Costa Rican Cuisine
Last Updated: Apr 18, 2014
Costa Rican cuisine is hearty, savory and always satisfying. While it doesn’t have the spice of Mexican or the grilled skewered meats of Argentinian food, it has a style all its own: like an easy chair or a meal from your grandmother's kitchen, Costa Rican cuisine is always there for you at the end of a long day.
Generous portions, fresh-brewed coffee and fruit in every shape, size and color fill the tables of every Costa Rican home. Maybe it's the tropics, but there is a dedication to freshness unequaled in the U.S., everyday Costa Ricans visit the bakery for fresh-baked bread, every week they visit the local farmer's market for fresh in-season fruit and vegetables, meat and cheese.
Rice and Beans
Once, while whitewater rafting, we turned to our guide and asked him where he finds the strength to challenge the rapids every day. He replied by flexing his biceps "This one I call rice, and this one is beans."
As the planets revolve around the sun, so does Costa Rican cuisine revolve around rice and beans. Satellites of pork rinds, beef joints, chorizo, chicken and eggs orbit the cheap, ubiquitous food served at all times of the day.
At breakfast, it's called gallo pinto (spotted rooster) and it's often made using last night's leftover rice, black beans, onions and red bell peppers mixed together and served with scrambled eggs, queso fresco (fresh cheese) and fried plantains.
At lunch, it's called casado. The rice and beans lay side by side next to your choice of meat, be it pork chop, stewed beef, chicken, tilapia or fried chicken, with a variety of regional sides that may include, fried plantains, patacones (fried green plantains), picadillo (stewed squash), spaghetti, salad, fried cassava and more.
Maybe you'll catch a break at dinner and just have rice, like in arroz con pollo (fried rice with chicken); a traditional Costa Rican Asian-influenced dish often served with salad, french fries and a dollop of salsa rosada (pink sauce made from ketchup and mayo). Or, if you're on the Caribbean side, you'll have Rice and Beans. Not to be confused with gallo pinto, Rice and Beans is red beans, rice and coconut milk; a sweet and savory treat.
Costa Rican cuisine lays on the carbs to substitute for the lack of protein. After all, protein is a valuable commodity and is fairly expensive compared to rice and beans. Costa Rican cuisine relies more on pork than beef incorporating cuts like pork chops, pork rinds, pig skin and even pig's feet in its recipes. Beef is less common and is most often prepared in soups, stews and other recipes that involve slow cooking the beef to break down the tough and often chewy texture. That said, you can still find a thick-cut beef tenderloin at most restaurants. Chicken is another of the country's other staple proteins used in a wide variety of dishes including casados, fried rice, soups and stews.
Ceviche remains one of the country's most popular dishes. It's made with fresh sea bass marinated in lime juice, red bell peppers and onions, served with chips and found in virtually every restaurant, bar and even roadside street vendors. With seafood from both the Atlantic and Pacific coast, you can expect to find fresh seafood everywhere you go. Tilapia, though mostly farm raised, is among the most popular fish and is often served with casado. Mahi-mahi, red snapper, sea bass and tuna are also very common. Closer to the coastline, especially in the Caribbean, you'll also find fresh lobster, clams, calamari and crab, often mixed together in delicious seafood pastas, stews or coconut-cream sauces.
Fruit and vegetables
Colorful, lush, savory, sweet and sour, fruit and vegetables are large part of the Costa Rican diet and accompany nearly every meal as an appetizer, salad, dessert, palette cleanser or fresh-squeezed juice. You'll find vendors hawking fresh produce from the street corners in San Jose to the road side stalls in the middle of the country.
Bananas, plantains, pineapple and watermelon are some the country's largest exports, but Costa Rica keeps some of the best fruit and vegetables for itself: giant green avocadoes, mangoes, tamarind, lychees, guava, golden Peruvian brown cherries, pear squash, peach palm fruit, mangosteens, star fruit, passion fruit, noni, lemandarina and coconuts, just to name a few.
Coffee is another major Costa Rican export. Grown mostly in the temperate hillsides and valleys of the Central Valley for the last two hundred years, coffee is more than a staple crop, it's a part of Costa Rica's history. You'll see it in the artistically-decorated oxcarts once used to carry the coffee beans from the field, to the hand-crafted Costa Rican coffee-brewers known as chorreadores. Most of the coffee produced in the county is made with Arabica beans and many of the country's farms roast their own beans and make their own brands of coffee. It's safe to say that Costa Rica is a country that runs off coffee.
Common Costa Rican Dishes
- Arroz con Pollo
- Olla de Carne
- Tres leches
- Gallo Pinto
- Rice and Beans