder and sold in plastic bags. At home, one adds sugar and water to taste. This DIY-approach is especially recommended because pre-mixed beverages purchased at any street vendor stand are almost always too sweet.

Nicaraguans love their sugar. Sugarcane, after all, is the largest agricultural industry in the country and makes up about four percent of the nation’s total GDP. Everyday drinks utilize popular crops like sugarcane, corn, cacao, and the seeds of the gourd-like jícaro fruit. It’s all rather simple: ingredients are roasted, boiled and ground into powder. Just add water.

Below, three traditional drinks to know, with recipes courtesy of various vendors in the Central Market (an open-air indoor bazaar where locals shop for everything from groceries to clothes) of the city of Leóna Spanish colonial town on Nicaragua's Western side.

Tiste

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This cacao-based beverage is traditionally consumed alongside a quesilloa simple cheese-filled corn tortilla topped with pickled onions and a touch of cream. Tiste is served, usually, in an elaborately carved jícaro cup (made from the dried fruit of the jícaro tree)a custom that dates back to pre-Hispanic times. The below recipe comes from market vendor Dalia Centemo, whose grandmother taught her everything she knows about Nica drinks. Expect a gritty texture with an earthy taste, courtesy of the cacao. Some folks will add a dash of clove for extra depth.

Ingredients:
1 pound raw corn kernels
1/2 pound cacao beans
dash of cinnamon
dash of ground clove (optional) 
3 1/2 cups water
sugar to taste

Toast corn and cacao beans, separately, for one hour. Grind the toasted mixture into a powder. Add a dash of cinnamon and optional cloves. Add water and sugar to taste. Stir to incorporate.

All photos by Clarissa Wei.

Chicha Maize

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Chicha maize is a colorful fermented purple-pink corn beverage, depending on which type of corn is used. The purple varieties incorporate purple corn kernels, meanwhile the pink version calls for white corn kernels supplemented with a dollop of raspberry extract. Both are essentially sweet corn juices with a subtle tinge of sourness. Below is the recipe for purple corn chicha maize, which has a more robust taste than its pink counterpart. These directions come from vendor Marlene Gallo, who has been making such concoctions for thirty plus years.

Ingredients:
2 pounds dried purple corn kernels
4 cups water
sugar to taste

Soak corn kernels in water for four days, changing the water after two days. After four days, drain water and let kernels dry for three days. Rinse kernels, then add to large pot, cover with water and boil for two hours. Drain and pat dry. Grind kernels into powder. Add powder to pot and pour in enough water to cover the powder. Boil for two hours until a paste consistency forms (see lead photo). Add water and sugar to taste. Stir to incorporate.

Semilla

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Gallo also supplied this recipe for semilla, a drink made from rice and the seeds of the  jícaro plant. Here, the rice shines through and the jícaro seeds add a natural tinge of sweetness. Semilla has a taste similar to horchata and is commonly spiked with milk.

Ingredients:
1 pound jícaro seeds
1/4 pound white rice
dash of cinnamon
4 cups water*
sugar to taste

Toast seeds over fire for half an hour. Toast rice for half an hour. Grind seeds and rice into fine powder. Add a dash of cinnamon. Combine with water and sugar to taste.

*Option: Replace 4 cups of water with 1 cup of water and three cups of milk for a richer drink.

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