Modern Central American farmers-aided by the region's fertile volcanic soil-still cultivate ancient crops and newer Spanish additions,producing a wealth of different foods. In Belize farmers raise sugarcane, along with delicious tropical fruits such as bananas and papayas. In neighboring Guatemala, important crops include corn,the spice cardamom, and valuable coffee beans. El Salvador, too, is home to crops of coffee, sugarcane, and corn, along with beans and rice, and Hondurans harvest pineapples, melons, and citrus fruits. Farther south, Nicaraguan farmers raise peanuts, coffee,bananas, sesame, and soybeans, while Costa Ricans farm foods such as plantains (a relative of the banana), rice, beans, and potatoes.
Panamanians produce harvests of coffee, bananas, sugarcane,and vegetables. Fishing crews throughout Central America also pull in valuable catches of fish, shrimp, and other seafood along the coasts. Farther inland, farmers tend to livestock such as cattle and sheep, and in rural areas, many households keep a few pigs and chickens of their own in yards or nearby fields. Luckily for local diners, this wide range of resources has given Central America a diverse culinary tradition. Regional cooks are masters at using the best produce and grains to create fresh, delicious meals. The blending of native tastes with the Spanish colonists' favorite foods also brought new variety to Central American tables, as did influences from African slaves and Caribbean immigrants.
Many popular dishes are eaten by diners throughout the region,crossing borders and connecting people of different nations, ethnic groups, and lifestyles. One of these common foods is sopa de frijoles (bean soup). While variations exist from country to country and cook to cook, this simple, hearty soup is found all around Central America. Other widespread favorites are fried plantains, countless variations on basic rice and beans, and rich desserts such as arroz con leche (rice pudding). A host of national specialties also exists. Guatemalan cooks take great pride in their pepian, a thick stew of chicken and potatoes in a rich tomato, pepper, and pumpkin seed sauce. Guatemalans also enjoy escabeche, a tart salad of pickled vegetables, and jocon-meat in a green sauce of cilantro, green onions, and tomatillos (a relative of the tomato). In the nations of Belize and Honduras, which lie in northern Central America, nearby Caribbean islands have lent their flavors to local cuisine. Favorites here include tropical-tasting pan de coco (coconut bread), along with Caribbean standards such as johnny cakes (biscuits) and fried fish. Other Belizean favorites are stewed chicken and stewed beans, prepared by slowly cooking the chicken, beans, or other main ingredients in a thick, spicy sauce. Honduran diners feast on specialties such as sopa de caracol, a thick soup made with conch (a type of shellfish), coconut milk, and potatoes or yucca (a root vegetable similar in texture to a potato). Another popular dish in Honduras is pinchos, grilled meat kabobs often served with vegetables, beans, and cheese.
In El Salvador, nearly everyone eats pupusas, cornmeal cakes stuffed with cheese, beans, or meat and served with salsa and a zesty vegetable slaw. After an especially spicy plate of pupusas, Salvadorans cool down with sweet rice milk called horchata. A favorite dessert is Maria Luisa cake, a fresh-tasting layer cake flavored with orange juice, orange zest, and orange marmalade.