Everything You Need to Know About Costa Rican Food – Nicholas Gill

A dish from manos en la masa in San José, Costa Rica | Courtesy of Hulu

Abundant farmland, seas, and jungles, plus a stunning mix of cultural influences, have made Costa Rica a Latin American food destination

Costa Rica is one of the few countries on earth where someone can spend an entire week and leave without having any real sense of the local cuisine. The closest many travelers ever get is trying zapote and guanábana at the hotel breakfast bar, secluded inside a resort town, surrounded by expats. What they miss out on is one of Latin America’s most underappreciated cuisines.

This is a country where anything and everything grows. You can walk down the busiest streets in San José and pick pitaya and wild tomatoes right from the sidewalk. Beyond the cattle ranches and coffee plantations, small farmers grow vegetables like chayote, arracacha, and purple corn that are often sold through the country’s vast network of ferías, the weekly regional farmers markets held in every corner of the country. There are minty drinks from mucilaginous, chia-like seeds of a plant called chan, and syrups made from the carob-like pods of a tree called carao. There are addictive bar snacks made from beans and chicharrón, plus seafood from two coasts. Corn is ubiquitous, used to make tortillas, tamales, and cookies.

Costa Rica was one of the first countries to allow American travelers during the COVID-19 pandemic, and restaurants remain open at reduced capacity. While the safety of international travel is still not clear, for future trips, plan to step outside of the expat bubble, away from the multinational hotel chains and toward any small-town restaurant or market — you’ll see the world of Costa Rican cuisine begin to open up. Here, then, is a comprehensive guide to navigating all the ins and outs of eating in Costa Rica.

Hands cradle a banana leaf loaded with beans, plantains, and rice.Courtesy of Hulu
An indigenous woman from the Amburi Koswak tribe plates a traditional Costa Rican spread

Understanding the Influences

“We are a beautiful mix of cultures,” says chef Pablo Bonilla, whose restaurants Sikwa and Francisca reinterpret Indigenous and pre-1950s recipes, respectively. “From Spain came the Catalans, Andalusians, Galicians. Africans came from Guinea, Ghana, and later via Jamaica. Plus, Indigenous descendants of the Mayas in the north and Chibchas in the south.”

Prior to colonization by the Spanish, Costa Rica fell in between the more dominant cultural groups from the north and south, and the country’s present-day Indigenous communities reflect this overlap. In Guanacaste and the Nicoya peninsula, communities of Chorotega, the southernmost descendants of the Maya, still grow and process corn much in the same way they have for thousands of years. Many of their traditional foods, such as tortillas and pancake-like chorreadas, were adapted by the wider population, while the use of porridges and drinks made from maíz pujagua, or purple corn, are more isolated. In the mountainous Talamanca region in the south, communities of Bribri and Boruca people live off the land, safeguarding many ancestral ingredients, while also growing cacao for wider consumption.

Like in the rest of the region, colonization swept across the land like a hurricane, wiping out much of Costa Rica’s native foodways while introducing European livestock and agriculture. The Spanish cut down forests to raise cattle and pigs and planted wheat and rice. Many national recipes, such as olla de carne and countless sweets, are of Spanish origins, having been adapted to involve regional ingredients.

While some Afro-Costa Ricans are descended from enslaved Africans who were forcibly brought to the region during the colonial period, a far greater number are descendants of the English-speaking Jamaican migrants who came in the 19th century and settled on the Caribbean coast. Here, coconut milk is a staple ingredient, used in seafood stews like rondon or to cook rice and beans, as are root vegetables like cassava and yams.

While it hasn’t always been for the best, the United States has also left its mark on Costa Rican cuisine. A surge of Americans have migrated to the country in recent decades, more than 70,000 by some estimates, and many have gone on to open restaurants and start small culinary projects, with mixed success. However, American influence has a much lengthier history tied to monocultures (banana, pineapples, coffee), which have had drastic effects on the country’s food system as well as the environment.

A banana leaf is spread with a mixture of traditional Costa Rican foods. Shutterstock
A classic casado de res served on banana leaf

The Dishes to Know

Gallo pinto (rice and beans)

Claimed by both Costa Rica and Nicaragua, gallo pinto is the regional variation of rice and beans, which is usually seasoned with bell peppers, cilantro, and onions. The name, which translates to “spotted rooster,” refers to the spots of beans that stand out against the white rice, though sometimes it’s just referred to more casually as pinto. For breakfast, it might be served with a fried egg, while for lunch and dinner it’s a side to meat or fish.

There are subtle regional variations. For instance, black beans are the norm, though in Guanacaste, on the Pacific coast closer to Nicaragua, red beans are more typical. The condiment Salsa Lizano, a light brown sauce similar to Worcestershire that’s found on most Costa Rican tables, is stirred into the pot in San José and around the Valle Central. On the Caribbean coast, it might be cooked with coconut milk and chiles.

Chifrijo (fried pork with red beans}

Nearly every cantina in Costa Rica serves this bar snack, which is believed to have been first prepared in the late ’70s at the still-functioning Cordero’s Bar in the town of Tibás outside San José. Its name is the combination of its two signature ingredients: fried pork (chicharrón) and beans (frijoles). It’s sometimes served with a base of rice or toppings like avocados and tomatoes, but the original preparation is eaten more like a bowl of nachos, with tortilla chips and chilera (spicy pickled vegetables) on the side.

Rondón (seafood and coconut stew)

Whatever fish and vegetables a cook has “run down” to by the end of the week get thrown in a pot with coconut milk, herbs, and spices for this typical dish of Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. The thick stew is found in many parts of the Caribbean and was brought to Central America by Jamaican laborers in the latter half of the 19th century. In Afro-Costa Rican communities like Cahuita or Puerto Limón, rondón might include red snapper, clams, mussels, conch, or sea snails, plus green plantains, cassava, and chiles with a side of coconut rice and breadfruit.

Casado (combo plate)

Translating to “married man,” the casado is Costa Rica’s typical lunch plate. There’s no set recipe, but rather a general mix of simply prepared vegetables with a protein. It might be grilled fish, stewed beef, a pork chop, or fried chicken served with white rice, beans, and coleslaw or some sort of salad of iceberg lettuce and tomatoes. Everyone makes it a little differently, though: They might add fried plantains, slices of avocado, tortillas, or a fried egg, depending on the region and the season.

Olla de carne (beef and vegetable stew)

Olla de carne is eaten every weekend in many Costa Rican homes, often for family gatherings as the long cooking time and amount of vegetables added make it difficult to make in small portions. Beef, usually short ribs and various off cuts, is simmered for four to eight hours with a handful of vegetables that may include yuca, potatoes, chayote, carrots, corn, or plantains. It’s then served with rice and beans on the side, of course.

A bowl of seafood ceviche sits on a metal counterGetty Images / Sergio Amiti
A bowl of seafood ceviche

Picadillos (vegetable hash)

There’s no truer reflection of Costa Rica’s agricultural bounty than these homey hashes, simple mixes of chopped vegetables sauteed in fat with onions, stock, herbs and other seasonings. The name of the dish always states the primary vegetable being used, such as picadillo de zapallo (squash), vainitas (green beans), chayote, arracache (arracacha), papa (potato), and even fruits like papaya. It’s served over white rice, sometimes with a protein like ground beef or chorizo, or on corn tortillas to make gallos — Costa Rica’s version of the taco — a picadillo becomes a full meal.

Chorreadas (corn pancakes)

These sweet or savory pancakes, made from ground, fresh white or yellow corn, are a staple in Costa Rican kitchens and sodas (small, simple, often family-run establishments) for breakfast. The most typical versions, where the corn is ground by hand, can be traced to pre-Columbian times, though today it’s more likely to be blended in a food processor and thickened with flour and eggs. When sweet (and they are rarely overly sweet), they might be drizzled with honey or syrup. When savory, a dollop of sour cream-like natilla is usually served on top.

Ceviche

Unlike its Peruvian counterpart, Costa Rican ceviche features fish that’s typically marinated in lime juice for at least an hour in the fridge, rather than just seconds, resulting in a more opaque, less raw-tasting fish. It’s usually made with peeled shrimp or firm white fish like sea bass, though sometimes you’ll find chuchecas (blood clams) and a mixture of finely chopped or minced onions, tomatoes, garlic, and cilantro. And many locals swear by a splash of ketchup or tabasco.

Tamales

In the days before Christmas, a favorite pastime is the tamaleada, when families get together to make the star of Christmas dinner: pork tamales. Costa Rican tamales have been adapted from their Indigenous origins to include introduced ingredients like rice, chicken, beef, and carrots. They are never steamed in a corn husk; rather, they are always made in a banana leaf, and when two of them are tied together, as they are often sold, it’s called a piña.

Beef turnovers (patí)

In snack bars and sodas in Caribbean towns like Puerto Limón and Cahuita, the patí is ever-present. Similar to a Jamaican beef patty, but spiced with the local chile panameño, or ají chombo, it is a means of survival for many Afro-Costa Rican women who once sold them on trains and busy streets from wicker baskets, and continue the tradition from Tupperware containers.

A red and white shaved ice in a plastic cup.Shutterstock
The Churchill, made with red kola syrup and condensed milk, is Costa Rica’s signature copo.

Peach palm soup (sopa de pejibaye)

Pejibaye, a starchy orange palm fruit, has been widely planted across Costa Rica even prior to colonization. The fruit needs to be boiled for at least an hour to be edible, and then, once peeled and pitted, it can be pureed into a soup with stock, cream, and seasoning.

Shaved ice (copo)

On plazas and beaches throughout Costa Rica, kiosks and roving carts specialize in a local variety of shaved ice called copos or granizados. The cups or cones are topped with everything from milk powder and flavored syrups to fresh fruit and marshmallows. The most emblematic variation is the Churchill, which was named after a man in Puntarenas who looked remarkably like Winston Churchill and always ordered his copo with bright red kola syrup and condensed milk.

Sweetened squash paste (miel de chiverre)

Costa Rica has the typical pan-Latin sweets like flan, tres leches cake, and arroz con leche, but more endemic is this chunky, sweet paste made from chiverre, the fig leaf gourd. This large squash has a sweet, spaghetti-like flesh that gets dried and then cooked with panela, cinnamon, and other spices. The locals’ favorite way to eat it is as the filling of a sweet empanada, though it’s also used to make candy or just eaten with a spoon.

What to Drink

Coffee probably comes to mind when one thinks of drinking in Costa Rica, and there’s a good reason for that. While coffee growing was focused mostly on quantity for more than a century, recent decades have seen a shift toward greater traceability and micro-lots, resulting in more distinct coffees that can be found in new-wave coffee cafes and roasters in San José and the occasional beach town.

In rural and Indigenous parts of the country, you can still find ancient, sweetened drinks like pinolillo and tiste, made from cornmeal or rice and cacao, as well as agua de sapo, a refreshing concoction made from ginger, panela, and lime. There are also chichas, low-proof drinks made from fermented corn or fruits like pejibaye.

In terms of alcohol, the national firewater is the sugarcane-based guaro, which is sometimes mixed with tomato juice, lime juice, and hot sauce for the shot-sized chiliguaro. The general population leans toward mass-market lagers like Imperial and Pilsen, though a growing number of craft breweries around the country, like Treintaycinco, Cervecería Calle Cimarrona, Costa Rica’s Craft Brewing Co., and Domingo 7, are making inroads. Meanwhile, experimental bartenders are breaking new ground by featuring local botanicals and fermented drinks on the drink lists at area hot spots like Bebedero from celebrity bartender Liz Furlong, the clubby Selvática, and hotel bars Celajes and Sentido Norte.

A woman mixes up a drink behind a bar.Courtesy of Hulu
Bartender Liz Furlong crafting a drink at Selvática

When to Eat

With foods like rice, beans, and tortillas often eaten at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, meals in Costa Rica can seem repetitive. Breakfast tends to be heavy, with gallo pinto sometimes joined by eggs and fried plantains, while lunch and dinner will swap out the eggs for simple proteins and add a few vegetables. In the afternoon, especially on the weekends, a cup of coffee and a baked good like an empanada or cookie may be added.

During the week, most meals are taken at home, including midday lunch, when many businesses shut down, and might be followed by a siesta. Those on the go might stop by a soda, which are usually open from breakfast until the afternoon, while other restaurants tend to close their kitchens by 10 p.m., if not earlier. For weekend lunches, family gatherings become full-day affairs with tamales and slow-cooked stews like olla de carne, while rural and beach restaurants are at their busiest.

Where to Eat

While gringo-run restaurants with standard international menus full of imported ingredients rule many resort towns, they aren’t where most Ticos opt to eat. Fresh, seasonal produce and locally raised and caught meats and seafood can often be found along the side of the highway. Outside of formal restaurants, there are some other spots for a good meal:

Sodas

Outside of someone’s home, sodas are the place to eat traditional Costa Rican food. These unpretentious, independent restaurants range from simple lunch counters in urban markets to sprawling, family-run restaurants in the countryside. The menus will have a mix of regional favorites, plus low-cost set meals like casados.

Marisquerías

Marisquerías are similar to sodas, but they specialize in seafood. They are mostly found along the coasts, though not necessarily right on the beach. They’ll offer simple dishes like camarónes al ajillo (garlic shrimp), arroz con mariscos (rice with mixed seafood), grilled or fried fish, soups, and ceviches.

Ferias del agricultor

On Fridays, Saturdays, or Sundays, every region of Costa Rica holds its weekly feria, a farmer’s market positioned around seasonal fruits and vegetables. There’s often live music and vendors selling ready-to-eat foods like pipas (young coconuts), sliced fruits, gallos, and empanadas.

Roadside fruit stands

On highways and country roads throughout Costa Rica, open-air fruit stands are an easy pit stop. Aside from the mangoes and bananas, keep an eye out for lesser-known fruits like manzana de agua (water apples), guanábana (soursop), carambola (star fruit), mamón Chino (rambutan), mamey, and marañon (cashew fruit).

A chef stands in front of a restaurant holding a bowl.Courtesy of Hulu
Pablo Bonilla of Sikwa

What’s Next

The restaurant revolution that swept up much of South America and eventually Central American neighbors like Panama and Guatemala arrived late to Costa Rica but is now in full swing, at least around the capital.

After years working in France, chef José González returned home and opened Al Mercat in 2014, and he began exploring the country’s biodiversity through foraged and fermented ingredients. During the pandemic, he moved the restaurant from its original Barrio Escalante to his parent’s ranch on the outskirts of San José. At Sikwa, Pablo Bonilla has been working with Indigenous communities like the Boruca and Bribrí to resurrect ancestral dishes, while Silvestre, set in a beautifully restored 1930s Barrio Amón house, is serving contemporary Costa Rican food through its elaborate tasting menus.

Former Jamie Oliver right-hand man Sebastián La Rocca, who was born in Argentina, has built a mini empire in Escazu with his wood-fired Costa Rican cooking at Botaniko, speakeasy izakaya Rōkka, and ghost kitchens slinging gourmet burgers and choripan. Additionally, at Descarada Tradición, Sofía Campos and Luis Chaves are reviving the tradition of the gallo with housemade tortillas, while at MadFish, Tere Moreno is helping raise the profile of the artisan fishing community of Puntarenas.

This renewed culinary scene is still in its early days, though it’s gradually spreading toward the jungles and beaches, where pop-ups, surf cafes, and creative street-food vendors are showing signs they’re more interested in working with the country’s natural bounty than trying to appeal to the unsustainable demands of tourists.

A large fried fish sits on a plate with other Costa Rican sides. Courtesy of Hulu
A whole fish with plantains, rice, and beans

Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the co-founder of New Worlder.

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