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I’ve been to Philadelphia, but I’ve never chowed down on a cheesesteak. I’ve visited Chicago with a pizza aficionado, yet I’ve never dug into a deep dish. After six years of living in NYC, I can honestly say that I’ve never been to Katz’s and the only bagel I can remember eating was a pumpernickel flagel in the Hamptons. Even when I travel abroad, I’m not the traveler who has to taste the destination’s signature dish in order to leave fulfilled. Still, when I was in Nicaragua earlier this year, I couldn’t help but become fascinated by their signature dish—the nacatamal.
A pillow of mysterious filling wrapped and tied with a bow, a nacatamal is best described as a present that you’re not sure you want on your plate. It should taste delicious when you consider the time and effort that go into preparing it. This dish is a two-day family affair that usually starts on Saturday with a trip to the market and ends on Sunday with the family gathered around for breakfast. That’s right, the nacatamal is usually eaten for breakfast. Unlike the Mexican tamales that Americans are most familiar with, nacatamales are wrapped in banana or plantain leaves instead of cornhusks. They’re also super-sized; a nacatamal is an entire meal for one person.
While in Nicaragua, I got to watch a professional chef prepare a nacatamal. I first met Chef Emilio when he was a student in the English class that I was teaching. When I learned he was a chef, I had to ask if he would let me watch him prepare this mysterious meal. Mysterious, because I am still not sure what goes into the filling. It’s not like pizza toppings where you can easily pick out the ingredients. Although he hooked me up with a copy of his nacatamal recipe, with my lacking Spanish skills things get lost in translation, and I can’t quite figure out the whats and how much of them to add. The toughest part though is finding the whats in the U.S., especially the masa and plantain leaves. I guess I’ll just have to go back to Nicaragua the next time I’m craving a nacatamal. If I had more frequent flier miles I would also fly to Naples next time I’m craving pizza. Unfortunately, since most of my miles expired last month, the best I can do is Domino’s.
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