You can't speak of a single, unifying culinary tradition in Costa Rica. There's no such thing. We can talk about the cuisine in the Central Valley, in Guanacaste, in indigenous populations, the Afro-Caribbean region and in the cuisine in Puntarenas.
There are some dishes that are prepared in most parts of the country, as the gallo pinto, the arroz con pollo, the picadillos, the gallos and many others. But there are many others unique to a specific region, like the rice and beans in the Caribbean or the ceviche in Puntarenas.
But let's focus on Puntarenas, a region known for having access to incredible ingredients such as fish and molluscs. A rice with shrimp or a whole fried fish are some of the delicacies found in this province. While sea provides the fresh ingredients, people who live in this province have created all sorts of incredible dishes.
So, what makes cuisine from Puntarenas so different to other regional Costa Rican cuisines?
The Pacific Coast is famous for its scenic beaches and crystalline waters.
What The Sea Provides
In "La Cocina Tradicional de Puntarenas", the elderly villagers describe what it was like to live in the province eighty or ninety years ago. "When food was scarce", one of them said, "mom used to make us a shrimp omelette. Imagine having that as breakfast nowadays!".
Fish was so abundant that villagers were able to get a wide range of sea products at a very low cost. As a matter of fact, when fishermen had a surplus catch, they would give it away to their friends and family. People could easily go to the ocean, river and mangroves and fish for chuchecas, pianguas, clams and other animals.
Nowadays, however, the coastal areas aren't as abundant. A rise in demand for fish and seafood has resulted in overfishing. Also, the arrival of fast food chains has modified the diet of many Costa Ricans, who now consume more pre-packaged food instead of traditional dishes and fresh ingredients.
You can’t have ceviche without some hot sauce.
Home of the Ceviche
Fish, shrimp and chucheca ceviche are some of the most popular plates from this region, mainly because they’re so easy to make. Ceviche is a simple way of cooking fish, which requires only lemon and spices. Costa Rican ceviche, however, is slightly different to its Latin American relatives. This version required the fish or shellfish to marinate for at least 24 hours - the longer, the better.
Besides ceviche, other favorite dishes in this region are seafood soup, white beans with fish, rice with shrimp and shrimp with rice (the main difference is that one has way more shrimp than the other), whole fried fish, stuffed fish, seafood casserole and many others.
There are, of course, dishes that don't feature fish or seafood. Some of these are also common in other parts of the country: rice with chicken, pozol, patacones, vigorón, picadillos (especially chicasquil and green papaya picadillo) and pork tamales.
Rainforest Lab’s Churchill soap is an homage to the country’s favorite dessert.
Desserts are quite varied, but all of them have one common characteristic: they're incredibly sweet. The intense sweetness offers a stark contrast to strong flavors present in seafood dishes or the earthiness in a tamal. After lunch, there’s nothing better than a couple spoonfuls of arroz con leche, a tamal de yuca (cassava tamal), tamal de coco, buñuelos (fritters covered in miel de tapa) or papaya preserves.
However, you cannot talk about desserts from Puntarenas without mentioning Churchill. In the Central Pacific region, specifically in downtown Puntarenas, you can find people selling this refreshing dessert. The Churchill is essentially shaved ice with cola syrup (an intensely red sugar syrup commonly sold throughout the country), powdered milk, condensed milk and ice cream.
The Future of Latin American Food
The people from Puntarenas had access to an ample variety of vegetables and meats, either through fishing, hunting or domestication. Incorporating recipes and techniques from Europe and Asia combined with local ingredients, creating incredibly unique dishes that eventually became popular all over Costa Rica.
However, as mentioned before, and specifically in the case of Puntarenas, there are plenty of recipes that are being lost as a result of the increasing influence of fast food and underuse of local ingredients and herbs. Traditional food is making a return, though, in the form restaurants and products that present local knowledge in a different form.
- Alvarez, Y. (2005) Cocina Tradicional Costarricense 1: Guanacaste y Región Central de Puntarenas. Ministerio de Cultura, Juventud y Deportes.