Costa Rica’s cuisine is pretty basic, but the diversity of food is amazing!
Earlier this year I travelled to Costa Rica, very excited to get into all kinds of outdoor adventures. I had heard that Costa Rica’s food scene wasn’t great, and that you mostly get bland rice and beans most of the time. Well, while the country is neither Mexico nor India, its kitchens produce a variety of delicious dishes!
Here are my top 5 favourite things about eating in Costa Rica
1. Afro-Caribbean flavours of the Atlantic coast
The Atlantic coast of Costa Rica and parts of Nicaragua are influenced by dominant Caribbean flavours. Generous use of coconut milk and spices like ginger, curry, allspice, cinnamon, thyme, pepper, etc. makes the food unique and distinctive from the rest of the country. Grated coconut also features in many deserts and cakes.
2. Bounty of interesting fruits and vegetables
Strolling in any market street of Costa Rica was kind of overwhelming due to the diversity of fruits encountered. Market street in San Jose, where whole sellers trade fruits, is a particularly interesting place to check out. Papaya, mango, piña (pineapple), sandía (watermelon), melón (cantaloupe), moras (blackberries), limones (lemons), guayaba (guava), granadilla (passion fruit), and aguacates (avocados) are some of the more common fruits, many of these served sliced, or as a refresco, a blended drink with ice.
Star fruit (carambola) was definitely my favourite find.
Vegetables are mostly used in soups and stews and often served sauteed or in salads. Water in Costa Rica is safe to drink, so I ate many salads washed under tap water. Usually when I travel, I stay away from salads and uncooked vegetables.
3. Plantain magic!
Traveling in Central and South America, I have definitely found love for the plantain. A larger member of the banana family, plantain is another commonly used fruit that is very versatile. Ripe plantains (maduro) have a sweet flavor and can be fried in oil, baked in a honey or a sugar-based sauce, or put in soups. Green (unripe) plantains can be boiled in soups or can be sliced, fried, smashed and then refried to make patacones. These are often served with a bean dip or guacamole.
Patacones are rad. I took every opportunity to substitute potatoes with patacones and most restaurants will happily do it especially if you ask them in broken accented Spanish. 🙂 One of the perks of being a foreign traveller!
4. Never go hungry with this large variety of snacks
Notwithstanding processed foods such as chips and chocolate bars, village shacks stock a full supply of freshly made local snacks. These could be fried plantain chips, roasted nuts, dried fruit, biscuits, etc. Great for bus journeys and that little kick you need when you are hauling your backpack from the hotel to the bus station.
Salsa Lizano is a tangy sweet-spicy-sauce and a common condiment and element of Tico cooking. Many restaurants will have a bottle on the table which really comes in handy to spice up your food.
↑ Tamarind salsa, in other words, flavour in a bottle
↑ Pizza and beer
Beer is cheap and easy to get in any corner store. Imperial and Pilsen are the two common cervezas but there are a number of microbreweries as well which I didn’t get a chance to visit. I prefer Pilsen, it tastes slightly less watered down than Imperial.
Coffee is one of the largest exports of Costa Rica and is available nearly everywhere.
5. Cheap cheap cheap eats
Restaurants can be very cheap if you eat where the locals eat, or very expensive in larger places on the main drag. At heavily tourist places such as Monteverde, Tamarindo, Manual Antonio (well, pretty much most of the country), it can be a bit challenging to find smaller sodas. Straying off the main drag to alleys and smaller roads behind usually works. Alternatively, ask the bus drivers or street police where they would eat.
Our usual breakfast was pretty basic and consisted of gallo pinto and eggs, with occasional slice of tomato. I have to admit that eating rice and beans three times a day for the duration of your travels kinda gets too much and change is good once in a while.
When I first started travelling in South America, I was pretty much vegetarian. A sight of meat with bones, or chicken head in a soup, or a full fish with its eyes staring at you (you get the idea) used to creep me out. Clearly, much has changed in the last few years!
Cooking Costa Rican food at home
The other day we tried cooking some of our favourite dishes from Costa Rica. Rondón (root vegetables in coconut sauce flavored with ginger, garlic, allspice, thyme, etc.), gallo pinto (rice and beans), chicken, salsa and best of all… patacones (fried green plantains)!
Enjoy your travels in Costa Rica. Leave a note with what you liked the most. 🙂