or, a Foodie’s Struggle in Costa Rica;
I am quite sure this is not the most objective article about Costa Rican cuisine; it is rather an impression I got after three weeks of backpacking around the country.
So I have watched all those videos about how enlightened Costa Rica is in regards to the protection of its environment, and that more than 25% of the land is protected national park. So I was prepared for all those easily accessible organic goodies and healthy food and all those exotic dishes that could be prepared with these great ingredients.
Well, I got a bit disappointed regarding these expectations.
Yes, the national parks bit of the story is truly amazing, but from my own experience, the Tico (local Costa Rican) culture is really simple when it comes to food.
I could count the number of traditional dishes on the fingers of one hand, and they don’t seem to be too sensitive towards the ingredients they use.
It’s almost impossible to find organic products in grocery stores; there is no market for that, and there isn’t a wide variety of products on the shelves either.
So let’s have a look at the most popular, commonly available foods in Costa Rica.
An enormous amount of potato (sometimes plantain) chips (crisps) and soft drinks are a major source of energy here. The supermarket’s repertoire is often 90% toxic waste in colorful bags. I know this is not exceptional around the American continent, but please, I am a civilized (not) European, I can’t stand criticising this irresponsible behaviour… sorry about my sarcastic, grumpy tone. But pleasant disappointment is always better than unsatisfied expectations after all.
The second most frequent food you will see more than often is a kind of pastry, which comes in different shapes and forms – the name changes with the shape, but they all taste the same. They are either filled with ‘pollo‘ (chicken), ‘carne‘ (meat – what meat? don’t ask), ‘queso‘ (cheese) or ‘papas‘ (potatoes). This pattern hardly changes. There is no pollo mixed with queso, dont even think about it, just keep it simple.
The most popular shape is the half-moon shaped, which is called an empanada – and no, these are not your mouth-watering Argentinian empanadas.
They are usually soaked in oil, and both the filling and the pastry is like some absolutely tasteless oily neutral substance – of course there are some exceptions, I happened to eat one good empanada out of the 20 I had – as usually this was the only option in miles of distance, that’s why the experience.
The third biggest favourite around is plain chicken pieces fried in bread crumbs. I never went for one, to be honest, but probably they taste like fried chicken – no doubts. You can flush it with a half a liter of coke, and won’t think about eating for a while.
So let’s see the traditional dishes – here comes the better part – which are usually served in so-called ‘sodas‘, which stands for a small local restaurant which serves the three to four major traditional dishes.
1. The ‘casado’ – only in lunch time – rice with black beans, choice of meat (chicken, fish, beef, pork), salad, fried plantain, some hot/mild salsa like sauce or fried onions
2. The ‘gallo pinto’ – only for breakfast – the rice with beans left from yesterday’s casado, with some fried egg (sometimes with tortilla and cheese)
3. The ‘ceviche’ – different types of raw fish cured in citrus juice – yummy!
4. The ‘arroz con mariscos’ – a risotto type of food with seafood and vegetables.
These ‘sodas’ are all over the country, they all serve the same food, usually quite boring and simple deal meals, but you can find some exceptionally good ones!
I did have really positive experiences on the Caribbean side with some delicious fresh fried fish (daily catch from the sea) along with the typical rice mixed with black beans, salad, fried plantain, and spicy coconut sauce – actually, it was a casado with fish, the Caribbean way.
Fruits and smoothies are also worth mentioning, there are several smoothie bars around the beaches, but these are often tourist traps.
A wide variety of tropical fruits from all around Central and South America are available at fruit and vegetable stalls, it’s more than easy to find fruits or vegetables that you have probably never seen before.
Eating coconut / drinking coconut water is, of course, obligatory in a tropical paradise, I’ve written a separate article about opening and drinking, eating coconuts in Costa Rica.
The international cuisine is also present, Italian restaurants are the most popular ones, and you can even find some Chinese restaurants. It was quite surprising for me to find a significant number of Chinese immigrants living in Costa Rica.
No need to mention, all the bigger towns abound with all the world famous fast food chains originating from the Land of Liberty.
If you have more time to explore the local cuisine, you can surely find hidden gems; I know there are several smart innovations by young Costa Ricans, for example in San Jose I found a great craft beer pub – Stiefel Pub – with some fantastic Costa Rican craft beers, and really great food.