Costa Rica is known for many things: great surfing, lush rainforests, and Pura Vida (their carefree lifestyle). But a foodie destination? Rice and beans, known there as Gallo Pinto, inspires little excitement in the foodies that I know (except maybe my Texas-born husband). That being said, the uptick in adventure tourism has hotels and resorts dishing up some authentic Costa Rican cuisine… often with a twist. And I’m excited to bring back some of their cultural practices from my recent trip to share with you.
The first thing I noticed as we were driving away from the airport to our Arenal resort (besides the 90-degree heat) was all of the cows. Holy cow, I thought rural New Jersey had a lot of cows! But on our three-hour drive, I must have counted at least 100 dairy cows before we hit the rainforest. When I asked our very knowledgeable driver about what kind of cheese they had there, he said it was normal cheese. This lead to some serious disappointment on my end, but later I came to realize that their “normal” cheese is not our “normal” cheese. And then everything was right in the world again. But more on that in a second.
When we reached the border of the rainforest, along Lake Arenal overlooking the gigantic volcano, we stopped for a traditional Costa Rican lunch at a “Soda” which means a place that serves up authentic ‘tico’ cuisine. It was here that we experienced our first true Costa Rican meal: Casado.
Casado is a Costa Rican meal using rice, black beans, plantains, salad, and an optional entrée that may include chicken, beef, pork or fish. Sounds simple enough, right? Our tour guide told us that Casado means ‘married’ (yes, I vaguely remember that from my seven years of Spanish classes) and here’s the history behind it:
“Casado’s origin lies in the lunches packed by wives and sent with their husbands who were laboring in the fields. Originally wrapped in a banana leaf, the components of the Casado were proteins, vegetables, fruits, and starches that would provide a balanced meal to fuel a hard day of work. Men would make their lunches piping hot by setting them out to heat in the full sun and have a home-cooked meal by lunchtime.”
I love this concept of a balanced meal, especially because Americans seem to have an issue with getting all their food groups on the plate. And this meal did not disappoint: the chicken was supremely juicy, and yes! I got my first bite of Costa Rican cheese, and it was amazing! Nothing like the “normal cheese” at home.
Throughout our trip, all of the cheeses I tried tasted like it had just been made. It all felt very homesteaded and fresh, and every time it was presented in a different way. Sometimes it was fried, sometimes it was crumbled or cubed, other times it was just presented as a cheese stick on the plate. After doing some research, it seems like that despite all of the different preparations, it was usually just one cheese: Turrialba, or queso fresco/blanco. When it was fried, it reminded me very much of halloumi, and when fresh, “farmers cheese”. All in all, it’s the same thing, but a very versatile cheese and apparently delicious with rice and beans!
The other common ingredient worth noting was Costa Rican “picadillo”. When our driver/tour guide told us about picadillo, I got the picture of the sweet beef stew that hails from Cuba. But in Costa Rica, picadillo can be any vegetable that is chopped and cooked, usually with onions, peppers, herbs and spices in stock. Yes, essentially it is just diced, cooked vegetables, but the flavors were always very rich and intense. So you might have papa (potato) picadillo, or ayote picadillo (squash – we had a zucchini version while we were there), and serve it over rice. After checking up a few recipes online, I’m thinking the local favorite ‘lizano’ sauce may contribute to the wonderfully bold flavors.
Salsa Lizano is a Costa Rican national product that gives dishes their distinct flavor. It’s likened to Worcestershire sauce or something of the sort, and it’s apparently made from a blend of a variety of different vegetables. TheKitchen describes it as “A1 meets tamarind paste” and has a recipe you can try at home.
So every day for breakfast we enjoyed some kind of rice, beans, eggs, plantains, and turriabla cheese, accompanied by some incredible fresh tropical fruit, freshly squeezed juice, and coconut water. During our stay at Nayara Springs, we enjoyed our breakfast while overlooking the Arenal Volcano. We would fuel up in the morning with a hearty breakfast so we’d be full of energy for ziplining in the rainforest and white water rafting during the day.
By lunch, I was ready for something light and fresh, and ceviche and carpaccio were readily available to check that box. The hotels we stayed at (Nayara Springs and El Mangroove) were especially conscience about this, making some great sustainable claims about supporting local fishermen and farmers. We enjoyed a lot of marlin, snapper, and corvina in a variety of ways. If it wasn’t raw, then it was typically grilled to perfection.
The food in Costa Rica may be simple and predictable, but the locals didn’t seem to mind. In fact, when I asked our tour guide if he ever tired of eating the same thing for every meal, I don’t think the thought had ever occurred to him. I believe there’s something to be said for embracing the carefree, laid-back attitude towards food, and life in general. As much as I enjoy creative and unusual dishes, I am always surprised and delighted the most when someone manages to coax a world of flavors out of something simple and unassuming.
This summer will be the perfect time to grill up some freshly caught local seafood and put my own Garden State spin on casado with delicious New Jersey grown organic rice. And maybe see about some local farmers about some farmers cheese. Pura Vida!