Cooking and food, as indicated in an article by Mona Nikolic, is an important creator of a national identity. The phrase: "You are what you eat" definitely applies to countries, and it's accuracy is quite chilling. So, if food defines what a country is, what is Costa Rica in terms of food?
This is a loaded question. One that, by the way, has spiked the interest of "the local academic community and has underlined the importance of Costa Rican food as a national identity marker amidst a period of cultural globalization." (1) Experts have agreed that national Costa Rican cuisine is best defined as one that combines Spanish-European, American and Afrocaribbean cuisine.
This is, of course, a subject in which people have debated at great lengths. Most discussions have agreed that Costa Rican food is mostly a combination of "European contributions and indigenous heritage, specifically the Mesoamerican one." (2) The Mesoamerican influence gives us corn-based foods such as tortillas, tamales or atol.
A woman making tortillas at the Mercado Central. Source: University of Costa Rica.
Latin American Food: Where Cultures Meet
There's a catch here. When people talk about Costa Rican cooking, and despite the many influences and areas we have mentioned, people tend to think dishes from the Central Valley are representative of an entire nation. However, historians Patricia Sedó and Milena Cerdas insist that the concept of "national cuisine" refers to a series of heterogeneous origins.
As a matter of fact, "reflects a new concept of Costa Rican identity, as culturally heterogeneous and originating from different cultural roots" (1). This is why, despite focusing on the Central Valley, there are two regional cuisines with a very dominant personality: Guanacaste and Limón.
The most renowned dishes from Costa Rican cuisine are a mixture of these regions. However, over the years and thanks to the work of culinary researchers, there have been a lot of local recipes and regional knowledge that has been rescued. We're talking about food from places like Puntarenas or indigenous reserves in Talamanca.
A typical Costa Rican casado: rice, beans, protein (in this case, beef strips in tomato sauce), picadillo, fried plantain and a salad.
From Guanacaste with Love
Food from this region has been dubbed as the "representative of Mesoamerican cooking in Costa Rica", as it's strong Mesoamerican heritage is manifested in the dishes such as the carne en vaho, coyol or the famous tamal asado. Because of this, the Guanacaste region has developed into one of the main centers for the development of culinary culture.
What are we talking about when we think of food from Guanacaste? Some of the dishes mentioned, such as the carne en vaho, also exist in Central American nations such as Nicaragua. As a matter of fact, some dishes from this neighboring nation have influenced or become an important part of what most scholars refer to as "Guanacaste cuisine" (3).
Another important aspect is the use of corn, different varieties of it, in different dishes. In the region of Nicoya, you can have white, yellow and even purple corn throughout different meal times. You can have chicha de maíz (fermented corn drink), chicheme (spiced purple corn drink), juana luisa (corn masa and chicken stew) or rosquillas (corn bread).
Guanacaste cuisine also brings an important technique to Costa Rican tables: nixtamalization (4). This is a process where you soften the outer shell of the corn grain with ash, thus softening the grains and creating a softer, buttery and more tender masa. This is why most corn products taste so different.
Blue Zones Nicoya uses ingredients from the Nicoya region to make teas, hot sauces and other great artisan food.
Limón, the Melting Pot
The Caribbean region has created a unique cuisine, filled with flavors and influences from all over the world. People tend to think of very specific dishes, such as rice and beans or rondón, whenever the culinary legacy of Limón is mentioned. But it is more important than that.
Limón was the entry point between African, European, East and Southeast Asian and Latinamerican populations (1). Because the region remained in relative isolation until 1948, migrant cuisines began mixing with each other. The result is a very distinctive gastronomical menu, with unique twists that set the dishes apart from other provinces.
There are three main cuisines, within the Limón province, that define food from the Caribbean. The first one is cuisine from the Talamanca region, which has roots from indigenous groups such as Bribri or Cabécar; East-Asian cuisine, specifically from India and China; and afro-caribbean cuisine. This is why the Caribbean region features corn and cacao, in combination with ingredients such as breadfruit, callaloo, chinese mustard and curry.
Cacao is one of the most important crops for cuisine in the Caribbean region.
Flavors Meet at the Central Valley
The Central Valley, located right in the heart of the country, is the place where the vast majority of the citizens live and where the main cities are located. In terms of cuisine, Central Valley gastronomy has two main branches: one originated in the Cartago province and the other in the provinces of San José, Alajuela and Heredia.
The most important aspect of the Central Valley cuisine in the influence of European techniques and dishes with local ingredients. An excellent example of this is the olla de carne, a hearty beef stew that's very similar to the Spanish olla podrida. The only difference is the use of vegetables such as tiquisque, ñame, chayote and cassava - which you won't find in any European dish!
- Nikoli, M. (2015). Los discursos de la cocina nacional costarricense y la reubicación cultural de Guanacaste. Revista Electrónica de Historia, vol. 16, núm. 2. Universidad de Costa Rica. San José, Costa Rica.
- Cerdas, M y Sedó, P. (2008). Rescate de preparaciones a base de maíz en Costa Rica: Una experiencia de trabajo comunicativo con la participación de personas adultas mayores y estudiantes universitarios durante el período 2003 - 2007. Avances de seguridad alimentaria y nutricional. Universidad de Costa Rica.
- Ross, Marjorie (1991). La magia de la cocina limonense. Editorial Universidad de Costa Rica.
- Vargas, B. ed. (2020) Recetario de comidas tradicionales nicoyanas. Ministerio de Cultura y Juventud. San José, Costa Rica.
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