Thursday, March 29, 2012

Rice and Beans, Yes Please: The Cuisine of Alternate Spring Break Nicaragua

Penn students are constantly fraught with confusion. Decisions lurk around every corner. A simple act such as buying lunch becomes a dilemma. Healthy or not? Dining hall or real money? Can I bursar this? Do I want to be late for class? How many cups of coffee are advisable at this moment? Why are they out of feta cheese? Is the Sweetgreen fro-yo machine working again?

Over spring break, however, I made none of these decisions. I surrendered control over my meals and headed to Nicaragua for Hillel's Alternate Spring Break. I spent a week in the San Juan del Sur region of Nicaragua, a coastal region in southern Nicaragua, constructing a school and learning about Servicios Medicos Comunales. Penn Hillel organized the eye-opening trip. Kosher meat seems to be nonexistent in Nicaragua so our diet was vegetarian. For seven days, I ate rice and beans at every meal. The beans were black. The rice was white. The plates were plastic. We were the dishwashers. The setting was indoors or outdoors, depending on the time of day. The main source of variety came from the combination. Sometimes the elements were premixed, giving you a set ratio. Other times, the components were separate, able to be combined at will. Little extras added freshness and texture. We often had sides of sliced tomatoes and beets and fresh scrambled eggs for breakfast. The freshness of the vegetables is not to be matched anywhere at Penn. On several occasions, potatoes and pasta made appearances, but rice and beans ran the show.

On my first night in Nicaragua I entered the kitchen to see if the staff needed help preparing dinner. I found myself slicing cucumbers in a tiny kitchen, chattering with Nicaraguan women about national dishes and cooking methods. The women told of national dishes based around pork and corn, including a delicious sounding tamale that I would love to try (removed from the auspices of Hillel, of course). The cultural exchange went both ways, as we celebrated two Jewish holidays during our trip: Purim and Shabbat. For Purim, we made hamantashen, the triangular cookies that commemorate the hat shape of Haman, the holiday’s villain that tried to kill all the Jews. I grew up making fillings of chocolate, apricot and peanut butter chips. In Nicaragua, we used plantain and pineapple, with mixed results. They got a tad bit burnt but the effort was notable. One of the culinary highlights of the trip came on Friday, when we made challah, the braided bread eaten at the Sabbath. With yeast brought all the way from Philadelphia and our leader Debbie’s challah expertise, we managed to knead dough, let it rise and braid six challot. They baked to a golden brown and were rationed to last through the day long Shabbat. To say the challah was well received is an understatement.

Another highlight of the food was the fruit. From my first bite in the country, a slice of a watermelon on the ride from the airport, I realized the fruit was special. Mornings of pushing wheelbarrows up a very steep hill were punctuated with fruit breaks. The sight of a slice of pineapple or watermelon was most anticipated. For the uninitiated, Nicaraguan fruit is really good (and local!). The pineapple is pale and sweet, with only a hint of starch. We had fresh juice at every meal, in flavors from mango to pineapple to passion fruit. The brown bananas at Starbucks hardly look appealing now.

Although we often forget it, food is fuel. Never before have I so keenly felt that food was so crucial to my energy level. I knew I needed the protein from the beans to get through an afternoon of hammering nails. I knew the sugar and vitamins of the fruit would help me haul water up a hill until lunch. I knew that my dinner would help my sore muscles recover as I slept.  An ice cream cone on a trip to town may have been the only food that had no direct purpose, besides a chance to explore the region and spend some Nicaraguan cordobas. I haven’t eaten rice and beans since returning from Nicaragua, and am sometimes overwhelmed by the choices we have at every meal. I need to wait a little while to reintroduce those foods into my diet. The concept, however, of appreciating even the simplest morsel of food and the context and company in which you eat it, will stay with me for meals to come. A week without electronics, meat, hot water, or food produced outside of a narrow region is akin to a jolt. It wakes you up from your funk, sheds you of your collegiate ennui and spits you back into the real world with thoughts racing through your mind, hungrier than ever.

Welcome to Nicaragua. Here's the best watermelon ever.


  1. I envy your Nicaraguan experience- Mitu

  2. nice opinion.. thanks for sharing...



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