LITTLE CORN ISLAND, Nicaragua — The batch of soup in the giant black pot looked like a witch’s brew, which probably isn’t a good association to make in Nicaragua. Politics in this country have been so dangerous you needed a scorecard to keep track of the good guys and bad guys, their switching allegiances and the foreign interests that supported them.
But Nicaragua, the second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, has come out of the cold age of revolution to open up a whole new world of travel for those tired of Central America’s usual gallo pinto trail (the standard beans-and-rice dish of the region).
This is why I was on Little Corn Island, a gorgeous speck of an isle in the Caribbean, staring into the murky depths of a soup of unknown origin. The pot of soup looked like a murder scene. Bones and long, round objects stuck up from a yellowish broth like mangled limbs in a brackish swamp.
Chunks of fresh kingfish caught that day surfaced as I explored with a spoon.
In Nicaragua, this is called rundown soup, named for how anything they have lying around is "run down" into a stew. Served in bowls big enough to train scuba divers, rundown soup will fill you up until your next vacation.
Mixed with coconut milk, margarine, plantains and onion, it’s a tasty, hearty stew if you can ignore the long hunks of a vile plant called cassava, the taste of which was never explained by Latin American explorers from the past or by Latin Americans in the present.
Considering the setting, I got the impression Robinson Crusoe may have had the same meal. My dining experience came in an open-air bamboo shelter with a sandy floor just 60 feet from the warm, gentle surf of the Caribbean.
The Corn Islands are where rustic paradise meets modern convenience. You have to look hard to find Mari’s restaurant on Big Corn Island, Little Corn’s big brother to the south.
The crude sign on her stately white wood house looks like something a hitchhiker would hold. But many Nicaraguans on the Caribbean sell meals out of their homes. It’s the island way, mon. After all, here they consider themselves Caribbean more than Nicaraguan. English, not Spanish, is their first language.
That’s why I sat and conversed on Mari’s front porch surrounded by bougainvilleas, azaleas and hibiscuses with the Caribbean Sea just across the street.
As the sun set and the shadows stretched across the sand, Mari’s daughter brought me two 4-ounce lobsters smothered in garlic sauce. Good luck finding a better atmosphere at a five-star restaurant on Martinique. And if you find one that serves lobster in garlic sauce for the $10 I paid, you’re probably a relative.
One habit I always keep when I eat on the road (it doesn’t matter if it’s Nicaragua or Nebraska): Ask the locals where they eat. A cab driver and my hotel clerk on Big Corn led me to Fisher’s Cave, a two-story restaurant overlooking the small harbor where fishing boats bob up and down on the sea.
On a postcard-perfect 80-degree evening in the middle of January, I sat near a local family of four speaking in an odd patois of Caribbean pidgin English and a local guide with long, beaded hair.
I ordered a fried fish filet that nearly covered my plate. Lightly breaded, it came with a pink sauce of mayonnaise and what the young waitress curiously called "something red." For about $6.50, the light yellowtail was priced about half of what it tasted like.
You don’t necessarily come to Nicaragua for the seafood, however. The street food is terrific if, occasionally, dangerous.
Managua is now considered one of the safer capitals in Central America, which is like being one of the safer cities in Afghanistan.
However, the street stalls around the corner from my $15-a-night hotel in Managua’s ghetto were safe. At about 11 p.m. an old woman in even older glasses and a leopard-skin blouse stood behind glass cases holding local dishes in various forms.
Black rice cakes that looked just like hockey pucks were piled next to big triangle enchiladas fried to a golden brown. I bit into a piping-hot mixture of rice and chicken that probably wouldn’t make Gordon Ramsay swoon but tasted perfect after a long night sampling Nicaragua’s exquisite Flora de Cana rum.
No one here talks of revolution anymore. In Nicaragua, soup is on.