The culinary customs of many migrant populations created an amazing, enriching mixture of cuisines in the Afro-Caribbean region. As food historian Marjorie Ross indicates, Costa Rica has been discovering that foreign populations brought forth a spicy offering of dishes.
Historically, the Caribbean region has been a meeting point for many cultures and migrant groups. From the arrival of European populations at the start of the XVI century to the incorporation of Chinese, African and Antillian migrants as part of the plantation workforce up until the early XX century.
Because this area remained in relative isolation up until the mid 1950s, these populations exchanged beliefs, knowledge and, of course, food. One of the most obvious proofs of such exchange is found in everyday dishes, in the spices and the techniques used for each one of them.
Life in some Caribbean towns, like Cahuita, is more relaxed.
What's Caribbean Food Known For
Caribbean cuisine is known for its use of spice, without being overbearing. One of the most popular ones is the chile panameño or scotch bonnet chile, a variety of hot pepper that is added to rondon, soups and stews. It's usually added whole, which helps diffuse the flavor.
Most dishes use three key ingredients: chile, onions and tomato. The combination of the three is used as a flavor base for shellfish, meats and soups. However, you can't talk about Caribbean food without mentioning coconut - particularly coconut oil and coconut milk.
The use of coconut in Caribbean cuisine has African origins. The same method used to extract coconut milk and oil in Limón is also present in some African countries. The presence of coconut, spices and chiles creates a very unique flavor, one Caribbean cuisine is recognized for.
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There is one last spice of great importance in Caribbean cuisine: curry. Curry, a mixture of diverse spices commonly used in Indian cuisine, was brought to Costa Rica when the Atlantic railway was built. Indian (and, in general, South East Asian) influence is the final ingredient in this Caribbean alchemy.
Extraordinary Local Ingredients
Slaves brought with them the use of callaloo and began incorporating this mixture of leafy vegetables (which included amaranth and taro) in many of their dishes. Callaloo is usually prepared as a stew by mixing the greens, smoked fish or shrimp, okra, herbs and coconut oil until a thick sauce begins to form.
As one of the remnants of African cuisine, this dish was and still is fundamental for Afro-Caribbean groups living in Limón. To use callaloo, however, one must learn to prepare it correctly. In African cuisine, the bitterness of callaloo is toned down by using peanut sauce. It's also over boiled or chopped in a specific way, so that the fibrous stems are no longer an issue.
Ñame or yam is as relevant to African cuisine as it is to Caribbean. The consumption of ñame is linked to religious rituals, and used as an offering to ancestors. Ñame is highly nutritious. It's so filling that a single serving may be considered a full meal. The peoples from the Gulf of Guinea are known to prepare fufu, which are balls of mashed ñame. This root is also fried and served as tamales. The different ways to prepare ñame are endless.
Different cultures have influenced some of the region's most popular dishes.
Another important ingredient, which has also proven influential in Caribbean cuisine, is malanga. Malanga is usually boiled and eaten as it is. Yuca or cassava, which is a close relative of the malanga, enjoys a more comfortable status in Costa Rican cuisine. It can be boiled, turned into dumplings or shredded into pancakes.
Artisan Food with Caribbean Flavor
There is a long list of Caribbean dishes people have heard little of: ackee and codfish, bami (cassava tarts), cassava pudding, sosumba soup, roasted break fruit, pumpkin pudding and curry goat. As we mentioned before, the use of spices, native ingredients and coconut are fundamental for Caribbean cooking.
The more traditional ones, such as rice and beans, patty and plantintá are still consumed - especially on holidays, weekends or special occasions. The influence of other cuisines, particularly fast food, has threatened the existence of some of the lesser known dishes.
- Chang, G. (1984) Remedios caseros y comidas tradicionales afrolimonenses. Ministerio de Cultura. Editorial del Ministerio de Educación Pública. San José, Costa Rica.
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