By Sofía González B.
It's already 5:00 PM and what was once an empty soccer field suddenly comes to life. Neighbors who, up until that moment, were locked inside their houses, decided to come outside for a quick stroll. Dozens of food stands with steaming hot dishes and women preparing fresh caramel apples for you to enjoy while you wait in line.
There are a couple of main attractions: for the little ones, a merry-go-round and for the rest, dancing floor to show off everyone's favorite dance moves. Depending on the area you're in, you can find a redondel, where people can enjoy concerts and other events.
What am we talking about? A Costa Rican turno.
Food Is at the Center
The turno (which is Spanish for turn) is a fair, but one that is very close to the hearts of many Costa Ricans. Turnos are carried out throughout the year*, and neighboring communities take turns in organizing their festivities - hence the name. It's the place where tradition, flavors and family warmth converge in a community space.
The "cocina de turno" (it's literal translation is "fair food") is one of the most important spaces of this community festival. According to Patricia Sedó in her book La cocina del turno (“Food at the fair”), "people are invited to participate in fairs in order to taste good food (...) and a lot of people visit the fair site in search of a traditional dish they won't typically make at their homes."
People visit the turnos' dining hall to see what kind of food the community offers. It's also a good opportunity to get to know the people who are making all those incredible dishes and to have a nice chat with some of the members of the community.
Also, and this is the most important aspect of all, this is a great chance to try homemade dishes. Mom's food. Grandma's desserts. The turno's kitchen is the place where homemade flavors flourish and are placed at center stage. And not only that, but by buying the food that means something to you and your community, you're helping the community itself.
What are some of the most popular dishes at the turno?
Anatomy of a Turno Kitchen
So, before we go into what kind of dishes are served, we need to understand how the food is organized and what's the logic behind it. In a typical turno kitchen, such as the one in San Juan de San Ramón, located in the Alajuela province, food stalls are placed in front of the main kitchens.
The main kitchen belongs to the community church or parrish, which is in charge of preparing the main dishes. The food stalls are administered by groups associated with the parish, and sell dishes different to those offered in the main kitchen: tamales, pastries, pork rinds and refreshments are good examples.
You cannot have a proper turno without the chinameros, which are food stalls given in concesion to third parties, usually not associated with the parish. The "chinameros", as they are called, focus on more crowd-pleasing dishes - snacks, sweets or fast food are a good example of this. Chinameros are very important in a turno, as not everyone might be interested in the food offered at the turno's cafeteria.
Cajetas are a popular treat offered by the chinameros at the turno.
Real Artisan Food
Since turnos are festivities that date from colonial times, much of the food served there is truly a fusion of different cultures. A current classic is fried rice, which is an adaptation of the traditional Chinese fried rice. This version, however, includes a wide assortment of meats and vegetables. In a lot of senses, it resembles an arroz con pollo.
You'll also find “picadillos”, which are finely chopped stir-fried vegetables and meat. Picadillos are quite important in Latin American cuisine, and you can't have a proper Costa Rican meal without one. Some of the most popular picadillos served at turnos are arracache (a root vegetable similar to celery), potato and chorizo, green beans and carrots or chicasquil (a leafy plant that is boiled and prepared with egg or potatoes).
Soups and stews are a popular turno dish, especially if it's olla de carne or pozol. “Olla de carne” is a meat stew, where you boil large chunks of meat with vegetables - cassava, potatoes, carrots, plantains and taro are some of the most common. “Pozol”, on the other hand, is a light white corn and beef stew that's popular in Mexico but is also consumed in Costa Rica, with some tweaks.
When it comes to refreshments, you'll usually find eggnog (especially if it's during Christmastime), aguadulce (a hot beverage made from unprocessed cane sugar or panela), fresco de frutas and fresco de crema (a creamy and refreshing beverage made with cream and vanilla). Because the turnos have a religious origin, alcohol was usually not consumed or sold. However, nowadays, it's common to have a beer with your chicharrones or fries.
* Note: Due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, turnos and public events have been postponed or cancelled for the remainder of the years. Events of great cultural significance are embedded within the hearts and minds of Costa Ricans, so they are bound to resume once the situation improves.
Source: Sedó, P. (2014) La cocina de turno: Amalgama de sabores y tradición culinaria. Proyecto TCU UCR-486. Universidad de Costa Rica.Local Keeps is the best online market for those in search of flavors, scents and stories from Costa Rica. Navigate our categories or write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions!