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Monday, January 11, 2010

Home Cooking in Costa Rica and Other TIdbits

It has taken me up to this point, January 2010, to finally get to Costa Rica. I travel with my girlfriend and fellow seasoned traveler, Joanne because my husband generally does not travel well. The very unfinished and windy roads of Costa Rica (and of most countries where I end up landing) would turn him green, and there would be little to say about the honest hunger that comes from a long day of travel.
Joanne and I are both therapists and serious cooks/gastronomes, and we pride ourselves on our ability to read people quickly and to integrate ourselves into a different culture. From working with all sorts of people over the past 20 years, I have found there is no better ice breaker, then a genuine interest in the local cuisine. I like to eat, and I especially like to eat home cooked meals in another country when the opportunity presents itself. I am never a fan of typical tourist spots, famous destination restaurants or being a silly American in need of something comfortable and familiar, like the Golden Arches when in a strange land. If the earth opened right up and swallowed every single Hard Rock Cafe, I would thank the earth personally.
I think it is a real compliment to accept the local cuisine, even if your tendency is to be a bit squeamish about the surrounding hygiene. That being said, as much as I admire Anthony Bourdain for eating ostrich eggs off the ground in Africa and chowing down on wild pig anus, I am definitely giving that a miss. I would not call it a limit per se, but perhaps a food boundary. I have good boundaries. But I digress.

When I meet people of another culture the first thing I do is attempt some communication in their language. I also speak quietly. I don't expect the volume of my voice to convey any more or any less information, and I never shout at people to enhance understanding. That trick never works. The next subject I broach is food. Their food, the local ingredients, what they like to cook, what spices they use. If I have a fantastic meal, I talk to them about how they prepared it and I find people always willing to tell me ingredients and share recipes. If the opportunity presents itself, I will get into their kitchen and help them prepare the next meal and be an avid student. I have yet to meet a cook who does not like this sort of attention. I like it myself when people appreciate my food enough to want a recipe.

With that introduction, let me present a small overview on traditional Tico food, on the pacific side of Costa Rica.
I stayed at AmaTierra, a yoga and natural health center type place in the sticks, far away from San Jose or any other large city, and fairly far away from the coast too. The closest little towns were San Pablo (pop. 2000) and Puriscal. (pop. 17,000) Everyone owns a horse, all of the roads are unnamed, and many are just rock-strewn dirt paths that wind down to some little gate and a crookedly lettered sign to a little family finca replete with fresh eggs and maybe a few coffee plants. The drive there from the airport can take years off of your life. I found myself closing my eyes as large trucks, people, horses cows and motorbikes all tried to occupy the same space. Miraculously, I witnessed no accidents.

Amatierra prides itself in serving very fresh mostly vegetarian meals with local fresh fruits, vegetables and local fish. Because the cooks are all Ticos, they serve Gallo pinto for breakfast every morning, a mix of rice, red or black beans, onions and bean juice and spices. We had local bread baked by a very interesting pioneer woman expat, and it was filled with carrots, nuts and other fantastic whole grains. She sells her natural chocolate cake in one of the small towns too, and this has become her business along with home-schooling her five children, and growing a small amount of coffee. She hosts horseback rides into the green hilly wilderness of Costa Rica, but that post is an adventure all its own. Joanne and I wanted to spend a day baking bread with her, but she keeps her house sacrosanct from all tourists, even non-tourists like us, so we will have to pursue that another time.

Marjorie, one of the cooks close to our age, took a liking to us and was very open with her recipes. She made a fresh papaya compote with orange Mexican papaya cubes, brown sugar, cinnamon, cardamom and a little bit of cooking to create a bit of syrup. She poured this over vanilla ice cream and that was a heavenly dessert. Another night she made a watermelon ceviche with cubes of fresh local melon, soy sauce, sugar, fresh cilantro and sliced red onions - all garnished with butter-flavored popcorn. Very strange, and strangely delicious and served in a martini glass.

We did decide to do the tourista thing one day and traveled to Turu bari park for some ziplining, and a botanical tour. Lunch was included and we expected the worst. We were pleasantly surprised by a fantastic array of traditional tico dishes presented buffet style: Rice, red, pinto and black beans, coconut milk chicken, cinnamon fried plantains, papaya pico gallo, fresh fruit and sliced jicama, and three traditional desserts: flan, sweetened roasted coconut and rice pudding. Chan was served as a chilled pink drink. Chan is a plant that yields black seeds that become mucilaginous in water, and are used to thicken drinks and as a digestive. The pink sweetened fruit juice was just a vehicle for the black seeds, which looked like large sesame seeds. At 85 plus degrees in the park, the drink was refreshing and not too sweet and the seeds went down easily.

Ticos have a thing about dying stuff red. Most fruit drinks are red, and many pastries have a lot of red dye or sugar on them. We met an English teacher who was working in the bakery owned by her mother and sister and we asked her about all this pink and redness in the food. She just said it was a traditional color and left it at that, but did not explain why.

These little red sugar bombs are dense cinnamon sugar cookies stuck together sandwich fashion with pineapple or passion fruit jelly, dyed red (at some point in the process) and rolled in sugar. They are a very traditional Tico cookie, and are touted to be good for "Abuelas Nuevas", new grandmothers! I think that is charming and have no idea why that might be so. I can see I'd better do more research for my next food blog.

We will have to solve that mystery at another time. We laughed to ourselves about all the "red dye number 2" and whether it was healthy for anyone. The red dye was combined with sugar more often than not, so we took our chances.

Joanne and I were able to "invent" a tour for ourselves with the help of a fellow that worked at Amatierra as a handyman. His sister-in-law owned a small finca called Montezumo outside of Puriscal, rumored to serve clay oven baked bread and pizza, fresh grown and roasted coffee, and fresh fried tilapia fish that visitors catch themselves from the pond onsite. We knew that would be an excellent trip. WE first met Liticia, a local expert in the use of medicinal plants and expert cook of any edible plant or creature on the farm. She spoke to use about her Noni tree and we sniffed the malodorous ripe noni fruits, prized by the Hawaiians to heal everything from anemia to diabetes. The fruit smells like rotten goat cheese, and Amelia, the social worker from Chicago who is volunteering there, said she once had the temerity to chew on one raw for full benefit. Once.

Amelia has huevos in more than one case. She invented her own "volunteer" position to learn the art of small farm organic coffee growing and to spread green practices amongst the ticos. Among these practices are using the pig dung to produce the methane for fuel, to avoid burning trash to spare the air and to use natural shade and jungle to support a small crop of organic coffee plants. Amelia went from being a social worker in Chicago for a spanish-speaking population to Costa Rica. We should all think about such an opportunity if it presents itself at the right time in our lives.
We got a real inside look at a small production organic coffee farm, and got to sniff and taste raw and roasted coffee beans.

Later after lunch we get a chance to taste a fresh brewed cup of that days' roasting. Leticia set about preparing lunch for us, and she posed like a fashion model to let us snap photos in her minimally appointed country kitchen above the tilapia pond.

Her heavy iron gas burners were fueled directly from a biodigester of fresh pig shit, with a pipe leading directly from the tank to the stove. That didn't bother us one bit. Burn off the methane and the lunch smells heavenly just the same. She prepared some long stringy greens a lot like mustard greens, sauteed in garlic and oil. You can see them lying on the table in the photo. Apparently there are many greens and grasses that are very healthy to eat, and the Ticos know what to harvest at any given time. I have forgotten the name of these greens unfortunately, but they were bitter and tasty.

Letitica fried up fresh tilapias for our taxi driver, and for his opportunistic brother who happened to come along for a free meal. We noticed he managed to get TWO free meals, a fried fish, and chicken from the second round of cooking. The volunteers took note and didn't think much of him at all, especially his propensity to shout into his cell phone at the lunch table.

We enjoyed a perfectly seasoned fresh pounded piece of chicken, plantains sauteed in butter, rice, beans, fresh cabbage salsa with papaya and a fruit drink made from two unknown fruits that looked a lot like a thick apple juice, and tasted like apple and pear. We had a hard time getting the spanish translation for these fruits, so that is another mystery for me to chase down. Chayote squash is ubiquitous there as a plant and a vegetable, and is served at every meal. It has many mythical health benefits amongst the Ticos, but perhaps it helps that it is plentiful.

To finish the meal, that perfect cup of coffee but alas! No fresh milk! They use every drop to make fresh cheese, and coffee was expected to be drunk straight up and was offered with powdered creamer and natural cane sugar.

After the tour of the Finca de Montezuma, we walked around the small town of Puriscal in search of the famoso and perfect chicharron: a ball of fried smoked pork still attached to a leg bone. In Mexico, Chicharrones are fried bits of pig skin with fat attached, served with hot sauce. In Costa Rica, a lot more meat is involved. Amelia's eyes got dreamy when she spoke of eating Puriscal's chicharrones. She recommended eating them as often as possible, and damn the consequences. Joanne had overheard health-food pounding Bob of Amatierra rhapsodizing over his lack of bacon while on the phone with a customer. His yogi wife doesn't allow bacon in the house. I found the perfect carneceria in Puriscal, and bought some bags of chicharrones to smuggle back into the yoga paradise of bean sprouts and grilled fish. Instead of being delighted Bob promptly stuck to his guns and rejected the offering saying, "God! No Way! I got so SICK on those one time, yada yada yada...". Well that is what he gets for letting pork slip off of his food chain. I gave the fresh, fragrant chicharrones to Marjorie and to Roberto at the hotel, and they were delighted. After all they are FAMOUS in Puriscal, and not everyone gets there every week. I think I trust Marjorie and Robertos' judgement on the chicharrones. I am not going to argue with the Ticos about their chicharrones, though Cato, Marjorie's brother insisted his home town San Pablo had chicharrones as good or BETTER than Puriscal. I don't plan to argue with that either.
Onward to the next adventure! Pura VIda and Mucho Comida Rica!


  1. What a wonderful experience, Lori. So glad you chose this time to start your blog and to share your journey with us. The pictures add so much to your story. I must say the food is "beautiful." Will wait for more of your adventures. Carole Ann (I can't quite figure out how to comment using any of the choices given. I don't know my URL and my email address won't work. So I am Anonymous. :)

  2. This is an INCREDIBLE blog, Lori!!! Everything I love in life: travel, food, and great writing!

    Thanks for starting this--love it!!!


  3. The food is so delicious and tempting. The home cooking is always so good and healthy. It saves us from the gastronomy and other harmful diseases.