There is a women’s cooperative in Leon, Nicaragua, dedicated to reviving and passing forward some dying indigenous history.
Specifically, they are working to preserve ancient recipes. First, they draw upon their collective knowledge of recipes, and then they teach each other. After that, they open their homes so that they can teach interested parties, often tourists.
Byron, a devoted cook, booked us a morning of learning from a woman who is part of this cooperative. Physically, he was almost acquiver with the anticipation. For him, to stand in someone’s kitchen in another country and learn what they do feels like a true Christmas.
Our lesson started when Dona Flor came to our hotel and picked us up. She spoke no English; we have limited Spanish.
With the “no worries” stroll of a Latin American, she led us to a nearby market, a crammed jumble of a place–as all good markets should be–the entrance to which we would never have noticed, had she not led us in.
At the first stall, Dona Flor bought cheese. In the traditional Nicaraguan breakfast, this cheese is fried. For the recipe she taught us, it was grated.
Next, she bought some peppers.
Do you see lemons?
No, you don’t. ‘Cause ain’t none.
Can Paco find a lemon? Paco cannot. Find none lemon.
Oh, you can look and look, Waldo, but you will never find even uno limon.
None lemons in hand, but plenty of other good stuff purchased, Dona Flor shepherded us onto a bus to her neighborhood. Not only was it properly rundown and creaky, central casting had been kind enough to send over a guy holding a live chicken.
Once we reached Dona Flor’s part of town, we again followed in her thrall. At one point, Byron wondered aloud, “How would I say ‘shady side of street’?” But then, with that “no worries” stroll of hers, Dona Flor naturally migrated shadeward.
When we got to her house, Dona Flor called out to her Mami to come open the gate. Dona Flor is 58; her husband died two years ago; she has two sons, one 28 and one 19. The 19-year-old is the father of her first grandchild. All of this, I learned during the bus ride. I don’t speak Spanish. In other words, World, go somewhere and don’t fret if you don’t speak the language. Just be ready to smile a lot and use huge gestures. Works for me.
Once inside, we were seated at the dining room table and given cold water, which may have saved Paco from an early death. Kid gets hot.
While we drank cold water, and Dona Flor bustled around in the kitchen, pulling out pans, prepping for us to enter, we listened to the sweet mewls and cries of her one-month-old grandbaby. I felt strongly that the baby wanted me to hold it. No one else seemed to speak Baby, though. They just thought she was crying.
LET THE COOKING COMMENCE!
The entree was a kind of stew called Indio Viejo (Old Man). Its base is a bunch of fresh masa diluted with water and beef stock. To start the dish, sautee some onions and peppers in oil. Then run out to the field and pluck some fresh masa off the nearest Masa Tree.
Dona Flor’s kitchen is looong. I love the industrial scale hanging from the ceiling. I also am enough of an animal that I enjoyed the complete lack of dish soap or a cloth or sponge as she washed up a few plates.
Remember the part about sauteeing onions and peppers? DUH.
The fresh masa came in a plastic sack; there were about five palm-sized balls that Dona Flor smooshed up with some paprika, for color, before adding crema and beef broth.
While the stew thickened, Dona Flor showed us how to make tosterones, which are twice-fried plantains. Can one ever fry a plantain too much? we mused, philosophically.
After the initial frying, the plantains come out of the oil, put under a piece of plastic cling film, and smashed with a drinking glass. Allegra’s massive upper body strength overwhelmed one or two of the weaker medallions.
Everyone took a turn at plantain smashing, for, as the old adage goes, “The family that smashes plantains together remains silent during long taxi rides together.”
This is where Paco was sitting while the rest of us shredded beef and smashed plantains. He had to drink more water. Were you paying attention before? KID GETS HOT.
I feel like we haven’t really stared enough at smashed plantains yet. So here.
After a second frying of the plantains, the tosterones were done. At that same time, the Indio Viejo stew was also done (shredded beef and grated cheese were added midway in the process). Why, yes, that is fresh papaya/orange juice you see! All of it was so fantastic that it kicked even Paco’s sweaty softness into recovery.
Once we’d finished eating and paid Dona Flor, she walked us back to the corner to catch the bus back to our part of the city. Once it arrived, she gave a good shout to the muchacho handling the money, telling him to be sure we got off near the university. Friends, I kissed her goodbye. I did.
I mean, the food was good and all, but you know what really restored Paco’s spirits?
And now we have this recipe, written in Dona Flor’s hand, recording a recipe used by her great-great-great-great-a-hundred-great-grandmothers. It is the best possible souvenir.