Costa Rican Cuisine
Last Updated: Apr 16, 2012
Costa Rican cuisine is best described as savory – instead of spicy chili peppers or piquant powders, Costa Rican chefs prefer garlic, herbs and other mild blends to season the nation's favorite dishes. Among these, gallo pinto – black beans and rice, seasoned with onion, sweet pepper, cilantro and Lizano sauce – is considered Costa Rica's national dish. The protein rich meal is generally served at breakfast, accompanied by eggs, tortillas and natilla, a Costa Rican sour cream.
For a typical lunch or dinner, visit one of the country's many sodas – small, family-run restaurants with a few tables and big portions – and order a casado. Here, $4 will purchase white rice, black beans, a small cabbage salad, choice of chicken, beef, pork, fish or fried egg, fried plantains and a natural fruit drink. For an afternoon snack, take a gamble on tamales (meat, vegetable, and cornmeal patties boiled or steamed in banana leaf), empanadas (choice of meat or cheese, covered in cornmeal and fried to perfection), gallos (corn or flour tortillas stacked with meat, cheese or beans) or arreglados (small meat-filled sandwiches). For those that crave a little added spice, try encurtido, a vinegar brine made with vegetables and chili peppers, or chilero, a homemade chili sauce made of peppers, onion and other secret ingredients.
Though typical fare is the most economical and prevalent dining option in Costa Rica, the country's gastronomic center of San Jose and the Central Valley offers cuisines from around the globe. Tucked in tiny downtown alleys and sprawling colonial homes, worldly restaurants treat their patrons to delicious, high-quality meals. Mouthwatering Spanish tapas, creative and traditional Japanese sushi, authentic Peruvian ceviches and handmade Italian pastas are essential restaurant fare in the Central Valley. At all but the most expensive locales, a three-course dinner with wine will run no more than $40. Tip: When you've finished eating, always ask for the check – Costa Rican dining tradition allows for extended conversation during and after a meal, and waiters will not bring the check unless requested.
Refrescos or jugos naturales are Costa Rica's most ubiquitous cold beverage, gracing the tables of sodas and fine dining establishments alike. These traditional drinks consist of fresh, local fruit mixed with a bit of sugar and either milk or water to create a refreshing, healthy and delicious concoction. Common flavors include passion fruit (maracuya), mango, papaya, blackberry (mora), starfruit (carambola), and watermelon (sandia).
In addition to its succulent fruits, Costa Rica produces some of the world's finest coffees. Though many restaurants only serve a light or medium roast blend, there are many city cafes and beachside coffee shops that offer options beyond black coffee or coffee with milk (cafe con leche). Costa Rica's liquor of choice is guaro, a tequila-like firewater ideal for cheap mixed drinks. At many nightclubs, guaro sours and spiked fruit punch are the name of the game, though top-shelf spirits are almost always available. For beer-lovers, Costa Rica's three local brews – Imperial, Pilsen and Bavaria – are just $1-$2 a pop.
Populated by Jamaican and other Caribbean immigrants, Costa Rica's eastern coast is home to its own unique cuisine. Coconut milk and coconut cream give flavor to many of the meals, including the Caribbean version of gallo pinto, simply named "rice and beans." (Many on the Caribbean coast speak English as their first language.) Instead of black beans, onion, pepper and cilantro to spice this special dish, Caribbean cooks prefer to blend red beans and rice in coconut milk until the dish soaks up the sweet, rich flavor. In the Caribbean, rice and beans are served for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Caribbean dishes rely heavily on the day's catch of fish and seafood, and spicy curries are often blended with coconut milk to create mouthwatering flavor blends. Rondon, arguably the Caribbean's most famous dish, utilizes the catch of the day, fresh vegetables from around town and healthy servings of coconut cream to produce a thick, hearty and heavenly seafood stew.
Street food is a beloved Costa Rican tradition, available on many street corners and at outdoor festivals throughout the nation. At county fairs and special events, many of the country's immigrants proudly serve from roadside stalls steaming portions of their nation's typical dishes. For less than $1, street food aficionados can sample Salvadorian pupusas (meat or cheese-stuffed flatbreads), Argentinean empanadas (decadent, meat-stuffed corn fritters), Chinese stir fries or Jamaican jerk chicken-on-a-stick. To wash it all down, or perhaps just to cool off from the warm sun, pipas, or young coconuts, can be bought on almost every street corner or roadside stand in the country. For just $0.20, pipa vendors will removed a young coconut from its ice bath, machete the top off, pop a straw through the sweet, soft flesh and hand over one of the world's most refreshing and delicious drinks.
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.
Fresh Fruits & Vegetables
Though they don't quite qualify as street food, fruits and vegetables are sold on Costa Rican streets from daybreak until sundown. Fresh mangos, papayas, pineapples and other goodies can be had for a song, and the vegetables are often so inexpensive that they almost feel free. For a quick snack, try unripe (green) mango with salt and lemon – this favorite flavor combination is usually sold for $0.50 in plastic bags along the roadside.
Costa Ricans like to feast for Christmas and Easter, the Catholic country's two most important holidays. Two of Costa Rica's most typical holiday foods – miel de chiverre (squash honey) and tamales -- require several weeks planning and preparation. Miel de chiverre is made from chiverre, a Central American squash, bought, quartered and dried for weeks prior to Easter. The dried squash chunks are cooked in butter and sugar until the mixture forms a sweet, sticky paste. This jelly-like delicacy can be smeared on bread, rolled into dessert empanadas or eaten right out of the jar.
Tamales, very different from their Mexican counterpart of the same name, are one of Costa Rica's finest food traditions. Families gather for weeks before Christmas to share the two-day process of cooking tamale fillings – typically, a mixture of pork, vegetables and any number of secret ingredients. The filling is packed into cornmeal patties, wrapped in banana leaves and then steamed. Families make several hundred tamales at once, and neighbors and friends often gift them to each other.