Thursday, January 20, 2011

Foods of Honduras

Celebratory tilapia after making it safely home from our backpacking trip.

Ana and Pete savoring the chicken picnic.

Hernan after making baleadas for two hours straight.

By Andy

Every time I return from Central America, I go through a week or two after I come home where I eat rice and beans and tortillas as often as I can. I crave avocados and long for a real banana. It is as if my body wants to stay in the tropics for just a little longer. In honor of my lingering cravings and as the Wisconsin cold keeps me inside the house remembering my trip, I offer a report on the food of Honduras.

Bananas and Plantains. We ate bananas or plantains with just about every meal and often in between. Ripe plantains can be sliced thin and deep fried to make a crispy chip called a “tajada de plantano.” These are shelf-stable and can be sold in plastic bags to bus travelers or flavored and sold in foil packs like Doritos. Really ripe plantains, “maduros,” can be fried, baked or boiled and served soft and slightly mushy for breakfast with a little crème fraische. Somewhere in the middle in terms of ripeness, a plantain can be sliced round and then flattened to form a round a crisp quarter inch thick “toston,” which literally means 50-cent piece. Green bananas can also be fried as “tajadas.” These we ate like French fries with fried chicken or fish. Of course we also ate bananas the normal way. Is it me or do they taste better when they haven’t travelled 1000s of miles? One of the yummy treats in the fresh banana world is the “datil,” or finger banana, which is slightly larger than a man’s thumb and very flavorful.

Juice. Every day our hotel served a fresh juice, water and sugar mix called a “refresco natural.” This is ubiquitous in Honduran restaurants and shops, the only question is what kind of refresco natural they will have. We were offered “mora” (like a blackberry), hibiscus flower, passion fruit, pineapple, papaya, orange, cantaloupe, watermelon, lime, naranjia (a weed in the tomato family but tastes like an orange – sort of), horchata, mango (from frozen mangos because sadly they were not in season), and something called a “nance,” which is like a mushy yellow cherry-like fruit. People in Comayagua are under no delusions that their tap water is drinkable, so all restaurants use bottled water to prepare beverages and ice. This makes me happy because I could drink the refrescos naturales all day with confidence. One variation on the fruit juices was the homemade wine made by our host in Rio Negro, Avilio. He makes a big batch from sugar and whatever fruit is available and buries it for a few weeks in a clay vessel to ferment, followed by bottling in used rum bottles. One night we put away six bottles around Avilio’s big homemade table. Smooth.

Beans and Tortillas. If a Honduran eats a meal that does not include red beans and tortillas, it is as if he or she has not really eaten. Every meal includes a small stack of corn tortillas. We found the best tortillas in the mountain communities where they raise and grind their own corn. These tortillas are a little thicker and are just better tasting than the city tortillas, which are often pressed thin by machines in the tortillerias or made from MASECA commercial mix. An El Salvadoran variation on the tortilla that has become street food all over Honduras is the “pupusa,” which is corn tortilla dough surrounding a melty white cheese and then fried in front of you on a very hot griddle. On the road home from the airport, we stopped and drank some sweetened corn gruel with cinnamon called “atol,” which for Deb was the food high point of the trip – it did hit the spot. Beans come in many variations, but are necessary on every plate for breakfast, lunch and dinner. You can find them boiled, fried whole, mixed with rice and spices, liquefied, liquefied and then fried, and I’m sure I missed some variation. Our friend Jauna invited Zac and I to her house for some traditional Honduran food and served us “catrachas,” fried tortillas smeared with thick bean paste and topped with a crumbly white cheese. We could have eaten those all night. Probably the most uniquely Honduran street food is something called a “baleada.” A baleada is a fresh hot flour tortilla smeared with liquefied beans, topped with thick crème fraische and folded in half. From there you can get variations that include fresh avocado slices, fried eggs, crumbly cheese, and different types of meat. Our friend Hernan made awesome baleadas for us for the good-bye party. I ate 5. When we were waiting for Deb and Pete in the airport, we saw a Honduran arriving from Miami and his family handed him a baleada as if to say “you are home.” 

It is hard to tell how much meat normal Hondurans eat, because our special circumstances as visitors means that we are constantly being offered meat to eat. We are also eating in restaurants quite often, which are meat heavy. I didn’t mind. On New Year’s Eve, Priscila made a baked chicken that had been baked in something called “naranja agria,” a special type of orange which people use only for cooking. Then on New Year’s we had a chance to eat “nacatamales,” which are spiced pork tucked inside of a corn dough and cooked in a banana leaf. Special treat. On the day we made bocashi fertilizer at Hector’s farm, Adalid’s family made something called “carne asada,” chunky grilled beef strips. The meat was tender and pleasantly charred over a charcoal fire. We had salted strips of beef up on the mountain in El Sute – they lack refrigeration, but the reconstituted beef can be intensely flavorful, like thick beef jerky. Tilapia can be found everywhere, the result of ever-increasing fish farming in the Comayagua valley. On the day we returned from the hiking trip on the mountain, we all headed to a place right next to a fish pond for fried tilapia and green banana tajadas. Likewise chicken is affordable and available in innumerable variations. The most memorable for me was the rotisserie chickens we brought with us for a picnic on the way up to Rio Negro. A close second was the chicken at “Pollolandia” in La Entrada on the way to Copan.

A special mention must be made of Betilia, who made all of our meals in Rio Negro. She cooks incredible food over a wood-fired stove. There is a large variety of vegetables (including our beloved pataste/chayote), with flavored rice, beans, special roasted meats, and always the best tortillas and refrescos naturales. We were WELL taken care of! Betilia’s coffee wins the award for the best I had in Honduras, but really since we were hanging out with coffee farmers the whole time, we were never far from a good cup of coffee. In fact the comment from one of our travelers was that if we sat down anywhere for long enough, someone would inevitably hand us a cup of coffee. Just watch out if you don’t like pre-sweetened coffee.

A second special mention must be made of the food on our backpacking trip. On the fifth day we lunched on all the best of the leftover lunch items. We had flour tortillas, with bean paste, avocados, crumbly white cheese, Spam, and peanut butter, in various mouth watering combinations.  Yes Spam!

Thanks for reading and now it is time for lunch.

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