Sunday, May 18, 2014

Foodie Bucket List: Costa Rican Cuisine


While I have no immediate travel plans, what with a four-month-old baby at home and my husband working hard to be the sole provider for his family, I will admit that I am secretly hoping we can swing a trip to Costa Rica this year.  My husband's father has a house down there, which is beautiful, and I feel like we are wasting it by not visiting (is that a good enough argument for my hubby, do you think?).

I love Costa Rica - of course I do; I got married down there!  I love the sunshine, the beaches, the vegetation, the wildlife, and naturally, the food.  Oh, you Costa Ricans know how to make some tasty grub.  For anyone who has never been to Costa Rica (or has and just misses the food), I would like to provide a quick list of my favorite Costa Rican "best dishes to try".  The list is a little short I admit, mainly because once I find a meal I love, I don't often deviate.  Maybe if we go down later this year, I can branch out and try a few more dishes.

Arroz con Pollo

My absolute, absolute favorite meal in Costa Rica is "arroz con pollo", which is simply "rice with chicken".  I would eat this for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day if I could.  Each establishment serves it a little differently, which is why I never seem to get sick of it. Basically, the meal is fried rice mixed with a pleasing blend of garlic, salt, pepper, oregano, cilantro, and cumin. Vegetables are chopped up and mixed in - celery, tomatoes, peas, carrots, corn, peppers, you name it.  Finally, chunks of juicy, marinated chicken are added in.  Like I said, no two places make the exact same arroz con pollo, so sometimes vegetables will be missing, sometimes vegetables I don't have listed here are present.  No matter the recipe, I've never met a dish of arroz con pollo I didn't like!

Yummy arroz con pollo.  Photo via.

Plantains 

A 'cousin' of the banana, plantains are popular in Costa Rica. They are firmer and starchier than dessert bananas and are not typically eaten raw.  You prepare a plantain by either boiling or frying it, much like a potato here in Canada or the US.  Once fried, they become mushier and little sweeter.  Costa Rican dishes don't usually get served with a lot of vegetables (a spoonful of coleslaw, a small amount of Russian salad, or a slice of tomato and piece of lettuce are about all I've had served on my plates) so plantains are a popular side dish to most meals.  I usually save the plantains until the end of my meal, then eat them in place of dessert.

Fried plantains are tasty and can double as dessert. Image via.

Casado

This is the meal most Ticos prefer to eat for lunch in Costa Rica (comida tipica).  The meal is made of rice cooked with finely chopped bell peppers and onions, fried plantains, beans cooked in a delicious gravy, and either a salad or some chopped vegetables.  You can then choose the type of meat you want with it: pork, chicken, fish, or steak.  I preferred the pork, as it is cut rather thin and then sauteed in an amazing blend of spices. The chicken was good too, but it was a thicker cut and didn't soak in the flavor as well as the pork.  In some of the more 'westernized' restaurants, your casado can come with French fries, but I never chose that option.  It just seemed wrong.

A typical lunchtime meal of casado.  Image via.

Gallo Pinto

If casado is eaten for breakfast by the locals, then gallo pinto is the go-to meal for breakfast.  The meal is based on a hearty helping of black beans mixed with rice, served with egg (either fried, scrambled or in omelet form) and, depending on the restaurant, your choice of fried plantain, toast, or a type of handmade bread which is similar to naan.  The beans are amazing - they are cooked in a type of gooey sauce (I know, it sounds gross and sometimes it even looks pretty gross) but the flavor of the sauce is like nothing you've eaten before. 

Gallo pinto - eat like a local and try this for breakfast!  Image via.


Sopa de Mariscos

This soup is great if you are seafood fan (and I am!).  Sopa de Mariscos is a brothy, tomato-based soup loaded with tasties like shrimp, squid, clams, mussels, chunks of fish, and chopped veggies.  Once again, no two restaurants or diners (diners are called 'sodas' down in Costa Rica) make the same sopa de mariscos, so try it more than once if you like it.  It is really good if you order some bread (pan) along with it to soak up the tasty broth.

Chunky sopa de mariscos - if you love seafood.  Image via.

Imperial Beer

Of course, no Costa Rican meal is complete with a cool brewsky.  My husband and I favor the brand "Imperial", although you can often find "Pilsen" and "Bavaria" which are other popular brands.  Most Tico restaurants have a large sign outside their establishment indicating whether they sell primarily Imperial or Pilsen (and then occasionally Bavaria).  Imperial is the 'national brand' of Costa Rica, it seems: you can buy Imperial T-shirts, towels, jackets, and I even found a cool pair of carved coconut earrings in the shape of the Imperial logo.  If you are not into beer, Costa Rican coffee is a delicious second choice - we always make sure we bring home a giant bag of "1850" coffee beans each time we visit Costa Rica.  It is the good stuff!

What are your favorite Costa Rican dishes?  I know there are a ton more that I haven't tried yet: olla de carne (meat stew), ceviche (pickled fish), tamales, chicharones, and much more.  Oh dear, now I'm really hungry... off to the fridge for me!

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