Costa Rican Cuisine: Gallo Pinto, Ceviche and Other Traditional Dishes
Costa Rican cuisine includes influences from indigenous cultures, Afro-Caribbean traditions and Spanish colonial ingredients. The country’s tourism industry (combined with a large number of expats) has seen cuisines from around the world made available. This is particularly true in the capital San Jose and many of the beach resorts, although the cuisine remains far more traditional in rural areas. While family gatherings centered around feasting on traditional foods are popular, Ticos (Costa Ricans) also have a particular fondness for Chinese and Italian foods.
Traditional Costa Rican Cuisine
Indigenous influences on Costa Rican cuisine can be seen in the use of corn which formed a large part of the pre-Columbian diet. Tamales (introduced by the Aztecs) draw on this and are still served at most celebrations and festivals throughout the country. Made from a dough of cornmeal, they are often stuffed with spices, meat, rice and vegetables, before being wrapped and steamed in a plantain or banana leaf. The indigenous Chorotega people are known to stuff theirs with the meat of deer or turkeys, together with pumpkin seeds, tomatoes and sweet peppers.
Traditional Costa Rican cuisine is known for its use of rice and black beans which often feature in all three meals. The national dish is gallo pinto, or “spotted rooster”, which combines rice and beans (red or black) together in a stir-fry with coriander, onion, red pepper and Salsa Lizano to create a speckled dish. It’s often served for breakfast, accompanied by fried or scrambled eggs, cheese, plantains and orange juice.
Plantain (a large member of the banana family) features prominently in Costa Rican cuisine and is served in both sweet and savory ways. They are often sliced, fried and smashed into patacones and served with a bean dip or guacamole, or baked in honey for a sweet treat.
A common ingredient in many Costa Rican dishes is Salsa Lizano which was created in 1920 and has spread to become the country’s favorite condiment. It is added while cooking to give a tangy flavor or often served on the side.
The most popular lunchtime meal is casado which when literally translated means “married man”. It originated as a dish packed in a banana leaf by wives to give to their husbands as they went out to work in the fields. It consists of rice and beans served side-by-side, accompanied by some kind of meat and a picadillo side dish of fried vegetables.
Arroz con pollo (rice with chicken) is another popular dish, cooked with vegetables and spices and served with Salsa Lizano. Chifrijo combines crispy, fried pork with frijoles (beans) and is usually accompanied by rice, pico de gallo salsa and tortilla chips. Beef features in the Spanish-influenced dish of olla de carne which sees the meat slow cooked with potatoes, corn, cassava and green plantains.
Rice and beans are also served along the coast but given an Afro-Caribbean twist by being cooked in coconut milk and served with fish or seafood. Pork crackling is also popular in Caribbean communities, particularly during festivities, as is the tripe soup of mondongo. Ceviche also makes an appearance in Costa Rica (as in many other Latin American countries), with raw fish and seafood “cooked” in lemon juice, then mixed with onion, garlic, coriander and chilies.
Rondon is another popular coastal dish in Costa Rica, featuring whatever the cook can scrape together to create a coconut milk-based soup of fish, potatoes and yucca. It’s cooked over an open wood flame, giving the dish a smoky flavor.
Boquitas are Costa Rican appetizers and served at most bars, including things like patacones (fried plantains), small tacos or chicharrón, a fried, crispy pork. Snack stands known as sodas often sell empanadas filled with ground beef, chicken or cheese, as well as fried yucca which makes for a filling snack on the run.
Costa Rican Desserts
Costa Rican desserts draw heavily on milk, corn, eggs and fruit, as well as coconut along the coastlines. Tres leches (three milks) is one of the most popular, with this wet cake made from three different kinds of milk (whole, evaporated and condensed), together with cinnamon, eggs, vanilla extract and dark rum.
Tropical fruit salads also make for a delicious dessert, featuring papaya, pineapple, cantaloupe and watermelon, and sampling the tender white flesh of a fresh cacao at one of Costa Rica’s cacao farms will give you a completely new perspective on chocolate and how it is made.
Granizados are another popular sweet treat, sold by wooden cart vendors along the beaches. This shaved ice dessert is layered with condensed milk and flavored syrups and particularly loved by Costa Rican kids.
Costa Rican Beverages
Coffee is one of Costa Rica’s most famous exports and the country produces high-quality beans which are roasted and ground to create a strong brew. Black coffee or café con leche (with milk) are served at almost every restaurant across the country, while agua dulce made from raw cane sugar dissolved in hot water is popular in the cool-climate highlands.
Kiosks serving frescos and batidos (drinks made using fresh fruit blended with either milk or water) are also found everywhere. Popular fruits such as pineapple, banana and mango are available, together with more exotic tropical fruits such as tamarind, cas and guanabana.
Refrescos is the local word for sodas and these are served either in bottles or plastic bags across Costa Rica, while horchata (a blend of rice, cornmeal and cinnamon) is found in the northwest of the country. Fresh coconuts are also available to drink in many coastal tourist towns and known as agua de pipa.
Beer is widely available throughout the country, with Imperial, Pilsen and Bavaria among the most popular, together with Michelada which is served with fresh lime juice and salt around the rim of the glass. Microbrews are seeing an increase in popularity too, with the Costa Rica Craft Brewing Company leading the way.
Rum is undoubtedly the most popular hard liquor, with Ron Centenario a common local brand, while guaro is made from sugarcane with a similar taste to vodka. For something truly unique, try vino de coyol (coyol wine) which is the traditional drink of the Chorotega people and made by fermenting the sap of the coyol palm tree.