artisan food

The Indigenous Legacy in Costa Rican Artisan Food

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A good picadillo almost usually involves the use of achiote (also known as annatto), a bright reddish-orange condiment that turns food yellow and gives them a slight peppery taste. Achiote has been used as a spice and dye for hundreds of years, and its importance dates from pre colonial times.

The use of achiote is one of the many contributions of indigenous culture to the food Costa Ricans eat on a daily basis. As a matter of fact, these influences run deep. If you looked closely, there are many references of ancestral knowledge in culture and cuisine.

The multicultural origins of Costa Rica are undeniable. Despite being a small country, it's unique geographical location allowed it to become a biological and cultural bridge. According to anthropologist Dr. Marcos Guevara, some of the most obvious traces of being a bridge are found in our cuisine. 

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University of Costa Rica's study "Mezcladiticos" states that there are 104,431 people who define themselves as indigenous and constitute 2.4% of the total population of the country. However, 74.7% or 78,073 are part of the eight indigenous groups disseminated over 23 reserves, also known as territories.

These eight groups are Bribri, Brunca, Cabécar, Chorotega, Huetár, Maleku, Ngabe and Teribe. Bribri is the most populous group, with over 17,000 inhabitants over 4 territories and are mostly located in the region of Talamanca. The Cabécar group is the second most numerous one, distributed over eight territories along the Talamanca mountain range in the Atlantic and deep in the Pacific Coast.

The Bruncas are located in the regions of Boruca and Rey Curré have suffered from territorial and cultural disarticulation, which has slowed down through a process of cultural revitalization. The Teribes, located in the area of Buenos Aires de Puntarenas, have also invested efforts in regaining their identity.

artisan food

A group of Ngabe women. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The Ngabe, the largest indigenous group in lower Central America, are located between the Costa Rican-Panamanian (although the most numerous portion is in Panama). The Huetares are closest to the Central Valley, while the Maleku and Chorotega live in the regions of San Carlos de Alajuela and Guanacaste respectively. 

Agriculture and Diet

Indigenous cultures in the Americas, and Costa Rica is no exception, had an advanced knowledge in agriculture, which led to great economical development and an initiative to further work on artistic and cultural forms. One of these forms is cuisine, which is intimately related to agricultural advances.

They are responsible for the domestication of cassava, as well as the cultivation of several varieties of corn. Corn and bean crops were alternated with products such as cotton, cacao, papaya, achiote or annatto or chiles in order to prevent excessive damage on the soil.

According to Luis Ferrero, the agricultural developments in Costa Rica were less sophisticated when compared to those in the rest of the Mesoamerican region. Despite this, their diet included a wide range of vegetables, legumes, herbs and fruits - which was complemented with the consumption of turkey, venison, multiple species of fish and turtles.

Make the Most Out of Every Food

Carlos Avendaño, a Costa Rican linguist who has dedicated his career to linguistic diversity, created a cookbook based on bribri, maleku and brorán traditions.  One of the most important principles shared by these three peoples revolve around the "not killing more animals that can be consumed, as well as taking advantage of all the parts of the animal."

The Maleku, for instance, consume the meat of the iguana, make tamales with the liver and use the broth to make atol. The consumption of different plants and herbs has been perfected throughout centuries of trial and error. This has led the Bribri to consume a specific type of nettle flower, and to use it only when it is tender.

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A typical Maleku dish.

In "Mezcladiticos", "indigenous groups consolidated crops such as cassava, corn, and cocoa in Costa Rican territory, basic food products that they domesticated." The domestication of crops such as the cassava allowed them to be easily incorporated into European recipes. A good example of this is the "olla de carne", which is a variation of the Spanish "olla podrida" with local ingrediente, namely cassava and potatoes.

This brings us to a final point about indigenous culture and influences.

A Legacy of Artisan Food

According to the anthropologist Dr. Marcos Guevara, there are many particular aspects of the way of being of Costa Ricans that have clear traces of indigenous cultures, some of these are gastronomy and the use we make of crops such as yucca, corn, cocoa, yams, tiquisque, pejibaye, squash, squash and chayotes.

Dishes such as tamales, chicha, chicheme, tortillas and all the other ways of consuming corn, and even the habit of bathing every day are examples of our indigenous legacy.

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