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The best Central American dishes to have during the holidays

The best Central American dishes to have during the holidays

Forget the turkey: these are some of the best holiday dishes in Central America.

To most of us in Central America, the holidays mean two things: food and family. Our unique blend of ancient and modern cultures have given rise to a mouthwatering array of flavorful dishes. And we all know that they are best enjoyed with the ones we love.

From the moment we wake up until the clock strikes six, many of our families are in the kitchen making everything from tamales and empanadas to pozole, buñuelos, and ponche.

This rich mix of cultural influences has resulted in a unique combination of ingredients and flavors that serves as a particular seasoning for the holiday season. 

Although it is almost impossible to choose a favorite, the following dishes fascinate me every Christmas with their unique flavor and rich history, and have become favorites in my and many other households across the continent. So read on to find out what Central Americans eat during the holidays.

Tamales & nacatamales

Tamales are a classic of Central American cuisine. From Mexico to Costa Rica, each country has its own version. However, tamales de masa colada are guaranteed family favorite.

Their main characteristic is that the dough becomes soft and silky because it is first dissolved in water or broth, then strained and cooked on the stove until it acquires the consistency of a delicate polenta. It is then covered in corn or banana leaves, and steamed or boiled.

In Central America, one of the most popular versions is the Nica nacatamal.

Everyone’s abuela has their own distinct recipe, but many combine pork, bell pepper, naranja agria, maseca, sazón, and an array of toppings, including olives, tomatoes, capers, and sweet peas.

For me, there is nothing that tastes more like Christmas than a nacatamal and, for the years when I haven’t been with my mom, I will still call her to hear the family recipe firsthand.

Bacalao a la vizcaína

Another unmissable dish to look out for during the holidays in Central America is bacalao a la vizcaína.

Bacalao a la vizcaína is salted cod stewed in a sauce of sautéed onion, garlic, and the pulp of dried peppers, called ñoras, all thickened with bread. These ingredients are ground with a mortar and pestle, strained, and added to an earthenware casserole to slowly cook with the cod.

In the creative hands of Mexican cooks, this classic became a rich stew of shredded cod cooked in a spicy tomato sauce, with many regional variations. On the coast of Veracruz, the cod is mixed with potatoes.

In other parts of Mexico, bacalao a la vizcaína is a simple but very tasty stew, enriched with olives, and sometimes with pickled jalapeños.

To season the cod, many people sauté garlic, onion, and raw tomatoes in olive oil. Others follow a more traditional Mexican technique, which consists of roasting these ingredients and grinding them in a molcajete.

A cutting board with cerdo relleno

Cerdo relleno

Another classic of Central American holidays is pork loin and you will find a number of variations of this dish in each country.

According to historian Cruz Miguel Ortíz Cuadra, pork is a staple on the Christmas menus of Central American countries because of the Spanish, who tied a great deal of cultural significance to it.

They believed that eating pork stimulated the blood and thus had great nutritional value. In addition, eating pork also signaled whether you were Christian or not.

The version I remember most fondly is the Nicaraguan version. When cooked, the house is enveloped in a delicious aroma, and when you cut into it, the stuffing is simply delicious, and the tenderloin keeps its juiciness. It is usually served with white rice and delicious slices of ripe plantains.

Arroz con guandú

While pork may reign supreme in many Central American countries as the holiday dish of choice, in Panama, one of the most popular is arroz con guandú. The simple yet delicious  dish is also a favorite in the Caribbean.

The defining ingredient is pigeon peas: a type of legume, native to India. It was first brought to Africa by Portuguese traders in the 16th century from where it shortly found its way to the Americas.

Curiously, until well into the 20th century, some rice stews, which are now a fixture on the tables of many Central American families, could only be eaten at certain times of the year. Such was the case of arroz con gandules, a dish that today is inextricably tied to the Christmas season.

In Panama, its absence from La Noche Buena, New Year's Eve, and Día de los Reyes meals is considered an unequivocal break with the holiday culinary tradition.

But a fact that many are unaware of is that in the past, before agribusiness made each month similar to the others in terms of the availability of popular foods, the harvest of pigeon peas obeyed the natural agricultural cycles and only coincided with holiday festivities.

There you have it, the best Central American dishes to enjoy with your family and friends this festive season. We hope you enjoy the unique flavor and rich history of each and get to make some culinary memories of your own this holiday.

Enjoying home-cooked meals with loved ones are among the most cherished memories for all Latinos.

But it’s also important that the ingredients we put into those meals don’t cause harm to those who grow them.

At Mayorga Coffee, we work directly with organic coffee farmers to ensure that the beans we buy are not only good for the farmers’ land, but also good for our bodies.

Check out our Mayan Blend organic coffee today.

José Guillermo Perez

José is a food, coffee, and travel writer. He has lived in three different Latin American countries, where he worked as a barista and sociologist, among other things. He has written for Orgullo Latino since 2022.

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