Honduras, one of seven small Central American nations, has a vibrant cuisine reflecting its diverse population and varied landscape.
Fusion cuisine is nothing new here, where centuries of Spanish rule extend European influence, and the nearby Caribbean islands lend Caribbean and African flavors. The Garifuna culture makes a significant contribution to the local melting pot: Garifuna are descendants of enslaved people of African, Carib, Arawak and European ancestry relocated from Caribbean islands to coastal Honduras in the early 1800s.
The regional geography also informs the cuisine. Honduras sports a long coastline where seafood, coconut, rice and yuca are primary ingredients, in contrast with dry central highlands where traditional Central American ingredients like corn, masa and beans meet the root vegetables embraced in South America. As Daniel O'Connor, Academic Director and Executive Chef at Escuela de Gastronomia at Unitec, a Honduran university, says "the north coast is distinctly Caribbean: palm trees, beautiful turquoise waters and white sandy beaches. Near the Pacific coast you've got a completely different ecosystem: it's hot, it's arid, it's a completely different ball game in terms of what's available locally and how they choose to cook and work with their food."
What's typical on the Honduran plate? Let's start with the plato tipico, a simple and hearty meal. At breakfast, imagine scrambled eggs, beans, cheese, fried plantains with crema, and sausage or bacon, served with corn tortillas or bread and coffee. At lunch, the plato tipico transforms slightly, into a grilled or fried piece of beef, pork or chicken accompanied by beans, rice, salad and tortillas or bread. A dinner plate, while rarely called plato tipico, is often much the same, although the meat may be enlivened with tomato sauce (entomatada) or grilled onions (encebollada).
The ubiquitous street snack is the baleada: a thick flour tortilla is dry-grilled on both sides and folded over a filling of mashed black beans, crema and crumbled cheese. Variations incorporate some combination of eggs, vegetables, ground beef, chicken, pork, sausage, plantain and avocado.
Another popular snack item is the pastelito, in which a corn or flour tortilla is filled with either beef or chicken combined with potatoes and spices, then folded in half and deep fried.
According to O'Connor, in the center of the country you'll find stews: "Deconstruct these items, and you see some European origins. For example, there's a classic dish called gallo en chicha. Gallo is Honduran for rooster, chicha is an artisanal liquor made from fermenting pineapple. If you look at gallo de chicha and look at coq au vin, they're remarkably similar. Instead of braising this tough old bird in red wine, you're substituting a local pineapple liquor. You could replace the onions with shallot, the chicha with red wine, and you'd have coq au vin for all practical purposes."
On the north coast, sopa de caracol (conch soup) is a beloved dish indebted to Garifuna heritage. This stew-like dish is dense with meaty conch pieces and studded with assorted starches such as green plantains or bananas, yuca or potatoes, and seasoned with cilantro, onions and garlic.
Honduran food is not generally spicy, but cumin is widely incorporated and some spice comes into play in the form of condiments, such as spicy pickled vegetables and mild chimol, a fresh salsa comparable to Mexico's pico de gallo.
Stateside, Honduran restaurants are found coast to coast, especially in cities with large Honduran populations. They generally offer Honduran cuisine in combination with other Latin American dishes, partly to appeal to a wider audience beyond Hondurans, and often due to intermarriages among Central Americans from different nations, observes O'Connor
Estela Lopez and her son Reyniery Lopez own Merendero Estela, a Honduran/Mexican food cart in Portland, Oregon. While they attract a loyal Honduran clientele from satellite cities like Seattle, Salem and Yakima, they offer Mexican tacos and burritos "because people ask for them," says Estela. Her simple Honduran menu includes baleadas and tacos catrachos, a chicken-stuffed rolled version of the pastelito. Her delectable pollo con tajadas tops the menu: chicken, marinated for 24 hours in broth seasoned with garlic, mustard, vinegar, salt and pepper is dredged in flour and fried to crisp perfection, and served with a pile of thinly sliced deep fried green bananas. Alternatives to the fried chicken are grilled beef or pork chops.
Is it challenging to procure ingredients? Reyniery reflects "it's hard to get green bananas, we had to develop a relationship with our supplier to make sure we could get bananas that are really green, not just under-ripe yellow bananas."
On the other end of the culinary spectrum and the other side of the country is Chucherias Hondureñas in Daytona Beach, Florida. Native Honduran Mayra Rodriquez crafts an ambitious fusion menu incorporating elements of Central American, Caribbean, Cuban, European and Spanish food, served in an upscale atmosphere with white cloth tablecloths and cocktails. One of their most popular dishes is lobster machuca, says manager Frank Torres, who was raised in Honduras. "The lobster itself is actually from the island of Guanaja, one of the Bay Islands off Honduras. A lobster tail seared in coconut oil is served with shrimp over the machuca, which is yuca mashed with green plantain and garlic. The seafood is tossed in our chimol sauce, which has tomatoes, green peppers and onions, pickled in lime, with a little bit of vinegar, cumin and cilantro."
Other menu items include Honduran sopa de caracol, Spanish/Cuban croquettes, and Salvadoran pupusas. Chef Mayra sources octopus from La Coruña, Spain, for a popular paprika-spiked Spanish style appetizer, and shops locally for genuine Honduran cheese and crema.
Frank Torres says they'd like to use Honduran liquor in the bar, but it's too challenging to procure, so "we work with a lot of spirits from Guatemala and Nicaragua. We came up with a Honduran bloody Mary: We add our own habanero sauce, which we call salsa Garifuna, and we add a dash of cumin."
The dessert menu is largely pan-Latin-American with flan and tres leches cake, but a surprise holiday hit, sticky toffee pudding, has earned a year-round place on the menu. Chef Mayra encountered the traditional English dessert on the Cayman Islands. "It's made with brown sugar and molasses and baked. She serves it with rum raisin ice cream and fresh strawberries," says Torres. "When we took it off people were complaining that we should bring it back, so it's become a signature dessert for us."
The lively culinary cross-pollination of Honduras offers plenty of inspiration to the Latin American restaurant operator. Stick to homey comfort food like the baleadas of southwestern/central Honduras or the seafood preparations of the coast, or riff off the fusion which is integral to the nation's heritage: either way, a taste of Honduras will liven up a menu.