Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Comida Típica de Costa Rica (Typical Costa Rican Food)

So we got back a little later than expected from our vacation to Costa Rica... as a result of a misprogrammed GPS and some airline shenanigans that led to a Surprise! three night stay at the Liberia Hilton while we tried to return to the United States. Thus I've been a little slow in getting back to food blogging... but I'm (mostly) feeling back in the swing of things and can hopefully return to my traditional weekly schedule going forward.

Before that, however, I obviously took a lot of pictures in Costa Rica... and many of them were of things I ate... so I thought I would put up a quick post on what I think counts as the more "traditional" specialties of local cuisine. I was only in the country for two weeks (and never spent any time on the Caribbean side), so I have no pretension towards authority... but there was little enough info about the food out there when we started planning this trip apart from Wikipedia that I thought my experiences were worth posting about.

Part of the reason for this lack of information is that Costa Rican cuisine doesn't have anything iconic, like say the Salvadorian pupusa as its claim to fame (except maybe Salsa Lizano and Imperial beers)... it's also not particularly spicy and mainly consists of variations on rice and beans. So it's easy for it to get pigeonholed as sort of boring, at least compared to places like Mexico, Brazil, or Argentina (which it should be noted are places that cover a ton more geographical area than Costa Rica). On the other hand they've got access to tons of fresh seafood from either the Pacific or Caribbean, and even though the food is on the simple side doesn't mean it can't be delicious (as it most frequently was).

Casado

The most obvious of the straightforward dishes of Costa Rican cuisine is casado. It is served in every roadside restaurant (called "sodas") and even in most tourist filled resorts, and consists of a piece of meat, rice, beans, plantains, a salad, and tortillas. The salads were always curiously undressed beyond anything other than (maybe) some lime juice and salt... or just consisted of partially/poorly cooked collections of vegetables... and was always my least favorite part of the plate. The plantains seemed to vary from restaurant to restaurant in how they were prepared, and though they were always excellent my favorite was patacones... which is a sort of refried plantain cake. The best meat I got was some smoked pork at a place one of our guides took us to for lunch, but both fish and beef are strong specialties of the region. In general, this dish seems to be the Costa Rican equivalent of meat and three (but with no choices beyond the meat), and while it is worth trying and most frequently good in my limited experience... it is probably not going to be the best food you have in Costa Rica if you have a more adventurous palate.

Costa Rican Breakfast

I've actually had a breakfast or two labeled as "Costa Rican" right here in Cambridge (the dishes diverge quickly beyond the sunny side eggs), but the dish traditionally consists of rice and beans, eggs (fried or scrambled), and tortillas. Unlike casados, the beans and rice here are mixed together (with onions and peppers) in what is called gallo pinto. I received the fried farmer style cheese you see above only once in my various "típica" breakfasts... more usually getting chorizo instead... but the cheese was definitely the more awesome, so grab it if you can. Once again, this is not particularly "foreign" dish to an American... even if we don't usually have rice and beans for breakfast... but I honestly loved it. Gallo pinto is particularly excellent, and it's probably worth grabbing a Tico breakfast on its strength alone.

Arroz con Camarones

Arroz con pollo (chicken and rice) is a dish that is popular all over Latin America, and that is no less true in Costa Rica. However given the freshness of the seafood and the consistent perfection to which the Ticos cooked their shrimp during our visit, I found myself preferring arroz con camarones. It may seem a little odd that they often throw fries on as a side for something akin to paella, but it was pretty common... though it's not clear to me how much of this is an attempt to appeal to American/Canadian tourists and how much it reflects a genuine love of french fries on the part of Costa Ricans. One side note is that green skinned fruit with orange flesh is actually lime... but one crossed with a mandarin orange and known either as a mandarin lime or Rangpur lime in English. Not quite as tart as a lime, but still pretty acidic... not a fruit I've ever seen in New England.

Seafood Soup

Given what I've already mentioned about seafood in Costa Rica, it's probably no surprise to learn that seafood soup is on many menus across the country. Generally it's a seafood stock base, with maybe some potatoes for body, that is otherwise dominated by big chunks of fresh seafood. Once again a simple dish that is not aggressively spiced but that is still really, really good. This soup was my second favorite appetizer of the entire trip, but I still only had it a couple of times because of...

Ceviche

Ceviche! While Peru seems to have the strongest claim to being the area from which this dish originated, it is unarguable that you will find great versions of this dish up and down South and Central America and throughout the Caribbean... and the trio of ceviches you see above (from Mar y Sol in Playa Flamingo) is probably the best I have ever had. The left is octopus, the center is shrimp with passion fruit, and the right is sea bass. All were distinct and lovely... with the passion fruit version pushing the boundaries of my expectations with its sweetness. While none of the other ceviches I had in Costa Rica quite lived up to the standard set by Mar y Sol, they were all excellent and it is definitely something you should try while there.

As you might have noticed, I didn't mention much in the way of vegetables... and that's because this is really a meat and potatoes rice and beans type country, and from our time there didn't seem offer a large variety of interestingly prepared vegetables... even if you ask for a "casado vegetariano" you are likely to just get steamed mixed vegetables to go with your plantains and curiously undressed salad. Now, the numerous plantain and yuca dishes we had were fantastic... and the farmer's cheese was great... but if you are looking for plates of awesome veggies you are in trouble. Now, this is obviously not true in non-traditional restaurants which are quite prevalent in tourist areas or larger towns... but if you are vegetarian and trying to stick to sodas (or other places locals frequent) you'll probably be eating a lot of gallo pinto and fruit. I'm sure there are lots of places in Latin America that are significantly worse places to eat vegetarian (Brazil comes to mind), but it would hard to call this a vegetarian paradise unless you eat fish.

I may or may not put up some more general Costa Rica stuff and/or document some of the other (non-traditional) meals we had in the near future... but my more immediate goal is to get back to cooking things so I have something to talk about other than my vacation. Wish me luck!