Nicaragua is the land my parents once called home. The first place they knew. My two siblings and I are U.S.-born children of foreign-born parents. I am a second-generation American, and I am thankful every day.

Growing up with privilege has allowed me to grow in an entirely different environment. An environment that leaves me ignorant to their early lives — lives filled with struggle, hope, determination, and war.

Although my siblings and I grew up in America, it never meant we had to strip ourselves from all the culture and traditions that ran through our veins. Nicaragua has always been my home away from home. Because of that, the love my parents had for food and where it came from has never gone unnoticed.

My mother always made food a top priority. Every day after school, she would pick us up, drive to the local grocery store, patiently remove all the junk food my brother and I would try to sneak into the cart, and then drive home to cook us dinner. The amount of work my mother did throughout the day must have left her dead by this time. But even then, she always managed to cook us a beautiful meal. From cow’s tongue dressed in the most decadent sauce to squid ink fried rice, we could always expect to go to bed with our bellies full.

There is only so much my parents could do in Lakeland to give us a taste of their country. For us to get the full experience, we had to see it for ourselves. Every year since I was a year old, my parents would take us to Nicaragua for two weeks. We’d spend that time traveling back and forth between Masaya, the city where my mother grew up, and Majagual, the beach where my father grew up spearfishing.

In Masaya, we’d walk the crowded streets full of life in search of a good fritanga stand. You’d always know you were getting close when the smell of carne asada (grilled meat) filled the air. The best home-style Nicaraguan foods come from fritanga stands. From delicious vigoron (recipe below) to queso frito (fried cheese), you can always find something that will make your taste buds want to hit a Mariah Carey high note.

In Majagual, we’d camp on the most beautiful, untouched beach. A beach so beautiful, it would bring tears to my eyes. A beach that held so many of my father’s memories. A beach where I learned how to make my very first ceviche.

I remember like it was yesterday: my father and I would wake up early and head down the beach toward the jagged rocks. We’d find where all the cucarachas del mar were hiding and spend hours pulling them off the rocks with a sharp tool, usually a shell we found on the walk over. On our walk back, we’d collect limes from all the citrus trees swaying in the sweet, salty air.

Once we were back, I’d watch my father detach all the cucarachas del mar from the shells. He’d put them on a large flat rock he’d find nearby, and with his pocket knife, he’d split the limes in two and drown the little critters in lime juice. And just like that, I’d be eating the freshest ceviche of my life. As simple and rustic as it was, I’ve never had anything better.

That’s what food is about. It’s about knowing where your food comes from and preparing it with thoughtfulness and love. It’s about coming together and sharing experiences with the people you care about. When we live in a world full of fast-food joints, restaurant chains, and frozen TV dinners, it’s easy to forget these things. 

With that said, I hope these recipes inspire you. I hope they get you cooking with intention and heart. I hope they get you dancing around your kitchen with the people you love. I hope you enjoy them. Buen provecho, Lakeland!