Foods Of South Florida Christmas: A Nicaraguan Feast

Dec 23, 2014

For the rest of this year, we're bringing you holiday scenes from South Florida homes during the holidays. The snippets of international culture are little homages to our hometowns' diverse ways of celebrating the end of another year and all the holidays that heralds.

The Mejias eat nacatamales on Christmas.
Credit Leticia de Mello Bueno / WLRN

"Lo que se aprende bien no hay necesidad de escribirlo.”

“There’s no need to write down what is learned well.” That was the phrase Maria Mejia uttered to dismiss her family when they insisted she write down her recipes.

“She had an amazing memory,” says Ramon Mejia, Jr., Maria’s grandson. His family owns Madroño Restaurant in the city of Sweetwater in Miami-Dade County. They immigrated from Nicaragua in 1986.

The family spends the holidays preparing Nicaraguan heritage dishes like gallina rellena (stuffed hen) and nacatamales, all based on Abuela Maria’s recipes. Before settling into their own Christmas feast, the Mejias cook for their community.

Gallina rellena is the centerpiece of the Nicaraguan holiday table. There are many methods of preparation for the dish. The way Abuela Maria made it is known as a relleno de vegetales, or vegetable stuffing. It’s a sauteed mixture of pork, bread crumbs, chayote squash, cola, sour oranges, Worcestershire sauce and other spices.

With immigration and the passing of time, traditions are lost, gained, adopted, created. But the Mejias say the only complaint you might hear among Nicaraguan-Americans is that hens in the States aren’t gamey enough. And even that might be remedied with free-range game options.

What has stayed the same throughout generations, however, is the gathering around the table, swapping stories, feeding each other and eating together.

On Christmas morning, Nicaraguans share nacatamales over coffee, after three days of preparing them. The word “nacatamales” is a compound nahuatl word for “wrapped meat.”

The meat -- pork -- is wrapped in earthy corn cakes, themselves wrapped in green banana leaves. The corn base is “nixtamalized.” That means the hard-shelled corn is soaked overnight in water mixed with wood ashes or lime, to improve its nutritional value. This softens the skin of the corn, and makes it more easily digested.

Once wrapped and ready, the nacatamales are pressure-cooked. Then they’re unwrapped, little sweet, sour, briny and savory presents of rice, capers, onions, tomatoes, peppers.

Their preparation will sure vary throughout households. But Abuela Maria’s descendants were paying close attention when she cooked and disclosed her oral recipes. So at the Mejias’ Madroño Restaurant, they ensure the continuity of their Nicaraguan traditions through her dishes.