HAVANA TIMES – La Lupa interviewed Sandra Centeno an exiled Nicaraguan in Mexico who has become an expert on the cuisine of her native land.
Who is Sandra Centeno?
Sandra: I’m a Nicaraguan, from Matagalpa to be exact, and my last 7 years have been dedicated to professional cooking. I have a son who’s now 13 – terrible how time flies! I’m currently living in Mexico, where I began to work towards becoming a professional chef. I came here to study and to work in the larger restaurants.
In Managua, I started a café called “Mara-Mara” with Irene, a very good friend. People knew the taste of our food at Mara-Mara, but this closed due to the crisis of April 2018 in Nicaragua, so I was left kind of “orphaned” from cooking. It wasn’t until now, in Mexico, that I reencountered Nicaraguan cooking and fell in love with it again. Interestingly, this all happened just now when I’m far away.
My newly rediscovered love of Nicaraguan cooking is because I’m so close to Mexican food. I’m impressed at seeing the great pride Mexicans take in their cuisine: the home cooking, the grandmothers’ recipes. It’s delicious food and involves very elaborate preparation. I began to think about that. What things, or what procedures could we apply to Nicaraguan cuisine? The truth is it’s not that easy.
A few years ago, I had the perception that Nicaraguan food was simpler, humbler, but I’ve realized that, no, it’s not. Making nacatamales [traditional Nicaraguan tamales wrapped in banana leaves and filled with rice, potatoes, meat and other condiments] is super laborious. You need manual skills to wrap them, and the preparation of the dough and all the ingredients is almost like a ritual. Then there are the soups, which are not at all simple.
How has COVID-19 affected you in Mexico?
COVID is a huge topic, because this is a monster of a country and you can imagine the difficult logistics. Mexico City is enormous, impressive, and its people are pretty crazy, but during the quarantine, which the government called “period of healthy distancing”, it was crazy to see the streets empty. I’ve been living here for almost two years, and I’d never seen it empty. It was sad.
For those of us who work in the restaurant industry, it was a huge blow because all of the restaurants closed. Some offered takeout or delivery only. I was working in a restaurant that closed during the emergency, and a whole bunch of us were left without work.
I studied in a school that focused on social gastronomy, and by good luck, that school is now the site of a project. We’re making 230 meals a day for medical personnel and for the families of patients in two Mexico City hospitals. They invited me to participate in that project. We’re practically preparing Mexican home cooking for them, and it’s been a really incredible experience. Curiously, unlike what happened to a lot of people, I have work “thanks to” COVID-19. Now Mexico is entering a stage that they call “the new reality”.
What strategies have you used to calm the nostalgia of leaving Nicaragua?
My love for Nicaraguan cooking has been reignited here in Mexico, and that’s been one of my strategies to soothe that feeling. Then there are video calls with the family and also therapy. Along this path of reencountering our Nicaraguan cooking, it’s been very important to consult my family for the recipes, ask my mother: “What should I put in the dumpling mix for the cheese soup?” Or, “How do I wrap the nacatamales so that they don’t open on me? This has also created another tie with my mother. That’s very healing, because we can see each other in a different light. Now we’re more like partners, and we don’t criticize each other about anything. I ask her for advice, she tells me, and then she tells me what she’s cooking, and we miss each other.
How much influence has Nicaraguan cuisine had on your life as an emigrant?
Apart from whether or not you’re a political exile, food and cooking is something very family-based and emotional. Who was the first person who fed you? Ask me that, and I’ll answer “I remember it was my mother.”
It’s exactly that way for everyone. Even though you don’t remember, your mother usually breast-fed you; so, imagine, in that way it’s tied to our earliest mother-child experiences. That’s why it plays such an important role in our lives when we go to other countries. I can’t imagine living in Europe, where you know how hard it is to get corn flour. Here, I don’t worry about that, because Mexico is all about corn. Their food is based on beans, chilis, and corn; that is, many of their ingredients greatly resemble those of Nicaraguan cooking.
There are other things that are different, because we’re a more tropical country. A bitter orange here costs 8 pesos, which would be 12 cordobas. [US 35 cents]. Can you imagine paying 12 cordobas for one? Then, there are some other things: it was a whole rigamarole finding some plantain leaves that weren’t too expensive for wrapping the nacatamales. When you’re a migrant, you have to start all over again from scratch, and begin to locate those places where you can find red beans, yucca, plantains. Geographically, you have to figure out where you can find those things most practically.
For example, in the first apartment I had when I arrived, I only had one knife, one pot and a frying pan. From my well-equipped kitchen in Managua, I practically went to having nothing. So, it means charging your battery in everything, and later to go find out where you can obtain ingredients. In that way, you begin to get situated.
I invite people to open their mind and their palate to the local cuisine, because it’s also important to try it, since it’s part of the process of adaptation. In addition, eating locally is very important, since if we’re always looking for a place to buy yucca, it’s going to end up very expensive, and the red beans are also expensive. We shouldn’t close ourselves in so much with our Nicaraguan food. Yes, you feel nostalgic, but you have to try other things. Sometimes we get into comparing the tortillas, or the red beans, but it’s not a matter of that.
How much influence do you think we migrants have in the culinary diversity of a new country?
How we live and how we view the culinary experience has a lot of influence, but also how it changes our perception. It’s not only looking for the ingredients. I feel that as we go along, we change our strategy. For example, in my case, cooking has helped me work and earn a living, but in general we migrants change the culinary scene.
For example: here where I live, they don’t traditionally cultivate yucca or plantains. The places where you can obtain these are the little markets where there are immigrants: people from Columbia, Venezuela, and that’s how we’re transforming what they call the culinary landscape.
In addition, there are places where they let you try out your proposals for dishes. In one place where I worked, I made gallo pinto (the Nicaraguan style rice and beans). In the neighborhood where I live, there are a lot of Venezuelans and you find street stalls for arepas. That’s how, effectively, things change, and we migrants do influence those things.
The contribution of migrants to the food culture of the countries where they go is in direct proportion to the quantity of migrants in each site. Here, we see a large quantity of Venezuelans outside of their country, and their influence is more evident. In the case of Nicaraguan food, you can see the strong influence in Costa Rica.
I know Costa Ricans that now eat our native Indio Viejo [thick stew made with corn and meat] or who love to eat our bunuelos [fritters]. If you’re in a country like Spain or the US and they invite you to a pot luck – if you have plantains, what will you bring? It’s a sure bet that you’re going to bring tostones (thick plantain chips]. At a workmate’s birthday party, she asked me to bring tostones, and it was really great.
Does maintaining roots through food or our way of cooking help keep alive our national identity?
It’s not necessary to resort to nationalism. We need to open our palates and our minds to try new things and adopt them. I believe that we can do that, and that the one doesn’t take away the other. Being proud of my native cuisine doesn’t mean scorning another type of gastronomy. Eating the way they eat in Mexico, in my case, doesn’t take away from my ability to enjoy another type of food, from Nicaragua or from anywhere else.
I feel that we sometimes fall into unnecessary competition. No cuisine has anything to envy in another. In Costa Rica, they put cilantro andLizano Sauce on their gallo pinto; that’s their form of rice and beans, and ours is different. The Honduran style is different and all over Latin America we eat rice and beans. We close ourselves off too much. We should open our minds and palates more in order not to block ourselves off from new things.