I walked around and I noted about five vendors selling the same thing: fried chicken with French fries - El Salvador style, as it was called. Five looked like a lot of vendors in this square. It was a sign of a healthy competitive market as any economist might tell you. I figured the chicken was from those local farms, so I ordered some from the freshest-looking stand. If it wasn't any good I could just leave it and go to El Mediterráneo. But it was delicious - as good as the fried chicken you get in those hot-spot Manhattan restaurants experimenting with the concept, for instance Jean-Georges's place on Perry Street, where I recently had inferior fried chicken for more than ten times the price.
Total cost: $2
The woman selling the chicken sprinkled some delicious crumbly, sweet- salty white cheese on top of it all, a Central American standard. I'm still entertaining the hypothesis that Nicaragua has the best fresh white cheese in the world, El Salvador included.
As of the time I ate the chicken (and cheese), I'd only been in the country for six or seven hours, but I'd begun formulating my hypothesis about how the food supply chain works: The wealthy people have servants cook for them, so a lot of the upper-end dining establishments are only so-so. There's not much of a formal dining culture, at least not in restaurants. There is an alternative and quite fantastic food world, manifest in fresh corn products, perfect white cheese in various forms, and baked goods, which I began to observe all over León. That food culture is where locals go for their favorite meals; I just had to find my way into it.
After six or seven hours in Nicaragua, I don't think my hypothesis deserves a formal academic paper. But I'm going to use it - until it's proven false.
Before going to bed, I bought a chocolate ice cream cone, knowing that Nicaragua is a major producer of cacao. Bull's-eye.
Another dollar on my running tab
I was determined to avoid my hotel's breakfast buffet. Breakfast can be the best street- food meal of the day, though in hotels it is usually the worst. I headed over to the Mercado Central, which is also a food market. Not having a clue what to order, I walked into the food section of the market and saw everyone ordering the same thing: a mountain of yucca surrounded by fresh cabbage, rice and beans to the side, and on top of the yucca about five pieces of pork, fried in what appeared to be a red achiote sauce.
The yucca was soft, moist, and luscious, unlike the fried pieces of rock you often get in U.S. Latino restaurants. The pork was a little chewy but flavorful and the achiote sauce gave it a tanginess. I munched on the cabbage and worried slightly about getting sick.
Getting a drink was a little tougher. They offered me "juice of orange," but when it came it was essentially water with a bit of artificial orange flavoring in it. I repeatedly asked about the freshness and safety of the water but always got the same answer. The server confidently said it was "agua corriente," namely "running water." I wasn't sure if that was good or bad news and didn't take the drink. I got a Coca-Cola - not my ideal breakfast beverage, but it was the cane sugar version rather than the standard U.S. corn-syrup one.
My "drinks," by the way, cost fifty cents - total - for two. How can this be? Well, they took my remaining Coca-Cola (most of it) and poured it into an empty plastic bag - for resale - then stuck the bag in a tray of ice. Yes, I was putting the bottle directly to my lips. My lean entrepreneur food vendors also took the rejected orange drink and did the same, thus indicating they eventually would receive more than my fifty cents.
Rule number 2,367B for food-and-drink safety: Don't drink anything that comes in a hand-tied plastic bag.
Excerpted from An Economist Gets Lunch by Tyler Cowen. Copyright © 2012 by Tyler Cowen. Excerpted by permission of Dutton. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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