There is more to Costa Rica than rice and beans!
To start with, there are the countless Tropical Fruit like Soursop, Naranjilla and Cas. Delicious Bananas, Pineapples and Mangos –all first rate quality- almost seem like an old hat compared to these. And then, there are also some yummy favourites like Blackberries and Volcano Strawberries year-round. Apart from savouring the fruit straight as it comes, it may also be whipped into a fresh juice. The restaurants, without fault, always have “Naturales” on offer: fresh, natural juices that may be prepared with water or milk. I recommend you keep on sampling, savouring and sipping a new fruit every time. There are plenty more!
Many of Costa Rica’s crops have been introduced into the country from elsewhere. However, some of the venerated local agricultural treasures include Cacao, Yucca, Corn, Pejibaye (peach palm) and Heart of Palm – all essential ingredients of the Costa Rican cuisine. Maybe you have come across yucca under the name of manioc or cassava. Pejibaye is the fruit harvested from the same palm tree that can be cut down to get to the heart of palm. The cacao production has gone down significantly after a wide-spread fungus infection. However, a new, more resilient variety gives reason to hope for a renovation in local cacao production. There is quite a fascinating and tasty chocolate experience that begins with the bean of the gods, includes home-made, 100% pure chocolate and finishes with today’s commonplace chocolate bars. Incidentally, did you know that what we know as corn today is the result of centuries of careful breeding carried out by Central America’s indigenous population?
Costa Rica without its Coffee would be quite unthinkable. The traditional crop is not native but nevertheless Costa Rica’s secret of success. It was the coffee production that turned a forlorn ex-colony into thriving, young republic. Coffee has not only played an important role as a key element in Costa Rica’s past development, it is still being produced and … with very high quality standards! It grows especially well in the highlands and on volcanic soil. Tradition, passion and science are all found in a cup of good Costa Rican coffee. Yet another foreign, but also highly traditional, crop is Sugar Cane – the basis for such sugary delights as Cajetas, caramel sweets or the aromatic, sweet Agua Dulce. Do not make the mistake to underestimate Rum, another sugar cane speciality. Quality rum, like other sophisticated spirits, is carefully matured in wooden barrels for as long as thirty years, resulting in a well-balanced bottled treasure it would be sinful to waste on profane pursuits such as cocktails or cakes.
Sooner or later you will need to try Costa Rica’s Ceviche (raw, marinated fish), Chicharrones (fried pork meat or skin – both juicy and crispy!) or Patacones (fried, green plantains). Naturally, Costa Rica’s culinary classics also include the aforementioned Rice and Beans, still the most important staple food. A solid Costa Rican breakfast will always include the emblematic Gallo Pinto.
So where do you go for all the culinary treats? Your best bet is a Soda, a small, typical restaurant that generally does not hold an alcohol license and in many cases does not even feature a fixed menu. And then, every village or suburb holds its own Grocery Market at least once a week. Alternatively, visit San José’s Central Market or shop directly with the Producers.
On top of that, every region has its own special charm. That is especially true for the Caribbean Coast Cuisine with its Coco and Chili flavours. The vast banana and pineapple plantations, Costa Rica’s chief exportation produce, are found in the North and the East. The Pacific Coast offers fresh fish and the highlands the best coffee.
One of my favourite culinary drive-bys is a superb, small Cheese producer in the Turrialba region – a glowing exception. Truly remarkable cheese, unfortunately, is still a rare thing in Costa Rica. However, an appraising word has to be put in for the Queso Palmito. And even the classic Queso Turrialba, fried crisp in olive oil, does merit a lip smacking …mmmmhhh. Just around the corner from the cheese, a passionate Organic Farmer cultivates his small piece of land with equal measures of passion, science, dedication and toil. All seasoned with good humoured contentedness.
The final word: Costa Rican Beer leaves nothing to be desired. A few and new craft breweries add welcome variety to the established brands.
So there you go: Bon appetite and cheers! Costa Rica promises a savoury experience!