Latin American Food Lingo 101: Terms to Know

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Okay, so you made it to Central America! You have safely navigated your first local bus, made it to your hostel, and you’re famished. What’s for lunch?

While the Spanish terms for “food” in Latin American vary a bit from country to country, there are a handful of words for places of food and drink which are universal in the CA-4 (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua).

Open your notebooks, students. Here are some common words used to describe certain types of stores, amenities and foods in Latin America and Central America.

  • Fritangas: Small, family operated sidewalk BBQs which start lighting their grills around sunset. Generally they serve delicious “platos tipicos” consisting of the normal local fare. For example, in Granada, head north of the Park Central about 6 blocks around 7pm. You will encounter a delectable spread to choose from, buffet window style…except there is no roof. Typical, and amazing, Nica fare includes gallo pinto (beans and rice), plantanos maduros (sweet fried plantains), some type of meat, and fried queso (cheese). Choose which items you would like, pull up a piece of dusty sidewalk, and enjoy!
  • Pulperias: In my travels, this word emerged most in Nicaragua. A pulperia is basically a corner store that has everything! From toothbrushes to liters of Coca Cola, cookies, chips and candy, pulperias are convenience stores that accommodate the occasional junk food/sugar high craving.
  • Tiendas: Very similar to the pulperia, tienda means “shop”. It refers to a small shop that offers what a pulperia has, in addition to a small selection of frozen meat and mini array of veggies for cooking. When in El Salvador, my friends and I visited the tiendas in Playa El Zonte to forage for guacamole ingredients. We only came up short on cilantro, nice!

  • Comedor: Getting a little tired of the same overpriced gringo food found in the main tourist traps in Central America? No worries, we all do at some point. Head to the nearest comedor. This word literally translates into “dining room”. These are sweet little restaurants owned locally that offer wonderful meals at affordable prices and you can dine in at a table. Best part? You are keeping your money local and helping to sustain yourself.
  • Mercados: Ah the mercado. Since my Spanish is not up to par yet, the mercado overwhelms me! The mercado is what it implies: a market usually covered with dodgy tin roofs that has every “department” you would find at home…only not equipped with refrigeration. Produce, diary, grains, meat and fish; if you want to prepare a meal in your hostel/hotel’s kitchen, the mercado is the place to do your shopping. My tip would be to go early, as the smell and condition of your purchases will deteriorate as the day goes on. Also, try your hand at some basic Spanish and do not be afraid to bargain a bit if you notice you are being viewed as a dollar sign.

*One other note on the Mercado is that they are ALL equipped with small comedors inside! So, if you happen to be doing your grocery shopping at lunchtime and get hungry, pull up a plastic chair and get ready for a menu fit for a queen…a queen that loves a carb overload. Haha. *

Class dismissed! Have a great day feasting. Make sure to practice your Spanish….there will be a quiz next week!

When you travel, how do you eat? Do you prefer eating on the cheap, cooking your own food, or dining out? Tell us!

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About Author

Traci is a bold New Yorker who loves taking her empire state of mind global. She holds a degree in International Business, and bleeds humanitarianism. Traci spent a semester in 2007 living in Italy and bouncing around Western Europe. In the past 3 years she volunteered at a homeless shelter in California, worked construction in New Orleans, and moonlights as a bartender everywhere she goes. She recently completed an epic 7 month backpacking trip through Central and South America and spent a month road-tripping the East Coast. Check out her personal blog at www.alwaysinjourney.com. Based out of: New Orleans, LA

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