Flavors of Honduras
Even Honduras's biggest boosters will admit in a moment of candor that haute cuisine is not the big draw here. One chef we spoke with lamented that even some upscale restaurants will plop a plate of meat, cooked vegetables, and puré (the term used for mashed potatoes here) in front of you and call it a fancy meal. (We've become wary of restaurants here that describe their offerings as cocina internacional or "international cuisine." The term sounds, oh, so chic, but generally turns out bland and meaningless.) Yet even though Honduras isn't known for its culinary delights, you will encounter some pleasant surprises in this country whose cuisine mixes Spanish, indigenous, and African elements. Although there are definite regional differences—corn is ever-present in the highlands, and seafood and coconut are ubiquitous on the Caribbean coast and Bay Islands—these days, you can find pretty much everything everywhere.
The national dish is the generically named plato típico, consisting of some combination of meat, rice, beans, cheese, plantains (calledtajadas), and perhaps eggs or avocados. This "typical plate" can always be livened up by the hot sauce on the table, often a homemade variety. Local restaurants serve it for lunch, and it makes a filling, reasonably priced meal. (You can then do like most Hondurans and eat a lighter meal in the evening.) A Honduran invention, baleadas (corn or wheat tortillas with beans and cheese) are cheap, pleasant snacks and handy for vegetarians, who can ask for one sin carne (without meat).
Another tasty choice comes from neighboring El Salvador, but Honduras has adopted it as its own: the pupusa, a golden-fried patty of corn, beans, and cheese, usually served with a vinegary blend of cabbage and onion called repollo. Nacatamales (cornmeal and chicken wrapped in banana leaves) are found all over Central America, but in Honduras they can be very moist and delicate. Hondurans eat a ton of them over the holidays; families prepare large batches of tamales in December and then have an easy dish to steam and serve during the busy week between Christmas and New Year's. Carne asada (marinated, grilled flank steak) is reserved for special occasions, and served with chimol, a Honduran condiment that mixes diced tomatoes, bell peppers, onion, cilantro, lemon, and vinegar. Ever present in local Honduran restaurants, but generally too elaborate for a home meal, is the anafre. The term refers to a clay pot containing heated cheese and mashed beans, and used as a dip, fondue style.
Start Off the Day
A good breakfast (desayuno) is key to kicking off the day right—so insisted our mothers—but Honduran moms must really take that advice to heart. Order the típico breakfast at your hotel, and they'll haul out eggs, plantains, sausage, cheese, refried beans, tortillas, coffee, and juice. Fortify you for the morning it certainly will—and maybe well into the afternoon, too—but many visitors find it to be too much, and opt for the Americano breakfast of cereal, toast, and juice, or the Continental, with bread, fruit, and coffee, instead.
A Bounty of Fruits
You'll find fruit abundant—mango verde or mango tierno (baby green mango) in the spring is not to be missed—and often dressed up in novel ways, with a sweet hot sauce or with lime and a ubiquitous mixture of cumin, pepper, and salt called pimienta. Honduras was the original banana republic, and the fruit is still a major export even if, thankfully, the big corporations no longer run the country. Smaller bananas (bananos) stay behind for the local market and end up in salads, soups, and side dishes. Pineapple (piña) is another important export, and you can certainly partake here, but pineapple frequently ends up as fermented fruit vinegar (vinagre de piña), which adds a tangy zest to any salad. Be sure to try one local variant of pineapple, the azucarrón, about half the size of the regular fruit and much sweeter—that is, if your body can stand the extra blast of sugar. Honduran cuisine is said to use more coconut (coco) than that of its Central American neighbors. Try rice and beans—the name of this Caribbean dish is always in English—its two namesake ingredients cooked for hours in coconut milk.
From the Lake and the Sea
Seafood is popular and abundant throughout Honduras, but especially along both coasts. A seafood conch soup (sopa de caracol) is flavored and thickened with (what else?) coconut milk and filled with the tuber cassava (yuca), plantains, local vegetables, and spices. Fried fish served whole is a Honduran specialty, as are shrimp and lobster dishes. Spanish distinguishes between seafood (mariscos) and freshwater fish (pescado). Honduras's best-known example of the latter is the fried fish from the country's largest lake, the Lago de Yojoa, usually freshwater bass served with pickled onions and plantains.
Should You or Shouldn't You?
Street vendors' fare can look tantalizingly seductive, especially charcoal-grilled elote, a version of corn on the cob. One of the country's best-kept secrets is frita de elote (a deep-fried, sizzling mash of corn and sugar), sold by competing little girls along the road near Lago de Yojoa. Every town has its seeming army of baleada señoras selling their namesake fare on the street. Do you have a cast-iron-enough stomach to partake of street fare? We can't answer that for you, but we do strongly suggest erring on the side of caution. Know that everything you can buy on the street, you can also order in a sit-down, local restaurant, and that might be a better option.
Times and Tips
Mealtimes are similar to those in the United States, with lunch at noon and dinner at 7 or even earlier. To combat the heat and make the most of the sunlight, Hondureños are early risers, so breakfast is likely to be at 7 or 8, a bit later if you are staying on the beach. Among locals, lunch is the biggest repast of the day, with the evening meal meaning lighter fare. In elegant restaurants (meaning those with tablecloths) a tip of at least 10% is about right, whereas anywhere else, small change will do just fine. Reservations are rarely necessary, except where indicated.