Costa Rica is located in Central America, between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. It is known as “the Switzerland of Central America” for having the best democratic tradition established in Latin America. It lacks a standing army, boasts one of the lowest illiteracy rates in the world, and is also known for its varied cultural cuisine standards.
Due to its climate and history, traditional Costa Rican cuisine focuses on tropical fruits and vegetables, all prepared in recipes that combine European and native influences. The basic elements of the Costa Rican diet are the products of local agriculture: rice, beans, vegetables, fruits, dairy, meat, and many native recipes made with corn. The Costa Rican cuisine is smooth and slightly spicy, which surprises many who might imagine it as spicy as Mexican dishes. The spicy chile is only used sparingly in some gravies.
Examples of typical dishes in Costa Rica are: “gallo pinto”, “olla de carne”, “casado”, “picadillo de arracache”, “flor de itabo”, “barbudos”, “tortillas de maíz”, “empanadas”, “maduros”, “tamales”, “picadillos de chayote”, etc. Each province offers variations on the same dish, just with different recipes.
One of the most popular dishes of the country is “gallo pinto“, known simply as “pinto” or “patrulla”, and in some areas of southern Costa Rica as “burra”. Made primarily of rice and beans, and then you can add various seasonings such as onion, sweet pepper and cilantro. “Gallo pinto” is a nice combination between rice and red or black beans, seasoned with onions and garlic. To complement this culinary favorite, fried or scrambled eggs and corn tortillas are added as necessary additions to the meals. It is often eaten for breakfast, but can be served at any time, and sometimes eaten at all three meals in a day. It can be accompanied by eggs, sausage, salami, cheese, sour cream, corn tortilla, butter, and a cup of coffee.
“Olla de carne” is considered quite an essential dish, and an example of the national cuisine with its mixture of pre-hispanic with Iberian flavors. In the Caribbean region there is a similar dish called “rondón”, typical of Afro-Caribbean cuisine. This is a soup of fish or seafood, flavored with green banana, coconut milk, vegetables, tubers, peppers, sweet peppers and spices.
One of Costa Rican most popular and economical dishes is known as “casado”, and is usually eaten at lunch. This dish consists of rice and beans, plantains, salad, meat or chicken in sauce, and can be accompanied with mashed potatoes or served with corn tortillas.
The national liquor of Costa Rica is a type of rum made from sugar cane called “guaro”, popularly known as “Cacique” which refers to the brand name. Among the traditional drinks are “aguadulce”, and coffee. Coffee is the most famous product that introduced Costa Rica to the world market. Among the typical drinks, first place undoubtedly belongs to coffee as Costa Rica produces some of the finest coffees in the world. The official beer of Costa Rica is called Imperial, but there are also other international favorites such as Pilsen, which are sometimes called ”birras”
The most typical desserts are: pineapple “empanadas”, “chiverre”, rice pudding, “chiricalla”, coconut “cajetas” and flan. From its indigenous origins, “Chan” stands out as a cold shake made from a shrub seed found in the Guanacaste area. Other tasty and healthy refreshments include tamarindo juice and smoothies, and plenty of fresh tropical fruit. “Horchata” is made with boiled rice, roasted peanuts, milk and water flavored with cinnamon, rum, sugar, cocoa and vanilla.
If you want to try something sweet, try cornmeal biscuits, homemade bread, desserts like coconut flan or “tres leche” cake (with condensed milk, evaporated milk, buttermilk and a touch of rum), or the cassettes (striped cane and sweet coconut) which are prepared for Easter. And be sure to finish your dessert with a Costa Rican coffee, one of the most aromatic and flavorful in the world.
While traveling in Costa Rica, we recommend the Corcovado region where you can find typical seafood dishes in most beach areas. The most popular fish in the region and the country is the “corvina” or sea bass marinated in ceviche. It is usually prepared with lemon, spices and fried “Scampi” with garlic and sauces. The other highlights are snapper and fried shrimp, which can be served in several ways such as in soups, with rice or grilled.
The typical cuisine of Limon has exotic and spicy flavors carried over from their African roots that give a special touch to each dish. A feature that makes the cuisine of Limon marvelous is the use of coconut and chile panameño. The gastronomic richness of Limon includes a number of snacks, such as ginger cookies, “johnny” cake (coconut bread), and great drinks including sapo water (soda-based lemon juice, molasses and ginger), ginger beer, and guarapo (a kind of chicha).
Fish and shellfish are the star ingredients in the cuisine of Puntarenas, a port city that furnishes its tables with the flavors found in the variety of marine life from the nearby Pacific Ocean. The gastronomic heritage of Puntarenas includes dishes such as vigorones, tasty chicharrones, shellfish and meat, with chopped cabbage and fried yuca, all served on almond leaves. Fish ceviche, coastal escabeche (made from tuna), and grilled lobster are among other temptations available.
For a sweet tooth, nothing is better than fried plantain, banana cake, or the famous “slide”, a liquefied rice dessert accompanied by cinnamon, nutmeg, topped with sugar, ice and milk. An alternative to cope with the heat is the popular tamarindo water (made with banana peel), and horchata (made with peanuts, liquefied rice, milk, cocoa and sugar). There are also slush, made with powdered milk and condensed milk, or Churchill, which is much the same but with balls of ice cream to taste.
The cuisine found in Heredia, located in the Central Valley, includes the traditional Costa Rican dishes such as gallo pinto (rice and beans), casados (rice with beans, meat and fried banana), beef pot soup (soup with vegetables, green banana and beef), quelites (made with vegetables and tender plants such as watercress, chayote, turnip greens, mauves, rosemary, etc.), and rolled loin (pork marinated and stuffed with potato, boiled egg, chili and tomato).
Heredia is also known for its sweets and drinks such as loquat jam, canned sweet grapefruit, traditional homemade punch made with eggs, milk, vanilla and a little rum, and finally Nance “guaro” (liquor extracted from this fruit and combined with rum). There are a variety of restaurants in general and seafood restaurants in particular found in this area. All provide very good typical and international food.
We can’t ignore the deep-rooted coffee culture that exists in Costa Rica. Costa Rica is famous for producing some of the finest coffees in the world, and you must taste the different specialties. There is one in particular that involves roasting the beans with sugar to make a thick, dark brown that is not bitter. Traditionally it is served in a tall glass, half strong coffee and half milk.
“Gallo pinto, olla de carne, casado, picadillos”, Costa Rican tamales, and other traditional foods could be the gateway for a trip to explore the flavorful cuisine of Costa Rica. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 25% of travelers consider food when deciding on a tourist destination, and 58% are interested in taking a gastronomic journey to sample new tastes and culinary delights. One example of this is Spain which only last year had 8.4 million international visitors motivated by its cuisine.
For all you foodies, come for a visit to Costa Rica and explore where your stomach takes you!