Costa Rican cuisine, like Central American cuisine in general, gets a bad rap. There are those who claim it’s nothing more than a rice and beans style diet. While that is true in some instances, there are still a ton of delicious and unique dishes just waiting to be tried. The only thing I did not like is that I put on some weight while living in Costa Rica-the food is that good…well, that and there’s a lot of frying going on.
Patacones (or tostones are they are known in other Spanish speaking countries) are twice fried plantains. While I had been eating plantains since I first arrived in Costa Rica (they’re what kimchi is to Korea, they’re served at every meal), it wasn’t until I traveled to Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast one weekend and dined at a West Indies hut (literally) that I tried patacones. You see, the Caribbean coast is home to a large West Indian population (largely from Jamaica) who had come over at the turn of the last century to work on the railway which was to link the Caribbean coast with the Pacific for the purpose of exporting bananas. On my first night in Puerto Viejo, a very laid back town popular with surfers and “smelly” backpackers (my friends and I were neither), we were told to go to “Miss Dolly’s.” It was essentially a small room where Caribbean style fare was served, prepared by Miss Dolly (there were other places like Miss Dolly’s in Puerto Viejo). I forget what I ordered for my entree but my friends all recommended I try patacones. I did and I loved them. I still like the taste of plantains but if you want something less sweet and more salty, patacones will do the trick.
Gallo pinto is the national dish of Costa Rica (and neighboring Nicaragua) and is made with, you guessed it-rice and beans. Although these aren’t just your average rice and beans-these have been seasoned with a variety of spices and cilantro. Its name in Spanish means spotted rooster and if you take a close look at gallo pinto, you will see that this beloved dish indeed resembles that. While weekday mornings my host mom would just get me cereal along with an extensive array of tropical fruits, I still remember one Saturday breakfast when she prepared it (it’s a common breakfast dish) along with eggs. One of the best breakfasts I ever had abroad was in Granada, Nicaragua and was nothing more than eggs, warmed tortillas, fruit, and gallo pinto.
In Costa Rica a casado is not a specific food but rather the name for a specific dish. It comprises rice and beans (although unlike in gallo pinto the two are not mixed together), a meat, salad, and sometimes a plantain. A casado is the perfect example of simple yet delicious and filling food at its best. And like many things in Costa Rica, casados are cheap (a couple of dollars at the most) so for the amount of food you are getting it is quite the bargain. The best casados I ever had were in the town of La Fortuna, which is famous for being the jetting off point for Arenal Volcano.
Olla de Carne
This is one dish I always wanted to try during the time I lived in Costa Rica yet never did unfortunately. Olla de carne is a traditional beef and vegetable stew native to the Guanacaste region. Taro root, potatoes, and sweet potatoes are generally the vegetables that are served in it. As I lived in San Jose, which is located in the Central Valley, the only time I saw olla de carne on the menu was when I was in the town of La Fortuna. My friend ordered it (and seemed to like it). I instead went with the casado, a regret since you can get a casado anywhere in Costa Rica.
Fruits & Vegetables
It wasn’t until I lived in Costa Rica with local families that I got to explore another whole world where produce was concerned. Although plantains were familiar to me, items like chayote, yucca, and a vast array of exotic fruits (guanabana, granadilla, and tamarindo) were not. The program I studied with actually had a fiesta de frutas one day to introduce the American students to fruit they most likely never would have seen before in their lives. To this day I grow wistful when I think of the incredibly cheap prices for produce that here in the United States is often astronomical. I also developed a lifelong love of tamarind juice, a beverage with an extremely tart/sweet taste.