By Payton Belisle, Mitzvah Corps Nicaragua El Castillo 2016 Participant
Initially, I had a fear of eating during my time in Nicaragua. I was expecting beans and rice, otherwise known as gallopinto, for every meal, but I was worried that I wasn’t going to get the portions of fruits and vegetables that I was used to getting at home.
All my worries subsided when our group entered Boarders Coffee for dinner our first night in El Castillo. At first glance, I was surprised that we would be dining in a coffee shop, as I was used to coffee shops in America being a quick in-and-out visit, but this was no Starbucks. The large walls had decorations of suns, moons, and flowers all over them, a perfect touch to any Nicaraguan restaurant. The sweet little owner named Yamil had a passion for cooking and it showed through at each delicious meal we had. His cooking style blended Nicaraguan, Indian, Italian, and American style dishes. After long days, be it rain, heat, sweat or pure tiredness, the meals Yamil prepared always excited each and every one of our taste buds.
After meal number three, I decided I HAD to have the recipes Yamil used to cook his fantastic dishes. In my broken Spanish and with help from our fantastic guide, Onik, I was able to ask Yamil if he would share his recipes. It wasn’t a secret that I was interested in cooking and wanted to learn more about different techniques. After I showed interest in cooking and the meals Yamil prepared, he invited me to come to the restaurant early one evening to assist him in the preparations for that night’s dinner. I was thrilled and of course couldn’t turn down the amazing opportunity. I arrived at 6:00 PM sharp the next night.
Dinner was an aromatic soup with hand-picked vegetables from the garden behind the restaurant. In addition to rice, which accompanies most meals here, I was tasked with the important job of not burning the bread which was to be served alongside the soup. Ten minutes later and the bread was perfectly toasted. Lesson one in the chef handbook completed: don’t burn the food. Yamil taught me a secret of his that is to freeze milk and juice to order to avoid a watered down beverage caused from adding ice. He freezes the juice, cuts it up into small pieces, throws it in the blender with a few other secret ingredients, and there you have it – a perfect lemonade!
I was curious about how Yamil learned to cook and how he incorporated other ethnic foods into his dishes. To my surprise, he told me that he was mostly self-taught. He watched cooking shows and when he found a recipe that he liked, he would cook it up and put his own twist on it, depending on what he thought would be best to add. I was very impressed.
I’m so grateful for the opportunity to learn from Yamil about his passion in such a special place, and I will carry his warmth and lessons with me.