Tuesday, June 16, 2009

comida in costa rica


Costa Rica, the travel books say, is no place to visit if you are interested in food. But let me tell you - you can have fun eating and drinking in this country. Here is a guide to some of the best food and drink that any visitor should check out:


Beans and Rice
Gallo pinto. If you are trying to stay "tipico" with your food selections, likely you will be presented with beans and rice - if not with your meal, then as your meal. I encourage any traveler to experience as much and as many types of beans and rice as you can. Think about it like wine - when you first start drinking, any old bottle tastes the same. You try more and more, and you begin to appreciate the nuances. It's the same here - red beans, black beans, fried together/separately, different combinations of seasoning...you will quickly appreciate the restaurants that have really got their gallo pinto figured out.

Lizano Sauce
Or Salsa Lizano. For classic condiment lovers, this is the Heinz ketchup of Costa Rica, and you will quickly find yourself consuming embarassing amounts of this delicious dark brown concoction (or is that just me?!). It is all at once sweet, salty, and spicy, and ubiquitous at restaurants throughout Costa Rica. Delicious with gallo pinto and eggs. (Yes - it even beats Busha Browne's Spicy Tomato Love-Apple Sauce from Jamaica!)

If we all could get our hands on Guaro here in the U.S., I swear the Guaro Sour would be the next caipirinha (which some predict to be the next mojito). Like Brazil's cachaça, the primary ingredient in caipirinhas, Guaro is made from sugarcane juice. It is 30-35% alcohol and has a subtly sweet flavor. Cacique is currently the only legally produced brand and unfortunately is not widely distributed in the U.S.

Guaro Sour
from Dowd's Spirits Notebook

2 ounces guaro
2 ounces simple syrup or 2 teaspoons raw sugar
5 to 6 lime wedges
Ice cubes
Sugar cane stick for garnish

Put guaro, sugar and lime wedges in a rocks glass. Muddle all the ingredients until you get lime juice. Add ice cubes.

Tropical Fruit
Fresh pineapples, papayas, coconut, mangos, and starfruit are so readily available that you could be at an American tourist trap ordering a $5 piña colada in a plastic cup, and the bartender would grab a handful of fresh pineapple spears, blend it with fresh coconut cream (plus rum and ice), and top with a slice of starfruit for a fresh, frothy, and tropical experience. (And the ice, by the way, is safe. We applied our "don't drink the water" practice rather inconsistently, particularly when it came to the ice used in our Guaro Sours, Pina Coladas and the like. We were OK.)

Regarding bananas - the bananas in Costa Rica are incredible, superior to any Costa Rican banana you might buy in the States. Why? Our tour guide at El Trapiche in Monteverde believes that it is because bananas in Costa Rica ripen naturally after being picked, whereas bananas in the U.S. undergo refrigeration while in transport (which halts the ripening process), followed by rapid ripening in rooms where they are sprayed with ethylene (a naturally occurring chemical that serves as a ripening agent). While I haven't been able to find any scientific evidence, it makes sense to me that this unnatural process would not do any favors for taste.



And finally, of course, the café. After tasting local offerings from various parts of the country, I am convinced that the best stuff comes from the Central Valley, around San Jose (regions: Tarrazu, Tres Rios, Herediá, Alajuela and Alajuela Poas Volcano). This area is known for its high altitude terrain, which supports growing high quality beans that make a coffee smooth, full bodied, with balanced acidity. I was interested to learn that the Costa Rican government only allows arabica (premium) beans to be grown, and only the highest grade is allowed for export. That's why the Costa Rican beans we are familiar with in the U.S. are generally very, very good.