MIAMI -- Most Anglos have never heard of tres leches or gallo pinto. Recently, however, a huge influx of Nicaraguan immigrants has endowed this cosmopolitan city with yet another Latin American cuisine.

An estimated 175,000-plus Nicaraguans are now living in greater Miami, and tres leches and gallo pinto are becoming very familiar to the population at large.

The Nicaraguans came for a variety of reasons: to flee the Contras or the Sandinistas, to continue a way of life they enjoyed under the Somoza regime or to seek opportunities no longer available at home. Like any immigrant group, they brought with them a longing for the foods they left behind. They opened markets specializing in Nicaraguan ingredients and fritangas (fry shops), where they could nibble repochetas (fried cheese turnovers), while conversing with friends from home. They opened homey eateries and million dollar restaurant chains. And somewhere along they way, they captivated the tastes of Miami.

"In 1980, you could count the number of Nicaraguan restaurants on one hand," recalls Julio Somoza, nephew of former Nicaragua ruler Anastasio Somoza and owner of a restaurant called Los Ranchos. "Today, there are over 50."

When Somoza opened his first restaurant 10 years ago, 98 percent of his customers were Nicaraguan. These days, the proportion of Anglos to Nicaraguans appears to be one to one. Could Nicaraguan cuisine be the next ethnic rage to sweep the country? Somoza says yes.

Nicaraguan food differs strikingly from the cuisines of its neighbors. "We don't deep fry as much as Cubans and Puerto Ricans," explains Somoza. "Unlike Mexicans, we don't go in for the heavy use of spices, chilies and lard." A great deal of Nicaraguan food is marinated, grilled and served with salsa-like condiments instead of calorie-laden sauces.

Somoza goes so far as to call his country's cooking "Latin American health food." That's undoubtedly stretching things a bit, considering the Nicaraguan love of beef, fried plantains and sweets. But there are elements of Nicaraguan cooking that appeal to health conscious North Americans. Beans figure prominently in the Nicaraguan diet, as do rice and corn products. Seafood is popular here and many foods are, indeed, grilled.

Nicaraguans are avid beef eaters. According to Somoza, Argentine restaurateurs brought churrasco (beef barbecue) to Nicaragua in the 1950s. Nicaraguans enthusiastically adopted this robust cooking style -- and all the machismo that goes with it. Nicaraguans prefer lean, grass-fed beef to the well-marbled, corn-fed cattle found in the United States. Los Ranchos imports grass-fed beef from Costa Rica and Honduras. It's tougher than the beef most Americans are accustomed to, but is still richly flavored.

Whenever meat appears on a Nicaraguan table, so does a trio of sauces. The first is chimichurri, a pesto-like condiment made from parsley, garlic and olive oil. The second is cebollita, sliced, pickled onions; and the third is marinera, a sweet-and-sour sauce made with ketchup, peppers and onions. Another popular condiment is salsa jalapenåo, a piquant sauce made with cream and jalapenåo chilies.

No Nicaraguan meal would be complete without gallo pinto -- red beans and rice. (In Spanish the name means multicolored rooster.) "The longer it sits on the stove, the better it is," says Somoza. Red beans also turn up in a Nicaraguan appetizer called cazuelita de frijoles, a tiny earthenware pot of beans baked with sour cream.

Nicaraguans are accomplished bakers. "We should be; we work 15 hours a day," says Norma Lacayo, owner of the Norma Bakery in Sweetwater, a Miami neighborhood aptly called "Little Managua." At the moment, Lacayo is spreading meringue on a tres leches, or "three milks" cake, Nicaragua's most famous dessert. Made with fresh milk, evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk, tres leches features sponge cake imbibed with a creamy syrup and topped with clouds of meringue. "It's so good the local Cuban restaurants have started serving it," says Lacayo. To wash it down, the Norma Bakery serves thimble-sized cups of sugary, tar-black coffee.

Visitors to Miami wishing to sample Nicaraguan food have a wide variety of restaurants to choose from. For steaks and upscale fare, there's Los Ranchos, La Chosa or El Novillo. (The latter has a cavernous dining room decorated with fountains, arcades and trompe l'oeil paintings of a Nicaraguan village; the food isn't always up to snuff, however.) For peasant food, head for Momotombo, El Taquito or Guayacan. Or stop at La Fritanga, a fry shop where the Coke machine dispenses cans of Nicaraguan Milca soda and where Nicaraguans of all walks of life meet for snacks and talk of the old country.

But the most irresistible way to pass some time is sitting on a swivel stool at the Norma Bakery, nibbling tres leches and sipping coffee that is always strong.

SOPA DE CANGREJO (Crab Soup) (8 servings)

Crab soup is the Friday special at many Nicaraguan restaurants in Miami. This recipe comes from a jovial eatery on Caya Ocho called Guayacan. Traditionally, the soup is made with live blue crabs; as these are not universally available, the recipe has been adapted to shelled crab meat.

1 pound crab meat

1/2 pound small shrimp

1 medium onion

4 cloves garlic

2 scallions

1 green bell pepper

1 red bell pepper

3 tablespoons butter

2 cups milk

3 cups bottled clam juice (or fish stock or water)

1 cup heavy cream

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Pick through the crab meat, removing any bits of shell. Peel and devein the shrimp. Finely chop the onion. Mince the garlic. Finely chop the scallions, reserving the green part for garnish. Core, seed and dice the peppers.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan. Add the onion, garlic, white part of the scallions and peppers and cook over medium heat for 3 minutes, or until soft but not brown. Meanwhile, in a separate saucepan, scald the milk.

Add the milk, clam broth, heavy cream, salt, pepper and crab to the vegetable mixture and gently simmer for 3 minutes. Add the shrimp and gently simmer for 2 minutes, or until firm and pink. Just before serving, correct the seasoning. Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with the chopped scallion green.

Per serving: 321 calories, 21 gm protein, 17 gm carbohydrates, 19 gm fat, 11 gm saturated fat, 161 mg cholesterol, 649 mg sodium.

CHURRASCO (Marinated Grilled Tenderloin) (4 servings)

This is the specialty of Miami's many Nicaraguan steak houses. Note that the tenderloin is cut lengthwise into strips, not widthwise into steaks, as in the United States. This recipe comes from the restaurant La Chosa.

2 pound piece of trimmed beef tenderloin


1/2 cup chopped flat leaf parsley

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 cup Spanish olive oil

1/4 cup dry sherry

1 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

1/2 teaspoon salt

Nicaraguan table sauces for serving (see below)

Trim any fat or silver skin off the tenderloin. Cut it lengthwise into 4 flat even strips. Gently pound the strips between sheets of plastic wrap with the side of a cleaver to form steaks 10 inches long and 1/2 inch thick.

Combine the ingredients for the marinade. Marinate the meat for 20 to 30 minutes before serving.

Preheat your barbecue grill or broiler. Drain the beef and blot on paper towels. Grill the meat for 2 to 3 minutes per side for medium rare, or until cooked to taste. Serve with the following table sauces.

Per serving: 803 calories, 42 gm protein, 2 gm carbohydrates, 68 gm fat, 21 gm saturated fat, 157 mg cholesterol, 391 mg sodium.

CHIMICHURRI (Makes about 1 1/2 cups)

This is one of the sauces that is commonly used with Nicaraguan food, particularly grilled beef.

2 bunches flat leaf parsley (2 cups tightly packed leaves)

4 cloves garlic

1/2 cup Spanish olive oil

1/3 cup white vinegar

1/4 cup cream sherry

1/2 teaspoon white pepper

1/2 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

Stem the parsley and peel the garlic. Pure'e these ingredients in a food processor or mortar and pestle. Gradually work in the remaining ingredients, making a semi-smooth paste. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Per tablespoon serving: 44 calories, .2 gm protein, .7 gm carbohydrates, 5 gm fat, .6 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 48 mg sodium.

CEBOLLITO (Makes about 1 1/2 cups)

This is one of the sauces that is commonly used with Nicaraguan food, particularly grilled beef.

1 large white onion (about 2 cups sliced)

1 to 2 fresh jalapenåo chilies

3/4 cup white vinegar

1/4 cup water

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon sugar

Peel the onion and cut into 1/4-inch wedges. Slice the chilies as thinly as possible. Place the onions and chilies in a non-aluminum bowl with the vinegar, water, salt and sugar. Let the onions marinate at room temperature for 2 to 3 days.

Per tablespoon serving: 6 calories, .2 gm protein, 1 gm carbohydrates, 0 gm fat, 0 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 45 mg sodium.


This is one of the sauces that is commonly used with Nicaraguan food, particularly grilled beef.

1 onion

2 tablespoons butter

1 cup heavy cream

2 to 3 pickled jalapenåo chilies, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons pickled jalapenåo juice (or to taste)

1/4 cup sour cream

Salt and fresh black pepper

Thinly slice the onion and saute' in a saucepan in butter over medium heat for 2 minutes, or until soft but not brown. Add the cream and chilies and simmer until reduced by a third. Stir in the jalapenåo juice, sour cream and salt and pepper to taste.

Per serving: 76 calories, .6 gm protein, 2 gm carbohydrates, 8 gm fat, 5 gm saturated fat, 26 mg cholesterol, 22 mg sodium.

GALLO PINTO (Red Beans and Rice) (8 servings)

Gallo pinto is a mainstay of the Nicaraguan diet. Not a day, even a meal goes by without a Nicaraguan partaking of gallo pinto. The beans and rice are cooked separately, then fried together in onion-flavored oil. The longer they fry, the darker and more flavorful they become. If you live near a Hispanic market, try to find gallo pinto beans. If unavailable, use small kidney beans.

1 cup gallo pinto beans or small red kidney beans

1 bay leaf

1 clove

1 small onion, peeled

2 cloves garlic


1 1/2 cups white rice


4 tablespoons oil

1 large onion, thinly sliced

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Soak the beans overnight in water. The next day, drain the beans and place in a large pot with 2 quarts water. Pin the bay leaf to the onion with a clove and add it with the garlic, to the beans. Gradually bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and gently simmer for 40 to 50 minutes, or until the beans are tender but not soft, adding the salt in the last 10 minutes. Refresh the beans under cold water and drain.

Bring 3 cups water and 1 teaspoon salt to a boil in a saucepan. Add the rice, cover the pan, and gently simmer for 20 minutes or until the grains are tender. Uncover the pan and let cool. The recipe can be prepared up to 24 hours ahead to this stage.

Heat the oil in a large saute' pan. Add the onions and fry over medium heat for 3 to 4 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove the onions with a slotted spoon. (You can use the onion in soups, stews or stock.) Add the beans and rice and cook over medium heat for 6 to 8 minutes, or until the rice is lightly browned and the mixture is aromatic. Correct the seasoning and serve.

Per serving: 215 calories, 4 gm protein, 33 gm carbohydrates, 7 gm fat, .9 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 269 mg sodium.

TRES LECHES (Three Milk Cake) (10 servings)

Tres leches is the most famous Nicaraguan dessert. Three different kinds of milk are used in its preparation, hence the name. Universally appealing, this Nicaraguan dessert has been adopted by many Cuban and other Hispanic restaurants in Miami. The recipe comes from Los Ranchos.


1 cup sugar

5 eggs, separated

1/3 cup milk

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

Butter for greasing baking dish


1 3/4 cups (12-ounce can) evaporated milk

1 cup sweetened condensed milk

1 cup heavy cream

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 tablespoon rum


1 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

3 egg whites

Prepare the cake. Beat 3/4 cup sugar and the egg yolks until light and fluffy. Stir in the milk, vanilla extract, flour and baking powder.

Beat the egg whites to soft peaks, adding the cream of tartar after 20 seconds. Gradually add the remaining 1/4 cup sugar and continue beating until the whites are glossy and firm. Gently fold the whites into the yolk mixture. Spoon this batter into a 9-by-13-inch greased baking dish.

Bake the cake for 40 to 50 minutes at 350 degrees or until it feels firm and an inserted toothpick comes out clean. Let the cake cool completely and unmold onto a large, deep platter. Let cool for 2 hours. Pierce the cake all over with a fork.

Meanwhile, prepare the milk syrup. Combine the evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, cream and flavorings and whisk until mixed. Pour the syrup over the cake, spooning the overflow back on top until all is absorbed.

Meanwhile, prepare the meringue. Place all but 2 tablespoons sugar in a heavy saucepan with 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar and 1/2 cup water. Cook over high heat, covered, for 2 minutes. Uncover the pan and cook the sugar to the soft ball stage, 239 degrees on a candy thermometer.

Meanwhile, beat the egg whites to soft peaks with the remaining 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar and continue beating to stiff peaks. Pour the boiling sugar syrup in a thin stream into the whites and continue beating until the mixture is cool.

Thickly spread the top and sides of the cake with meringue, using a wet spatula. Refrigerate the cake for at least 2 hours before serving.

Per serving: 482 calories, 12 gm protein, 71 gm carbohydrates, 18 gm fat, 10 gm saturated fat, 194 mg cholesterol, 199 mg sodium.

Steven Raichlen is a Miami-based national food writer.