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Epicurean Destination Guide to Costa Rica: Restaurants, Food, & Dining

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Costa Rica Dining, Food & Cookery: A Cultural & Travel Guide

Introduction & Cultural Considerations

"Costa Rican food is not especially memorable," so begins the current Fommer's guidebook section on Costa Rican food & drink. Likewise, Fodor's 2004 Gold Guide quips, "Costa Rica is not known for its fine dining."
 
First, is this reputation for being what Travel & Leisure magazine recently called a "food purgatory" deserved? In our opinion none of the Central American or most of the South American nations have anywhere near the culinary sophistication of, say, Mexico, which stands out as having one of the world's great cuisines. Chile and Argentina have inherited some excellent European culinary traditions, and had the economies necessary to support them, but otherwise most of Latin America cannot lay claim to being a culinary wonderland.
 
As suggested, there are economic reasons for this, and Costa Rica is no exception. Though richer than some of its neighbors, Costa Rica is a poor country and its native residents never had the money to elaborate a sophisticated cookery or dining tradition. To the extent that this occurred historically, Costa Rica belongs to the worldwide Creole culinary culture that encompassed not only south Louisiana, but also the Carribean, coastal and/or colonial areas of Latin America, and the sugar islands of Africa and the Indian Ocean.
 
In our opinion, therefore, Costa Rica does not deserve to be singled out for being particularly bad in culinary terms--it is simply within the general ambit of Latin cookery stretching from Belize to the Amazon.
 
Second, Costa Rica does have its culinary highlights. These include a great wealth of high quality primary ingredients including seafood from two coasts, an abundance of different vegetables, a full array of culinary herbs and spices, and a treasure trove of fruit varietities. Costa Ricans are good farmers. Beef and other meat quality is not superior, but more than workable. Chicken is good quality. Tuna, marlin, and swordfish (or their relatives) can be excellent. Needless to say, Costa Rica has good coffee. Remember that Costa Rica's much tauted bio-diversity, its good soil, and abundant fresh water mean a full range of agricultural production as well.
 
As a Creole cuisine, Costa Rican cookery is a fusion of indigenous knowledge and ingredients, colonial European sensibilities (in this case mostly Spain, but also Italy), more recent U.S. influence, Afro-Caribbean technques, distinct Chinese flourishes, and a mostly poor popualtion with a relatively large (but still small) class of wealthy Creoles and European immigrants or their descendants who demanded some kind of fine dining.
 
With its cultural imperative to appear harmonious and somewhat homogenous, Costa Ricans like to sublimate the existence and strong influence of both indigenous (i.e. Native American Indian) and Afro-Caribbean slave influences. Costa Rica presents itself as out of the Central American norm in terms of not having a large indigenous or mixed indigenous-European or indigenous-African (mestizo) population, and this is simply not true. Likewise, though they still live largely in the Carribean lowlands, there is a significant black population--descendants of plantation workers--in Costa Rica. Many of them speak Creole English. Too, the Chinese imported as slavery-level workers for the banana railroad in the late 19th century remain in Costa Rica, with their population suplemented by more recent migrants from Taiwan and mainland China. The Chinese have become fully integrated into Tico society, and their cuisine has made its mark as well. Finally, 20th century immigrants from Italy cannot be forgotten, nor can the Spanish colonial rulers and adminstrators, many of whom became coffee barons.
 
Thought of in these cultural and historical terms, Costa Rica cookery becomes a bit more interesting. 
 
Today, the biggest culinary influence probably comes from the tourism industry and the advent of more upscale hotels and inns that have brought professionally trained cooks into the country to prepare menus that may or may not have much to do with native traditions. This has the tendency to produce what we call culinary school menus, where the chef tries to reproduce what he was taught at Cordon Bleu, the Culinary Institute of America, or in a Las Vegas hotel kitchen. Thus, you have lots of "international" restuarants and menus with no particular attachment to time or place, except for the strictures imposed by ingredient availability. 
 
If any treasure trove of culinary creativity exists in Costa Rica, it lies not in these hotel dining rooms or San Jose metro area restaurants, but in the home cooking (including the wealthy elite homes) and the Sodas (family-run roadside or market eateries). This is not to say that all Soda food is good or creative. A Casado is just a rustic worker's lunch at a cheap price, marrying together all the courses of a European meal in one place and on one plate--the salad, the starch, the main course.   
 
Spanish influences--empanadas or brown sauces--exist alongside Indian ones--tamales--along Cantonese Rice and Chinese "chorizo" (chorizo chino) sausages and "Italian" macarones.  
 
Far above and beyond these cultural culinary elements, however, is the importance of Costa Rica's ingredient diversity, which is the basis for the making of any great cuisine.
 
Given its equatorial location and its physical geography, Costa Rica has an inordinate number of zones within which food can be grown. These includes temperate fruits and vegetables such as apples, peaches, strawberries, asparagus, peas, artichokes, cauliflower, and cabbage as well as tropical exemplaries from jack fruit and bread fruit to inumerable varieties of mango, papaya, lychee, pineapple, avacadoes, types of passion fruit (maracuya, granadilla, etc.), anona, guayaba, bannana varieties, coconut, chocolate, vanilla, chayote, mangosteen, husk and tree tomatoes, cashew, macadmia, coffee, etc. If a tropical fruit exists in the world, it is probably cultivated in Costa Rica.
 
 
 

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Costa Rica Food Travel Guide

Scroll down for entries on dining, markets, and ingredients:
 
Dining
 
Dining out in Costa Rica has come a long way in the past five years, and the scene has diversified and begun to show some true maturity. Outside the larger, upscale coastal resorts that now seem to grow in number by the day, the Central Valley still has the best selection of restaurants.   
 
San Jose now has a wide variety of restaurant choices, including good Chinese, Mexican, and Argentinian food. We suggest consulting with your hotel front desk or concierge for current reccomendations. Here's brief summary based on visits from 2005-2008:
 
  • The new remodelled Grano de Oro Hotel has an extremely gracious and comfortable restaurant, with attentive service and a very complete menu offering not just beef and chicken, but also various fish, shellfish, rabbit, and duck.
  • The Inn at Coyote Mountain, though open to guests only, provides an elegant though small en-famille dining room with cathedral-like beamed ceilings, impressive views of the Pacific Ocean and Puntarenas, and a sophisticated twist on Costa Rican fare put forth by Rosa Matamoros, who trained with chef-owners Vaughn Perret & Charles Leary of Trout Point Lodge fame
 
While travelling around the country, many want to encounter "typical" cuisine and to focus on what is local. This is great if you understand that Costa Rica has been a poor country with a fairly unelaborated culinary tradition. The most famous national dish is thus black bean and rice, known as "gallo pinto." It is flavored with sweet chilies, cilantro, salt, pepper, and usually Lizano sauce. Costa Ricans make very good empanadas (pastry stuffed with a variety of ingedients including beans, cheese, potatos, and meat, or any of them in combination) as well as tamales. Tamales are often made in the home at Christmas time, but can be purchased at sodas--small family run restaurants--at anytime.
 
Tamales are made of a corn meal masa similar to that found in Mexico and the rest of Central America. The masa has been treated with calcium carbonate and has a distinct flavor. To it stock, lard, garlic, and seasonings are often added. This forms the outer shell, which is then stuffed with beef, beans, chicken, and/or vegetables and cilantro or culantro. They tamales are then wrapped in fresh banana leaves, tied up, and boiled or steamed until firm and fully cooked. They are excellent served with a fresh tomato salsa!
 
Another typical Costa Rican meal is the casado or "marriage," which consists of portions of a number of different dishes served on one plate, usually as a kind of worker's lunch. Typically you can choose from beef, chicken, or fish casados, and these main ingredients will be accompanied by a combination of cabbage salad, vegetables, fried yucca, beans, beans and rice, fresh cheese, pasta, etc.
 
Tacos al almabre, or barbed wire tacos, are another typical plato. These are not Mexican style tacos--instead it is a dish of braised chicken or beef cut into strips, usually cooked with sliced sweet chili peppers, and a mild sauce. It is served with fresh tortillas or tortilla chips and one or two sides.
 
Markets
Both the Mercado Central and Mercado Bourbon in central San Jose are very interesting from a culinary perspective, particularly to see the variety of fruits and vegetables grown in the country. However, Central and particularly Bourbon are not in good neighborhoods and you should be careful about muggings and pickpockets in these areas.
 
The weekly farmer's marekt in San Ramon, by contrast, is completely safe and full of local farmers vending their products. It occurs every Friday afternoon and Saturday morning in San Ramon, Aljuela province. Ask for "la feria."
 
Many other communities also have weekly markets--inquire at your hotel.
 
Ingredients
Cheeses: the level of cheesemaking sophistication in Costa Rica is not high and sanitary standards could be questioned. We would personally recommend staying away from the fresh white cheeses, particularly those riddled with gas holes, unless they are cooked. An exception is Queso Palmito or any of the other pasta filata type (mozzarella type) cheeses, which have for all intents and purposes been heat treated in the production process. All cheeses made by the Monteverde co-op and by Dos Pinos are very sanitary if not particularly savory.
 
The cheeses made by the Dutch-style factory at Barva can be quite good.
 
Tropical Fruits: Costa Rica's farmers grow an astounding array of tropical fruits, from luscious golden and Creole pineapples, to passion fruit, lychee, and custard apple.
 
Wine: Although some European immigrants have been experimenting with wine grape cultivation in Costa Rica, no one has succeeded. The government did sponsor an experimental effort several years ago, but eventually most of the vines were ripped out.
 
If you see Costa Rican wine for sale, it is almost surely from imported Chilean grape juice that is then processed in Costa Rica--the quality is terrible and it is--at least so far--not worth buying except as a total novelty.

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Brief article on Costa Rican food.

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