If food is indeed a reflection of its people, then the Costa Rican soul is fresh, wholesome, and satisfying. You are what you eat, and we’ve been enjoying the different fruits and vegetables as well as food customs here tremendously.
From our first meals with our host families, we’re seeing how much of the food here is made from scratch, down to the tortillas and breads. Many families seem to have a kitchen garden where they grow vegetables like chayote (squash) and tomates (tomatoes), and incorporate lots of fresh fruits as well as vegetables into each meal. One of my favorites is the delicious refrescos (smoothies) that my host mom made each day with different fruits like mora (blackberry), cas (sour guava), and melon (cantaloupe).
You can’t really talk about Costa Rican cuisine without mentioning the ever-present rice and beans. In fact, the typical dish here is called the casado, which literally means “married” and refers to the “eternal marriage of its components”: rice and beans, some type of meat or fish, plantains, and vegetables and/or a salad. For breakfast, it is typical to get a plate of gallo pinto (beans and rice) with crema (sour cream), some eggs, fruit, and of course, delicious cafe con leche (always served with hot milk so as not to cool down your coffee). I know what you’re thinking, “Rice and beans, for breakfast?!” but it is addictive. At the start of the trip, we weren’t so sure about it, but after a few days, we were looking forward to our rice and beans each morning!
Meals here tend to be simple but hearty, and the portion sizes tend to be modest. Most Ticos eat their largest meal either at breakfast or at lunch, and have a simple dinner before bed. If they get hungry during the in-between times, there are simple sodas, which is akin to a cafeteria or diner, where people can get a simple meal or drink. They don’t seem to eat large servings of meat, with a lot of protein coming from eggs and beans–all in all quite a healthy diet. Plantains are also quite popular here. They are similar to bananas but are more large and starchy and can’t be eaten until the skin of the plantain turns black. It is often grilled or fried and served with the casado but I like it just fine as a simple dessert. Other favorites include arroz con pollo (chicken with rice) and tropical fruits like papayas, pineapples, rambutans, mangos, guava, and a first for me, zapote, which is a brown avocado-sized fruit with a big seed inside and orangey flesh that tastes like a cross between a sweet potato and a persimmon.
In the spectrum of world cuisines, Costa Rica food may not have the variety of flavors or ingredients of such countries like Mexico or China and it may not be on the cutting edge of modern molecular gastronomy, but it is comfort food at its best–delicious, palatable, and sustaining–and that’s a good thing.