Central American food is an amazing blend of different countries and cultures like African and Spanish cuisine, without forgetting about its indigenous roots like Mayan cuisine. You’ll find, across all seven countries, common ingredients and flavors used in different and creative ways.
But despite using common ingredients, the food in Central America is super diverse in preparation, from country to country you’ll find unique dishes, different variations that will feel like a completely different dish.
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Popular Central America Food
Tamales are a dish that can be found throughout Central American countries, and each country has its own unique variation. Tamales originated with the ancient Mayans and is a popular food in Guatemala.
It consist of corn or maize-based starchy dough filled with meat, vegetables, chilies, cheese, or fruit, which is wrapped in a leaf wrapper and either steamed or boiled.
Tamales made from potatoes are called ‘paches’ while tamales Colorado (Colorado means red, is unique and a must try while visiting Guatemala).
For example, are made with a chicken, beef, or pork filling and a sauce of tomatoes and annatto seed. Sometimes olives, peppers, prunes or raisins, capers, and almonds may also be added.
Baleada is a Honduran version of the well-known tortilla. The dough is made from wheat flour, egg, oil, milk, or water mixed and then formed into tortillas which are cooked on a charcoal griddle.
Once cooked, the tortillas are covered with refried black beans and farm cheese before being folded over like a taco that can be eaten at any time of the day and is the best option in a food tour.
Baleada can be bought at street stalls and casetas, though Balaeda Express and Super Baleadas in San Pedro are said to serve large baleadas with any filling you may fancy.
Anafres are a must-try while visiting Honduras, they are basically very large tortilla chips with a bean fondue and cheese served in a clay pot as an appetizer. The bean fondue is made from red or black beans, oil, garlic, salt, and a piece of melted cheese. Chorizo or jalapeno peppers can be added if desired.
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Fry jacks, Belize
A popular dish or snack and one of the best food in Belize that’s commonly found in street food stalls are fry jacks, deep-fried pieces of dough that are light and fluffy on the inside and crispy on the outside.
They are usually eaten for breakfast and served with eggs, cheese, ham, bacon, or beans. They can also be eaten as a snack with honey or jam.
Johnny Cakes, Belize
The Belizean way to make pancakes, as many people say, but the main difference is that those don’t always have sugar most of the ingredients like cornmeal, flour, and baking powder are the same, but the texture is different.
They are usually fried but can be baked in an oven too. Most of the time Johnny Cakes are eaten for breakfast with butter, cheese, jam, or honey, but they can also be eaten as a sandwich with meat, cheese, or vegetables.
Sere is a traditional dish of the Garifuna people, the descendants of African and indigenous people from the Caribbean islands.
As an outsider is hard to catalog sere, it’s like a soup or more like a stew that’s made with coconut milk, seafood (usually fish), and other ingredients. It’s served with rice and cassava bread.
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Like most Central American countries, Belize has its own version of tortillas and these are Salbutes, deep-fried tortillas topped with anything, you can find them with shredded chicken or beef, cabbage, tomato, onion, avocado, and hot sauce.
They are a popular snack or appetizer in Belize, but you can easily eat a set of them for dinner.
Casado, Costa Rica
Casado is a complete meal that’s often served for lunch, and consists of rice, beans, plantains, and some meat, it’s usually beef or chicken but you can find it with pork or fish. It’s usually served with salad, pico de gallo, cheese, and eggs, as well as tortillas.
The name means “married” and its origins it’s 100% accurate since many people say it refers to the combination of different foods on one plate while others said that the name originated from the customers of restaurants who asked to be treated as casados (it’s said that married people eat that much at home), you sure will find it in a food tour.
Olla de carne, Costa Rica
This is a warm and comfortable soup or stew from Costa Rica, is done by cooking beef with many other vegetables like potatoes, carrots, yucca, and corn, you can find many places that also add chayote (which is a type of squash), plantains, and cabbage.
It’s seasoned with onion, garlic, salt, and other ingredients. The olla de carne is commonly served with rice and tortillas, or alone.
Chifrijo, Costa Rica
An interesting dish is considered an appetizer or snack with a smart name. “Chi” stands for chicharron, which is crispy fried pork, and “frijo” means beans. It’s usually served in a bowl with pico de gallo (a salsa made with tomato, onion, cilantro, lime juice, and salt), and tortilla chips.
Also, it can be served with lime wedges and hot sauce.
One of the unique dishes, it’s a soup made with a type of local turkey that’s called “chompipe” in Guatemala cuisine. It’s cooked with onion, and achiote, and seasoned with garlic, salt, pepper, and several other ingredients. You’ll find most of them cooked with different types of chiles.
Kak’ik is served with rice, tamales, and a hot sauce. It is a traditional dish of the Q’eqchi’ Maya people who live in some parts of the country.
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Another popular dish in the country, Jocon, it’s a stew made of chicken and tomatillos. It’s cooked with onion, garlic, cilantro, sesame seeds, pumpkin, and several other ingredients like chili peppers.
Everything is blended until it’s smooth and added to the chicken, Jocon is served with rice and tortillas.
Rellenitos , Guatemala
This dish can be considered a dessert, Rellenitos are a sweet snack that’s made with mashed plantains and is stuffed with beans, sugar, cinnamon, and chocolate.
Traditionally, Rellenitos are shaped with the hands into an egg form, oval or ball, and deep fried until it’s golden and soft.
Fimbre is a salad-like traditional dish, that’s mostly eaten during special dates or celebrations like Day of the Dead.
It’s not complex and consists of a variety of vegetables, meats, hams, pickles, and cheeses. The fiambre is often served on a bed of lettuce and seasoned with vinegar, mustard, mayonnaise, and other spices.
Plátanos en mole, Guatemala
There’s not much information about its origins, but it’s clearly a combination of different cuisines, where the main ingredient is the Mayan chocolate that’s blended with sesame seeds, chiles, and cinnamon.
That sauce-like preparation is served and mixed with sweet fried plantains. This is usually eaten as a dessert or a side dish.
Sopa de caracol, Honduras
A dish with its roots in the Caribbean and Garifuna cuisine, where in this case, the main ingredient is the tender conch meat that is cooked with coconut milk, yuca, plantains, and cilantro.
It is seasoned with onion, garlic, salt, pepper, and curry powder. The soup is usually served alone or with white rice and tortillas.
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Nacatamales are like tamales or hallacas, basically, they consist of a corn dough filled with meat (beef, pork, or chicken) potatoes, onions, and other ingredients wrapped into banana or plantain leaves.
After that, the nacatamales are boiled or steamed for several hours until cooked and soft.
Indio viejo, Nicaragua
Indio Viejo is a thick stew, like a porridge, that’s commonly made of shredded beef and corn. It’s seasoned with onion, garlic, cilantro, and several other spices and vegetables like tomato.
It’s served with rice or tortillas but you can find places where it’s served with pasta.
A simple yet interesting dish that combines different ingredients or dishes. The main ingredient here is boiled yuca, topped with chicharron or fried pork rinds, and topped again with a cabbage salad.
It’s often served with pico de gallo, and seasoned with salt, vinegar, and pepper. Traditionally the dish is served on top of a banana or plantain leaf and eaten with tortillas or just bread.
Arroz con leche
One of the most popular desserts in Costa Rica and several other countries of the region, it’s made with rice, milk sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon but you can find variations with raisins too.
It’s slow-cooked until it gets creamy and thick, next, it’s served cold or warm with some cinnamon sprinkled on top.
Arroz con Pollo
The same dish is commonly served across most countries in the regions, and it is made by cooking the rice with chicken and several other ingredients and spices like onion, garlic, tomato, salt, and pepper.
It is typically accompanied by salad and toast.
A popular type of cake is usually eaten as a dessert or a treat and is made with flour, sugar, butter, eggs, baking powder, and vanilla.
It is soaked in a mixture of three types of milk: evaporated milk, condensed milk, and heavy cream, and topped with whipped cream and cinnamon.
Pastelitos can be found anywhere in Central and Latin America, they are a popular dish for breakfast and dinner.
These pastries can be filled with anything but the common and popular ones are meat, cheese, potatoes, or vegetables. They are fried or baked until golden and crispy and are usually eaten as a snack or appetizer with salsa or cabbage salad.
In the same fashion as pastelitos, these are popular pastries with different shapes and filled with meat, cheese, potatoes, or vegetables.
They are fried or baked until golden and crispy and are usually eaten as a snack or appetizer with salsa or hot sauce.
A drink that was brought to Central America by Spanish people, this is a beverage made with rice, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla blended until smooth and chilled.
Usually served with ice and a sprinkle of cinnamon on top.
Chicken Baked with Ginger
Chicken dishes are popular almost everywhere, but for chicken with a difference, try Costa Rican chicken baked with ginger and a salad of palm hearts with tomato or cucumber.
These can be found in many restaurants in Central America, but homemade versions are often far better if you get the opportunity to try them.
Chicha is the Spanish name given to the traditional Incan drink, it’s originated from Latin America but has a strong presence across all countries of Central America.
It’s a fermented or non-fermented corn drink blended with sugar, cinnamon, cloves, and sometimes lime juice, as well as corn syrup.
Central America National Dishes
Despite sharing several commonly used ingredients across the regions, each country used it uniquely, leading to a completely different flavor or dish, that can be easily spotted in each country’s national dish.
Each country in the region has its own national dish or staple dish, and you must try them all!
These are the national dishes of each Central American country (or at least considered to be):
Pepian is one of the oldest dishes in Guatemala cuisine, a thick and heavy meat stew that had its origin in the colonial presence and Mayan cuisine. It can be made with chicken, pork, beef and stew.
It’s usually cooked with pepitoria (which is a spice that is obtained from grinding up the roasted ayote seeds), vegetables like potatoes tomatoes, onions, and other ingredients like sesame seeds, and cilantro. Furthermore, it’s served with rice, and sometimes tortillas.
Pepian is a highly diverse dish, and several different recipe variations have shown up across the country, you’ll find it in local eateries, street food, and even high-end restaurants.
Gallo Pinto (Costa Rica and Nicaragua)
While gallo pinto is commonly associated with Costa Rica, it’s also the national dish of Nicaragua, and it consists of rice and black beans cooked with onion, garlic, cilantro, salt, and other ingredients.
It is mainly served for breakfast, but if you visit any local house or eatery you will find that it can be served at any given time, for lunch or dinner.
Usually served with eggs, cheese, and tortillas for breakfast and for lunch or dinner with meat or fish and salads.
Plato Típico (Honduras)
Honduras’s national dish, is a mountain of ingredients and food, making it one of the most complete dishes. This dish combines the most used and popular ingredients in a single meal, including different foods that are prepared separately.
Plato tipico consists of grilled beef, sausages, beans, and rice. It’s served with chismol (or pico de gallo which is a type of raw sauce), fried plantains, cheese, tortillas, and avocado.
It’s mostly served for lunch, and you can find different versions in restaurants. Another popular variation found in local restaurants is ‘plato del dia’, which is like the Plato Tipico but a bit smaller.
Pupusas (El Salvador)
Pupusa is the dish to try while visiting El Salvador. It is a handmade tortilla made of either corn or rice flour filled with cheese, fried pork rinds, and refried beans.
For vegetarians, they have a version that uses a local squash called ayote rather than pork and is sometimes flavored with garlic. Restaurants offer a variation that includes spinach or shrimp.
They can be found almost everywhere, from street stalls to fine restaurants, and are a combination of simple ingredients that are thought to be a derivation of an ancient Mayan dish.
Pupusa makes a cheap and filling meal served with pickled cabbage, ‘curtido’ dressing, and hot sauce.
Rice and Beans (Belize)
This is Belize’s national cuisine, and it consists of rice cooked with creamy coconut milk and rich red beans, seasoned with aromatics such as onion, garlic, salt, pepper, and other ingredients.
It’s traditionally served with tender stewed chicken or beef, as well as refreshing sides like coleslaw or potato salad.
Fried plantains or breadfruit are a tempting addition to lend a hint of sweetness and texture.
While a sancocho is a popular dish across most of Central and Latin America, it surely is loved in Panama, since they make it the national dish and can be served for lunch, dinner, and even breakfast.
A sancocho is basically a soup and its recipe varies a lot depending on where you try it, the flavors depend a lot on the vegetables and spices used.
It consists of a long-cooked soup made of chicken, root vegetables like potatoes, yuca, yams, and green plantains, as well as other ingredients and spices like garlic, onion, oregano, black pepper, and corn.
It’s a comfort food, warm and flavorful that can be eaten all year round but it’s super suitable for a chilly and rainy day.
Cultural influences and common ingredients
The food in Central America is a unique blend of different cultures, and a lot of common ingredients have persisted to these days.
- The indigenous people of the region were the first ones to set the foundations of the food, most of what they ate was based on local crops, such as corn, beans, peppers, cacao, and fruits. Many of the iconic dishes of the region are derived from indigenous cuisines, like tamales, tortillas, pupusas, or atol.
- The Spanish colonizers arrived in Central America and brought with them a lot of new food, and ingredients, like rice, wheat, cheese, olive oil, and spices. Not only that, but they also introduced new cooking methods to the region, such as frying. You can find a lot of Spanish influence on several dishes, like gallo pinto, arroz con pollo, or flan.
- The African people that were brought here by the Spanish people also contributed a lot to the Central American cuisine. They used their skill and creativity to adapt to the ingredients they had at hand and created new dishes and flavors with them. A good example of ingredients is coconut milk, plantains, cassava, and others. Popular dishes influenced by them are casabe, tapado, and patacones.
- The Caribbean culture also has a huge impact on many parts of the region, especially on coastal areas like Belize, where many African descent live. Most of the Caribbean cuisine influence is found on dishes that use topical fruits like coconut, coconut water, pineapple, and a lot of seafood as well as different spices. Some popular Caribbean dishes you’ll find in Central America are ceviche, or escabeche.
Common Ingredients in Central American food. These include:
Corn: Corn is the main ingredient and staple found across all seven countries of the region and in several dishes. It’s used in many ways, from drinks and sweets to snacks and street food.
Beans: Another staple food in all countries of Central America, usually cooked with spices, onion, garlic, and other ingredients. Beans are served with rice, tortillas, sour cream, and cheese.
Meat: The number one source of protein in the region, and it is usually cooked with spices, herbs, sauces, or marinades. You’ll find out that most of the different types of meat like chicken, beef, pork, and others are used widely in different dishes.
Seafood: Seafood is another popular protein option in Central America, and it is especially popular in the coastal areas where you can find it fresh. Some of the most popular seafood dishes are ceviche, escabeche, sopa de mariscos (seafood soup), and pescado frito (fried fish).
Rice: Introduced by the Spanish, rice is one of the common accompaniments of many dishes in the region, and some of the most popular are arroz con pollo, gallo pinto, and arroz con leche o coco.
Cheese: A dairy product that’s widely consumed in Central America while it’s mostly made from cow’s milk you can find other types, like goat’s milk, and you can find it in several different forms, like hard cheese.
Fruits: while fruits are abundant in the region, not all the countries or dishes use them besides the ones with Caribbean influence, but some popular fruits used in food are plantain, and coconut.
Vegetables: These are also plentiful in Central America, mostly used in salads but not restricted to it, you will find them in preparations like stews, soups, or casseroles.
The best places to try food in Central America
If you want to experience the authentic and delicious flavors of Central American food, you have many options to choose from.
Here are some of the best places to try it like a local:
Local markets and street vendors
One of the best ways to taste the real and fresh food of the region is to visit the local markets and street vendors, which is where the locals eat. You’ll find a variety of dishes, and fresh ingredients to try, from fruits and vegetables to meats, and cheeses, without forgetting about breads, and drinks.
It’s a good place to try dishes that are prepared on the spot or in front of you. You can also interact with friendly and helpful locals who can tell you more about their products and preparations.
Local Eateries and cafés
Another great way to enjoy the diverse cuisines of Central America is to visit the traditional restaurants and cafés that offer a cozy and unique atmosphere. By local eateries, I mean places like SODAS in Costa Rica or Comedores in Guatemala.
You can find a variety of dishes that are prepared with high-quality ingredients and served with professionalism and courtesy. You can also find a selection of local drinks such as coffee, or juice.
Food festivals and events
An extra and unique way to taste the local food is to catch a festival or event, for example, many of the country’s celebrations in Central America get a huge amount of people gathered and with that a wide range of different food stalls.
You can go to a local fair, wait for a carnival, or even holy week spot some unique street food and enjoy live music, dancing, games, and more.
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