If you’re searching for what to eat in Central America, you don’t have to look too far for great food. It’s everywhere! My best piece of advice is to keep your eyes peeled for a sign or sandwich board with the words ‘Plato tipico’, which translates to the typical dish of the day. You can also look for ‘menu del dia’, meaning menu of the day. From my experience of travelling through every country in Central America, this is where you can eat some of the best meals for the most affordable price. These dishes are built using staple Central American ingredients such as rice, tortillas, beans, fried plantains, salad and usually some grilled or stewed meat.
Here are our 7 best dishes – What to eat in Central America
1) El Salvador – Tamal de Pollo
Tamal de Pollo – A favourite choice for what to eat in Central America
This had to be on your list of what to eat in Central America and this is the El Salvador version of tamale which are found in other Central American countries. Tamal de Pollo is filled with shredded chicken which has first been stewed with chickpeas, olives and potatoes. The combination is mixed with corn masa, then encased in banana leaves and boiled or steamed. Tamal is not so easy to make, it takes time and skill to get all elements right.
Tamal de Pollo is typically made with recaudo sauce. This sauce is made by cooking down a combination of chopped tomatoes, onions, capsicum and garlic. I love the moment when you get to unwrap a Tamal de Pollo and drizzle over more of the rich recaudo salsa, and I bet you’ll love it too. One of my favourite suggestions on what to eat in Central America.
2) Honduras – Baleadas
What to eat in Central America – Try Baleada. Photo Credit : https://commons.wikimedia.org/
The typical Central American staple foods are combined to make this delicious meal. Baleadas is a popular local dish in Honduras that is prepared using a mixture of beans, eggs, avocado and cheese stuffed inside soft corn or wheat tortillas. A slathering of sour cream is often added too. You can find them at street vendors or even at fuel stations too. If you like a little spice in your life, add some in some hot sauce.
Baleadas are eaten at any time of the day, however, they seem to be most popular as a breakfast dish. So if you are travelling and wondering what to eat for breakfast in Central America – Baleadas are the answer.
3) Panama – Bistec Picado
Bistec Picado translates to ground beef, so it’s no surprise that the core ingredient is meat. Finely chopped pieces of meat (typically beef, however you could also create this dish using other proteins) are braised with chilli peppers in a rich tomato sauce.
Once prepared, the dish is usually topped with onions and capsicum and served with salad and a mountain of white rice. I’m a big fan of this dish and had to include it on my list of what to eat in Central America.
Bistec Picado is also a popular dish in Cuba and Guatemala.
4) Belize – Tapou
What to eat in Central America? Tapou in Belize is a good choice. Photo Credit – https://belizing.com
Belize has some really tasty dishes, but one dish must be on this what to eat in Central America list. Tapou is a rich and creamy fish stew originating in Belize. Ingredients to make this delicious dish include garlic, onions, capsicum, ginger, tomatoes, orange & lime juice, cassava, potatoes, plantain, multiple spices and a bunch of fresh herbs (coriander, basil & parsley). Coconut milk is the base of the soup which creates a creamy texture. The soup is packed full of fresh seafood like prawns, conch, crab and of course, fresh fish. A definitely a must eat in Belize, Central America.
The fish is covered in flour, the excess is shaken off and then it is fried until golden in colour. At this stage, it is added to the stew. Tapou is best served with rice and lime wedges on the side to lift the flavours.
5) Nicaragua – Baho
What to eat in Central America – Baho is a popular dish in Nicaragua. Photo Credit – https://www.granpacifica.com
Baho is a dish that is typically eaten on the weekend and from personal experience, it’s a meal that is perfect if you’ve had one too many beers the night before. This dish is prepared by chopping chunks of beef, plantains, cassava, green plantains, capsicum and onions. These ingredients are steamed together on low heat in a large cooking pot that is sealed with layers of banana leaves. This process is to seal in all the incredible flavours of the contents inside.
After this has been cooking slowly for five to eights hours, the dish is ready. Baho is typically served with a cabbage slaw dressed in vinegar. It’s the perfect accompaniment to this dish as it cuts through the meat and vegetables, enhancing the flavour. Next time I return on another search for what to eat in Central America, I’ll be stopping by in Nicaragua for a good serving of Baho. It’s a dish that feels like a warm hug after you’ve eaten it.
6) Costa Rica – Casado
Casado in Costa Rica is one of our favourite choices for what to eat in Central America. Photo Credit – https://www.airtransat.com
This dish is the classic Costa Rican lunch. If you ask any local about the one meal you should try while you’re here, they’ll probably direct you to their favourite eatery that cooks good casado.
So, what is it? The casado is a plate with a combination of foods. You will find black beans, white rice, plantains, fresh salad, chimichurri and picadillo. It’s common that you will be served a fresh fruit juice of the day with a plate of casado. They’re always fantastic, so be sure to try it. Costa Ricans love a little spice to their food, so condiments are always at the ready. My favourite is salsa lizano, a smooth brown sauce that tastes so good on this dish. Keep an eye out for vinegarette condiments too, they’ll usually be home-made and a perfect blend to splash on your salad.
Look out for sandwich boards or signs with the words plato ejecutivos. This is an indication that it’s a good place to eat casado at a good price.
My very first trip to Costa Rica was an amazing experience. I asked a lady at reception what to eat in Central America and especially in Costa Rica as I had no idea (I was only 22). Her answer was: Casado. And she sent me to a lady near the beach to try my first Casado in Costa Rica.
What to eat in Central America – Pepian de Pollo in Guatemala. What a delicious dish. Photo Credit : https://www.atastefortravel.ca
I’d return again and again to Guatemala just to eat this dish each time. I love it! Pepian is unique to this country, and it’s often referred to as the mole of Guatemala. If you haven’t tasted mole in Mexico, then learn more about that in my post 10 things you must try in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Ok, so let’s talk about Pepian, my favourite dish from Guatemala.
It’s essentially a Guatemalan stew and it can be cooked using any protein such as chicken, pork, or beef. It’s not uncommon to use a combination of these meats either, in my opinion, this is even more delicious. The meat is stewed in a tomato-based sauce made up of tomatoes, garlic, chilli, and spices. This dish gets its unique flavour from roasted pumpkin and sesame seeds that are ground into a fine powder and added to the stew. This addition gives a lovely nutty flavour to the sauce and helps thicken it too.
Root vegetables such as potatoes and carrots are added to the stew. Once the vegetables are perfectly cooked and the meat is soft and tender, it is served over white rice and naturally, some fresh tortillas to mop up all that incredible sauce. Pepian is a must-eat dish! You must place on on the very top of your foodie bucket-list for what to eat in Central America.
Keen to learn more about what to eat in Central America? Check out Food Network for some foodie inspiration and Central American recipes.
There are so many tasty dishes when deciding what to eat in Central America. What is your favourite food from this continent?
Rach is a self-confessed travelling foodie. Her passion for food and culture has seen her eat her way through 187 countries. She's currently on a big food adventure to visit EVERY country in the world!
When Rach isn't travelling, you can find her at the beach, drinking coffee or wine with friends or chowing down on the best eats around her home city of Melbourne, Australia.