One of the things that a visitor of Corn Islands notice is the dichotomy of the people, their language and their customs compared with those on the mainland. Unlike the Spanish-speaking mainland of Nicaragua, Corn Islands were a British protectorate (and refuge for pirates) until 1894 when the government declared the area’s sovereignty, so most native islanders have more in common culturally with other English-speaking Caribbean islands than they do with the mainland of Nicaragua. Many have English surnames.
The islanders are English-speaking Creole people of mixed black heritage, descendents of English settlers and slaves brought over from Africa. There are also Garifuna people, the descendents of Carib, Arawak and West African people, Mestizos from mainland Nicaragua, and indigenous Miskito people from Caribbean Mosquito coast.
English is considered the official language on Corn Islands, followed by Miskito and Spanish. 70% of the population speaks both English and Spanish. The locals make their living from harvesting lobster and fishing. Life moves at slow pace and reggae is the music of the islands.
The two islands, Big Corn and Little Corn, were under British domination until the late 19th century so it is not surprising that British influence still exists in the type of architecture seen on the islands. Some examples of original architecture using English style, typical of the Caribbean, can be found. Most of these two-storey houses are now hotels, equipped to make your stay a pleasant and comfortable experience.
Native Creole population lives in colourful Caribbean style wooden houses, scattered along the main road that encircles Big Corn Island, and in the Village of Little Corn Island. Brightly painted single-storey houses sit amongst palm trees. The airy houses are simply framed, with porches overlooking gardens that are filled with trees and plants in full bloom.
The Caribbean of Nicaragua has its own unique cuisine, different from the rest of Nicaragua. It's a blend of ethnic influences, a rich reminder of where today's inhabitants of Corn Island came from. Caribbean dishes, regarded by many as the best in the country, rely heavily on the day's catch of fish and seafood, and spicy curries are often blended with coconut milk to create mouthwatering flavour blends. The islands are abundant in seafood, from lobster, shrimp, conch and a great variety of fish. The most famous dish is certainly rondón, a slow-cooked coconut-based casserole that contains any kind of fish and seafood alongside a variety of native vegetables such as yuca, sweet potato and green plantains, and coconut milk to produce a thick, hearty and heavenly seafood dish.
Coconuts are widely used in the islands' cuisine. Thick coconut milk is used for making coconut rice which accompanies most of the dishes. Grated coconut is used in many deserts and cakes. Coconut bread (pan de coco) can be easily found and it's used for everything, from toast in the morning to snack during the day. Light, fluffy, sweet coconut bread is sold by little children on the beach and in small shops or from their houses by the ladies who make it. Their freshly baked cinnamon rolls and banana bread are also delicious. And do not miss coconut water (agua de coco), the juice of young coconuts! Ask someone to cut down one coconut for you and drink coconut water straight from the nut. It is delicious, refreshing, very nutritious, and has great health benefits.
With all these I found myself in culinary heaven :)
Rondón has been my favourite Caribbean dish since I tried it for the first time on Colombian islands San Andrés and Providencia. So whenever I travel to the Caribbean I always ask locals about this most delicious dish and try to find somebody who is willing to prepare it for me. Oh, it’s so good! I could easily eat it every day :)
Rondón (meaning ‘run down’) is a rich fish and seafood casserole with yucca, yam, green plantains and dumplings, slowly cooked in coconut milk. The recipe varies, depending on what ingredients you happen to ‘run down’, this means, whatever the fisherman brings that day. Half the fun is gathering the ingredients and the preparation itself. Rondón can be made in kitchen, or even better outdoors, usually for the whole family. It is not likely to get it in a restaurant so I was pleasantly surprised to find a few places on the Little Corn Island that occasionally make this local speciality. But you need to order it a day in advance since it takes a long time to prepare.
How to make rondón
Coconut milk is an essential part of a good rondon so the first task is to gather a few coconuts. Open the coconuts and great the coconut meat into a large pot. Add the water and squeeze the gratings with your hands. Then separate the milk from the gratings by squeezing the gratings in a cloth sack.
Bring the coconut milk to a boil and add Caribbean vegetables, such as yucca, yam/sweet potato and green plantains. Add crushed garlic and fresh herbs to taste. Season the dish with black pepper and salt. Now come the fish, conch, lobster, shrimp, squid, octopus and/or whatever else you have ‘run down’. Simmer the dish until vegetable is soft and seafood is transparent and delicate.
Rondón is best served about 20 minutes after taking it off the heat. Of course, if at all you can wait that long :) The portions are normally huge, and despite a good effort hardly anyone is able to finish it all.
For some reason it was pretty normal to walk around the street with the hair rolled up on Carmen Curlers.
The woman owing the hostel where I stayed, even opened the door wearing a huge pink dress and pink curlers.