Authentic Costa Rican cuisine is more savory than spicy and consists more of rice, vegetables and locally sourced sea food, making the meals here rather reasonably priced. In place of fiery chili peppers or pungent powders, traditional Costa Rican chefs use more of garlic, freshly plucked herbs and other mild natural seasonings to balance flavors in some of the country’s most sought after dishes. Among the typical Costa Rican preparations, the Gallo Pinto (black beans and rice, tempered with onion, a dash of sweet pepper, cilantro and Lizano sauce) is considered Costa Rica’s national dish. The protein rich meal is usually served at breakfast, complemented by eggs, tortillas and natilla, a delicious homemade Costa Rican sour cream.
Sodas and Snack Shacks
A must visit for any visitor to experience a typical Costa Rican lunch or dinner is one of the country’s several soda places. They are cute, tiny, family-run establishments with less tables and generous food portions at reasonable prices. You can order a typical casado here. For lunch, Casados (beans, rice) are usually served with some sort of meat or fish and a raw salad, fried plantains, white cheese and corn tortilla. The biggest between Gallo Pinto and Casado is that in Casados, the rice and the beans are served adjacent to each other and not combined. At around $5, travelers can enjoy white rice, black beans, a humble portion of cabbage salad, choice of meat, chicken, fish or fried egg, fried plantains and a fruit drink. Costa Rica’s favorite dish, the Gallo Pinto can be found in any eatery or soda, and although it is a primarily a breakfast food, its popularity has made it omnipresent in most restaurants in the country and it can now be ordered at any time of the day.
Traditional tamales (meat, vegetable, and cornmeal patties boiled or steamed in banana leaf) work for an afternoon snack and so do epanadas (choice of meat or cheese, encrusted in cornmeal and perfectly fried), gallos (corn or flour tortillas filled with meat, cheese or beans) and arreglados (small sandwiches with hearty meat fillings). For those that like a little more fire in their meals, try encurtido, (a vinegar mix made with vegetables and chili peppers) or chilero (a fiery homemade chili sauce comprising of bell peppers, onion and other ingredients). Empanadas are another popular in between meal filler snacks. They are fried or baked dough filled with cheese, beans, potatoes, or chicken are best consumed with fiery sauce. Carnitas is a delicious local preparation made by grilling beef pieces on a stick, over an open grill fire. It is eaten by pushing a piece between a tortilla.
The Caribbean Influence
Made popular by the hordes of Jamaican and other Caribbean migrants, Costa Rica’s eastern coast has a distinct cuisine to call its own. Coconut milk and coconut cream are the predominant ingredients’ that add flavor to several food preparations, including the Caribbean variation of gallo pinto, called only rice and beans in this part. In place of the traditional black beans, onion, pepper and cilantro to temper this signature Costa Rican dish, Caribbean cooks prefer to mix red beans and rice in coconut milk until the dish absorbs the rich and sweet flavor. In the Caribbean region, rice and beans are offered for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Caribbean dishes are more based on the catch of fish and seafood, and more fiery heavily spiced curries which are often tempered with coconut milk to balance flavors. Rondon, which is arguably the Caribbean’s most sought after dish, uses the fresh catch of the day, fresh vegetables from all over the place and generous servings of coconut cream to create thick and almost surreally delectable sea food stew.
Eat By the Street
This is a favorite food variety with a lot of travelers and is often seen in the county fairs and special events. Many of the country’s migrants take to serving from roadside stalls piping hot portions of Costa Rica’s signature dishes. For even less than a dollar, street food buffs can savor Salvadorian pupusas (meat or cheese-stuffed flatbreads), Argentinean empanadas (meat stuffed corn fritters), Chinese stir fried veggies or Jamaican chicken on a stick. Pipas, or young coconuts, can be purchased on every corner or street stand in Costa Rica. For a mere $0.20, pipa vendors will removed a young coconut from its ice bath, scoop the top off, pop a straw through the fruit and hand over to tired travelers one of the most refreshing drinks they’ve ever had.
For dessert, nothing beats a copo or its big brother, the granizado. Both treats are created from shaved ice, flavored syrup and a choice of powdered milk, condensed milk or both. The $1 copo is perfect for a treat, while the $1.50 granizado is typically larger, promising more syrup, larger portions of both milks and a slightly finer shaved ice.
Since Costa Rica possess such an ecologically gifted and fertile land, tons fruits and vegetables are produced and sold on the street markets from dawn to dusk. Fresh tropical fruits such as mangos, papayas, pineapples and other fresh produce can be bought at throw away prices and the fresh vegetables are also available here for a steal, making it quite inexpensive for travelers to cook their own meals while on a vacation. A delicious snack with mango topped with salt and lemon is sold on the streets for a mere $0.50.
Plantains look similar to bananas but are typically cooked, rather than eaten by themselves. Plantains are often fried and cooked as a side dish in a typical Costa Rican meal, such as alongside casado or gallo pinto. There are other versions of the plantains that one can find in Costa Rica and other parts of Latin America called tostone that are fried twice and feature the consistency of homemade French fries than the traditional fried plantain.
Though typical local fare is the most reasonably priced and popular dining option in Costa Rica, due to an exodus of immigrants and tourists the nation’s gastronomic epicenter of San Jose and the Central Valley now serve cuisine from all around the globe. Nestled in small downtown alleys and spacious colonial homes, global restaurants treat their patrons to delectable and quality meals. Authentic Spanish tapas, inspiring traditional Japanese sushi and ‘straight from mom’s kitchen’ Italian pastas are the standard restaurant fare available in the tourist hotspots of the Central Valley. Except for the super upper crust fine dine outlets, a three-course dinner with wines runs the tab to under $50.
Costa Rica, like rest of the world loves its Christmas and Easter goodies. Costa Rica’s typical holiday foods include miel de chiverre (squash honey) and tamales that require several weeks of pre preparation. Miel de chiverre is made from chiverre, a Central American squash, dried for weeks together to obtain the right flavor. The dried squash chunks are then added to butter and sugar until the mixture forms a sweet, thickened and sticky paste. This jelly-like delicacy tastes best on bread just like jam, or rolled into desserts or simply eaten plain. The community often gathers for weeks before Christmas to participate in the collective two-day process of cooking the authentic tamale fillings, usually a mixture of pork, vegetables and some secret ingredients’. The filling is then packed into patties, neatly covered in banana leaves and steamed on slow fire. People often make hundreds of such tamales during festivals and distribute them to family and friends.
Refrescos are Costa Rica’s most popular cold beverage, making way to the tables of sodas and upper crust restaurants alike. These local beverages comprise of fresh, local fruits mixed with some sugar and either milk or water to create rejuvenating and healthy flavors. The most common for refrescos include passion fruit, mango, papaya, blackberry, starfruit and watermelon.
Costa Rica is also known to produce some of the planets best coffee brews. Though eateries here predominantly serve only a light or medium roast blend, there are many city cafes and beachside coffee shops that offer choices like guaro (tequila style water). At many nightclubs, guaro sours and spiked fruit punch are the more sought after beverages. For beer-lovers, Costa Rica’s three local beer brews are under $3 per pop.
Chan is a lightly sweet drink created from adding water to a few tablespoons of chan seed. The chan seed is tiny and has an aroma similar to lavender. When the water is added to the seed, the seed develops a moist coating around it. Chan is said to help with the digestive system, and lower high body temperature and blood pressure. Though this drink is not ubiquitously found in restaurants or sodas, it is a part of most native Costa Rican households. The seeds are also available for purchase at any holistic health stores or the typical roadside organic farmers’ markets.