Mora (blackberries) in milk (left) and water (right). Fruit drinks are still available nearly anywhere that serves food and go by many different names: Batido - Beaten, Refresco - Refreshment, Fresco - Fresh, Bebidas de Frutas - Fruit Drinks, Natural - Natural or Fresh, Smoothie - Smoothie, or even Milkshake.
Batido, Refresco, or Natural - Fruit in a Glass
The first time we leaned our bikes against the side of a typical soda twenty years ago and saw the mystery phrase "batido - ¢80, con leche ¢100" followed by a list of what our phrasebook told us were mostly fruits - maracuya, piña, papaya, guanábana, mango, cas, tamarindo, chan, mora, horchata, fresa - we had no idea we were headed for nirvana.
We had just discovered the beverages that were found on every menu (along with Imperial beer) in every soda, cafe or restaurant no matter how tiny or out of the way.
We sat at that little soda and drank three in a row trying a new flavor on each round. Possibly the only reason we got back on the road was because the waiter promised us we'd find these fruit fantasies everywhere. He didn't lie.
There's almost nothing more commonly available in Costa Rica or more perfect to drink when you're exercising in the heat and humidity of the tropics than fresh fruit blended with ice and we fueled over 4,500 km bicycling with as many as a dozen a day.
Now They're Smoothies
Unfortunately the day of the 80 colón (that was about $0.65 when we first tried them twenty years ago) batido is long gone. You don't see the name Batido (beaten - referring to the blender used to make them) very often any more and even Refresco and Natural are being replaced by Smoothies which everyone knows cost five or six bucks.
Supplemental ingredients like wheatgrass, protein powder, kombucha, flaxseeds and green tea are replacing the original two preparation choices - en agua (in water) or en leche (in milk) and sizes have been introduced.
Concentrates and Pasteurization
Fruit drinks are still available nearly anywhere that serves food but it's getting hard to find the original recipe - fresh fruit, ice, sometimes raw cane sugar, and either water or milk (and even the ice was optional if you were so far from the grid that no freezer was available).
Now most urban sodas and make their frescos from homogenized, pasteurized, shelf safe concentrates delivered weekly by a supply truck rather than fresh fruits picked off of local trees and vines. Even tourist restaurants specifically advertizing tipico (traditional) food and some "natural" smoothie bars use mixes.
Just goes to show that progress isn't always really.
As you can probably tell we're not too thrilled by the batido being supplanted by the corporate fast-food marketing driven smoothie but if you get off the tourist trail and away from the cities in the central valley you can still find the original.
Take the time at some point in your travels to turn down a side road, drive ten minutes to a little agricultural community and stop at the local soda. You'll know you're on the right track if half the options on the menu aren't available. The price (around $1 - $1.50 is about right) is the next clue that only local, in-season, fresh fruits are used.
Don't be in a big hurry because you may have to wait for them to peel, seed, squeeze or pit and then watch them pile the chunks of fruit into the blender. Sit back, relax, enjoy and then repeat. Leave a big tip and let them know it was "muy rico! Delicioso con la fruta fresca."
Unusual and Exotic Flavors
Refrescos are a great way to try new fruits and the only way to taste one uniquely Costa Rican fruit.
Biting into the pink stringy flesh of a Costa Rican sour guava fruit will twist your grin into a grimace that would make Jack Nicholson's joker look relaxed. If you want to try cas without contorting into a sour puss pucker order it in a natural (in water - not recommended con leche) and they'll add enough sugar to transform it into a refreshing beverage that looks and tastes a little like pink lemonade but indescribably more aromatic and eminently tropical.
Looks like a delicious glass of ice cold frogs eggs - but it's not. Chan (Hyptis suaveolens) is the seeds of plant in the mint family (Lamiaceae) that is related to familiar kitchen herbs like basil, rosemary , marjoram, thyme and lavender. Dry seeds are soaked in water until they hydrate forming a slimy gelatinous coating with an elusive flavor reminiscent of mint iced tea.
It's getting harder to find and since it's not hard to grow and the plant is common I can only speculate why one doesn't see chan nearly as often anymore
- It looks like FROG EGGS!
- It's coated in slim
- You have to make it fresh from scratch and can't really duplicate the experience with artificial color or flavoring in a ready to serve packaged product.
- It looks like FROG EGGS!
Admittedly some of the fruits in this list are a little intimidating if you're not a culinarily adventurous but one of the more accessible exotic flavors is maracuya (less commonly called granadilla) - passion fruit.
It's a perfect candidate to try for the first time in a bebida because the fruits themselves are a little intimidating with a hard purple or orange shell that cracks open to reveal a mass of slimy little seeds.
Prepared in a drink it's indescribably delicious - sort of like slurping on an icy citrus tinged orchid.
Owing to its origin in Spain there are many recipes for horchata throughout latin America. The drink made in Costa Rica could follow any of the recipes including almonds, sesame seeds, barley, or tigernuts (chufas) but most frequently it's the Mexican version with rice, sugar and cinnamon.
Horchata never really fit the definition of a batido (no fruit content) but was often found on the same menu. It is quite uncommon in Costa Rica now although seems to be easier to find around the Christmas holidays.
Tamarind (tamarindo) is a perfect example of something you should experience in a batido. The fruit grows on a tree as a large tan seed pod (indehiscent legume) containing half a dozen smooth, hard brown seeds coated with a viscous jelly. The coating is the edible part and it's commonly used in Asian cooking as a flavoring but not generally eaten alone.
A tamarind refresco is simultaneously sweet and sour and one of the most refreshing on any menu.
One of my absolute favorites partly because I love to say it - guanábana! Known in English as a soursop it's large dark green fruit with fleshy spines covering white pulp and large seeds. The drink is made from the juice of the pulp and is sweeter than most of the others we've described which tend to be on the tangy side.