Costa Rican Food
A Taste of Costa Rica
Costa Rica frequently receives praise for its natural richness and tropical diversity. The same is true of the foods we eat on a daily basis. Our tropical climate yields a variety of vegetables, fruits and lesser-known delicacies that we use in many ways, some unique to Costa Rica.
Costa Rican food is often labeled bland and simple, which is not completely fair to our gastronomic heritage. Spanish colonization united Mediterranean traditions with a twist of the tropics, including all its bright and exotic colors and textures. Classic Tico cuisine is known for being tasty and fairly mild when it comes to spices, with a high reliance on fresh fruits and vegetables. Traditional restaurants all around the country serve the usual round of “gallo pinto” and eggs for breakfast, as well as the quintessential lunch dish, the “casado”: a hearty plate of rice, beans, plantains, cheese, salad and your choice of protein, usually grilled, ranging from beef to chicken to pork to fish.
Vegetable stews, hashes and slaws, either by themselves or mixed with a protein, are readily available all over the country. In many areas, the style of picadillo varies with local and seasonal produce. Picadillos are usually served with fresh corn tortillas (almost like a soft Mexican taco) and are known as “gallos.”
We rely highly on farmers markets to buy our fresh vegetables, usually at shockingly low prices. There you can find a full array of exotic tropical fruit, squashes, tubers, baked goods and everything in between to satisfy the palate of a foodie with new scents and shapes rarely seen outside the tropics. Tubers, such as cassava (or tapioca root), sweet potatoes, dasheen and taro, among others, are mashed, served as croquettes or made into soups and stews.
Bananas and plantains are used in many ways. A host of banana-inspired desserts, breads and drinks and the unique flavor of plantains, either ripe or green, truly make for versatile combinations. Ripe plantains accompany casados and are used in many dishes, from sweet empanadas filled with cheese and beans to delicious plantain bread. When green, plantains are treated more like a starch and are used in place of or in combination with potatoes and the like. Green plantains chips, twice-fried “patacones” (or “tostones”) or even boiled in the traditional veggie and meat stew “olla de carne” are just some of the ways green plantains are used.
Fresh tropical fruits allow for a large number of drinks, known as “refrescos,” as well as concoctions that vary throughout the country, depending on local availability. Pineapple, papaya, mango and other tropical classics are most frequently used in drinks, but exotic flavors, such as tamarind, sour guava and soursop can also be found. Other traditional drinks include “horchata” (made with rice), “chan” (a mushy seed drink), “agua dulce” (a brown sugar and water or milk warm concoction) and coffee.
Each area of the country has its own cuisine showcasing local native traditions and those brought by the conquistadores. The cuisine of the northern province of Guanacaste, for example, is a combination of the Chorotega Indians’ staple diet of corn, squash and beans, as well as flavors well-known to Spaniards, creating a unique blend of foods that share both backgrounds and ideas.
The Spanish brought grains, meats and certain vegetables that added different flavors, but the locals maintained their way of cooking. The Nicoya kept most of their traditions and foods intact, from our quintessential holiday food, the corn tamal, to brewed corn drinks like “chicha.” Many of these foods evolved to become “typical food” across the country,
spreading to the rest of the Pacific coast, the Central Valley and northern plains. A typical Guanacaste specialty is a
giant corn tortilla served with a side of sour cream or cheese.
Residents of the Central Valley also use corn in many different foods, combining it with the meats of animals imported from Europe and grains such as rice and wheat. Meals became more sophisticated in this region and were more influenced by European traditions, especially in the capital and the surrounding cities, as stews and baked goods gave way to new ideas of mixing flavors and techniques.
Items such as baked corn goods, meat and vegetable stews, brioche-like artisanal breads, sweets with coconut and fruits that could be easily wrapped in a tortilla were found on every corner of the valley.
The food on the Caribbean coast tells a somewhat different story. The construction of the railroad brought many African slaves from the Caribbean islands, and with them came their culture and food traditions. Food in Limón food is by far some of the most remarkable in the country: a blend of spices and ideas from all over the world, honoring African roots. Coconuts are widely used in cakes, soups, sweets and even in their version of “gallo pinto”: rice and beans spiced with thyme, scotch bonnet peppers and coconut milk.
Classic Caribbean dishes include pastry turnovers like “patí” (plantain and meat empanadas) or “plantinta” (a turnover filled with mashed plantains). Also
common is the “pan-bon,” a bread baked with spices and nuts. Popular in Limón is a version of a Thai curry: “rondon” (or “run-down”), a coconut milk stew with several kinds of fish and seafood, plus whatever available tubers one may “run-down” to add to the pot, well seasoned with
peppers, coffee and many other spices.
Over the generations, every family has altered the recipes and made them their own, with their own standards, flavors and cooking methods. Little by little, this has led to the development of a “New Costa Rican Cuisine,” a concept coined by Tico Chef Isabel Campabadal, whose ideas revolutionized the way Costa Rican food was viewed and cooked. She became the official ambassador of the new Tico way to cook, spreading her recipes in international circles.
Her culinary point of view quickly grew and served as inspiration and guide for up-and-coming Costa Rican chefs. Many of them developed their own identity when it comes to mixing spices and the fruits of this idyllic land. In the hands of the next generation of cooks, fusion Costa Rican cuisine was created and perfected.
My personal experience follows these dramatic changes. While training in California, I was personally exposed to many exotic flavors from Asia to Africa. It was an eye-opener for me as I witnessed the flavors of the tropics unwind in so many new shapes and flavors. The same products we used in this land were very similar to those utilized in far away latitudes.
My culinary point of view was influenced by these experiences and has changed to apply the ideas of our blessed land with the concepts of spicing and using fresh ingredients from different parts of the world. The path was a success and we are able to incorporate it in the cuisine at our El Silencio Lodge & Spa.
Starting with our onsite organic garden, we work with local organic farmers and purveyors to further enrich our choices and blend the typical Tico traditions and produce with the techniques and ideas of other parts of the globe. This has led to a selection of recipes that showcase our true legacy and imagination, offering a healthy wellness-inspired menu where freshness is vital to our goal of serving the best and the freshest food available in imaginative and unexpected ways.
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