Recent efforts have been made to market Costa Rica as a culinary destination (see article) for your next vacation. Known for its abundance of nature and biodiversity, Costa Rica has always been considered lacking in the culinary department. The first thought that comes to mind when someone mentions this country as a valid culinary destination is…..really? Seriously though…..Costa Rica has been slowly making a name for itself in food lovers circles and thanks to our friends at Food Vacation, I’d like to share this excellent article on Costa Rican Cuisine!
"Costa Rican food is not especially memorable," so begins the Frommer's guidebook section on Costa Rican food & drink. Likewise, Fodor's 2004 Gold Guide quips, "Costa Rica is not known for its fine dining." First, is this reputation for being what Travel & Leisure magazine recently called a "food purgatory" deserved? In our opinion none of the Central American or most of the South American nations have anywhere near the culinary sophistication of, say, Mexico, which stands out as having one of the world's great cuisines. Chile and Argentina have inherited some excellent European culinary traditions, and had the economies necessary to support them, but otherwise most of Latin America cannot lay claim to being a culinary wonderland.
As suggested, there are economic reasons for this, and Costa Rica is no exception. Though richer than some of its neighbors, Costa Rica is a poor country and its native residents never had the money to elaborate a sophisticated cookery or dining tradition. To the extent that this occurred historically, Costa Rica belongs to the worldwide Creole culinary culture that encompassed not only south Louisiana, but also the Carribean, coastal and/or colonial areas of Latin America, and the sugar islands of Africa, as well as the Indian Ocean.
In our opinion, therefore, Costa Rica does not deserve to be singled out for being particularly bad in culinary terms--it is simply within the general ambit of Latin cookery stretching from Belize to the Amazon.
Second, Costa Rica does have its culinary highlights. These include a great wealth of high quality primary ingredients including seafood from two coasts, an abundance of different vegetables, a full array of culinary herbs and spices, and a treasure trove of fruit varieties. Costa Ricans are also very good farmers. Beef and other meat quality is not superior, but more than workable. Chicken is good quality and very popular, while tuna, red snapper, and mahi mahi (or their relatives) can be excellent. Needless to say, Costa Rica has some of the best coffee in the world. Due to Costa Rica's much tauted bio-diversity, its good soil, and abundant fresh water mean a full range of agricultural production as well.
As a Creole cuisine, Costa Rican cookery is a fusion of indigenous knowledge and ingredients, colonial European sensibilities (in this case mostly Spain, but also Italy), more recent U.S. influence, Afro-Caribbean techniques, distinct Chinese flourishes, and a mostly poor population with a relatively large (but still small) class of wealthy Creoles and European immigrants or their descendants who demanded some kind of fine dining.
With its cultural imperative to appear harmonious and somewhat homogenous, Costa Ricans like to sublimate the existence and strong influence of both indigenous (i.e. Native American Indian) and Afro-Caribbean slave influences. Costa Rica presents itself as out of the Central American norm in terms of not having a large indigenous or mixed indigenous-European or indigenous-African (mestizo) population, and this is simply not true. Likewise, though they still live largely in the Caribbean lowlands, there is a significant black population--descendants of plantation workers--in Costa Rica. Many of them speak Creole English. Too, the Chinese imported as slavery-level workers for the banana railroad in the late 19th century remain in Costa Rica, with their population suplemented by more recent migrants from Taiwan and mainland China. The Chinese have become fully integrated into Tico society, and their cuisine has made its mark as well. Finally, 20th century immigrants from Italy cannot be forgotten, nor can the Spanish colonial rulers and administrators, many of whom became coffee barons.
Thought of in these cultural and historical terms, Costa Rica cookery becomes a bit more interesting.
Current Culinary Happenings:
Today, the biggest culinary influence probably comes from the tourism industry and the advent of more upscale Costa Rican Hotels and inns that have brought professionally trained cooks into the country to prepare menus that may or may not have much to do with native traditions. This has the tendency to produce what we call culinary school menus, where the chef tries to reproduce what he was taught at Cordon Bleu, the Culinary Institute of America, or in a Las Vegas hotel kitchen. Thus, you have lots of "international" Costa Rican restaurants and menus with no particular attachment to time or place, except for the strictures imposed by ingredient availability.
If any treasure trove of culinary creativity exists in Costa Rica, it lies not in these hotel dining rooms or the countries many area restaurants, but in the home cooking (including the wealthy elite homes) and the Sodas (family-run roadside or market eateries). This is not to say that all Soda food is good or creative. A Casado is just a rustic worker's lunch at a cheap price, marrying together all the courses of a European meal in one place and on one plate--the salad, the starch, the main course.
Spanish influences--empanadas or brown sauces--exist alongside Indian ones--tamales--along Cantonese Rice and Chinese "chorizo" (chorizo chino) sausages and "Italian" macaronis.
Far above and beyond these cultural culinary elements, however, is the importance of Costa Rica's ingredient diversity, which is the basis for the making of any great cuisine.
Given its equatorial location and its physical geography, Costa Rica has an inordinate number of zones within which food can be grown. These includes temperate fruits and vegetables such as apples, peaches, strawberries, asparagus, peas, artichokes, cauliflower, and cabbage as well as tropical exemplaries from jack fruit and bread fruit to innumerable varieties of mango, papaya, lychee, pineapple, avacadoes, types of passion fruit (maracuya, granadilla, etc.), anona, guayaba, banana varieties, coconut, chocolate, vanilla, chayote, mangosteen, husk and tree tomatoes, cashew, macadamia, coffee, etc. If a tropical fruit exists in the world, it is probably cultivated in Costa Rica. While travelling around the country, many want to encounter "typical" cuisine and to focus on what is local. This is great if you understand that Costa Rica has been a poor country with a fairly unelaborated culinary tradition. The most famous national dish is thus black bean and rice, known as "gallo pinto." It is flavored with sweet chilies, cilantro, salt, pepper, and usually Lizano Salsa. Costa Ricans make very good empanadas (pastry stuffed with a variety of ingedients including beans, cheese, potatos, and meat, or any of them in combination) as well as tamales. Tamales are often made in the home at Christmas time, but can be purchased at sodas--small family run restaurants--at anytime of the year.
Tamales are made of a corn meal masa similar to that found in Mexico and the rest of Central America. The masa has been treated with calcium carbonate and has a distinct flavor, with stock, lard, garlic, and seasonings often being added. This forms the outer shell, which is then stuffed with beef, beans, chicken, and/or vegetables and cilantro or culantro. The tamales are then wrapped in fresh banana leaves, tied up, and boiled or steamed until firm and fully cooked. They are excellent served with a fresh tomato salsa!
Another typical Costa Rican meal is the casado or "marriage," which consists of portions of a number of different dishes served on one plate, usually as a kind of worker's lunch. Typically you can choose from beef, chicken, or fish casados, and these main ingredients will be accompanied by a combination of cabbage salad, vegetables, fried yucca, beans, rice, or other available side dishes.
Tacos al alambre, or barbed wire tacos, are another typical plato. These are not Mexican style tacos--instead it is a dish of braised chicken or beef cut into strips, usually cooked with sliced sweet chili peppers, and a mild sauce. It is served with fresh tortillas or tortilla chips and one or two sides and is delicious.
Both the Mercado Central and Mercado Bourbon in central San Jose are very interesting from a culinary perspective, particularly to see the variety of fruits and vegetables grown in the country. However, the Central Market and particularly Bourbon are not in good neighborhoods and one should use their street smarts when in these areas.
The weekly farmer's market in San Ramon (or most any town in this country), by contrast, are considered safe and full of local farmers selling and incredible variety of products. These are generally held every Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, just ask for "la feria", or you can inquire at your hotel.
Cheeses: the level of cheesemaking sophistication in Costa Rica is not high and sanitary standards could be questioned. We would personally recommend staying away from the fresh white cheeses, particularly those riddled with gas holes, unless they are cooked. An exception is Queso Palmito or any of the other pasta filata type (mozzarella type) cheeses, which have for all intents and purposes been heat treated in the production process. All cheeses made by the Monteverde co-op and by Dos Pinos are very sanitary if not particularly savory.
The cheeses made by the Dutch-style factory at Barva can be quite good.
Tropical Fruits: Costa Rica's farmers grow an astounding array of tropical fruits, from luscious golden and Creole pineapples, to passion fruit, lychee, and custard apple.
Wine: Although some European immigrants have been experimenting with wine grape cultivation in Costa Rica, no one has succeeded. The government did sponsor an experimental effort several years ago, but eventually most of the vines were ripped out.
If you see Costa Rican wine for sale, it is almost surely from imported Chilean grape juice that is then processed in Costa Rica--the quality is terrible and it is--at least so far--not worth buying except as a total novelty.
So if you find yourself in Costa Rica, or will be traveling to soon to Costa Rica, take a harder look at the cuisine. Immerse yourself in the culture by eating “comida tipica”, visiting one of the many farmer’s markets, or befriending some of the friendly “Ticos” who are famous for inviting visitors to their homes for a meal. You will find that this country actually does have some fabulous food. And if you find yourself coming to Costa Rica in August, don’t miss the “Maestro Culinario” cooking competition, featuring this countries top chefs! Buen provecho!!
Kimberly Barron, originally from Malibu, California has lived in Parismina and Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica for 20 years. Starting as a certified tour guide, she spent 15 years managing fishing lodges on the Caribbean Coast and later 4* & 5* Hotels on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. Currently semi-retired, Kimberly still works as the Marketing Director for Byblos Resort & Casino and Hotel Makanda by the Sea.