Visitors to Costa Rica sometimes comment that the food isn’t very exciting. On the tourist trail, it is easy to get the impression that Tico cuisine is rather unimaginative and nondescript, in part due to the ubiquity of Gallo Pinto. Rice and black beans cooked together with barely a hint of onion, red pepper, cilantro and broth create this de facto national dish.
Any vegetarian will tell you that combining rice and beans yields a complete protein, but most will also admit that it’s a little bland. Even so, it’s possible to become quite attached to the combination (especially pepped up by adding Salsa Lizano) and our kitchen has seen the recipe executed more than once.
However, there is much more to Tico cuisine than trying to find ways to disguise yet another plate of beans and rice. It’s almost impossible to avoid discovering a new favorite tropical fruit, excellent seafood corroborates the name “rich coast” and there are a number of Tico specialties and regional cuisines that are worth seeking out.
Bocas or Boquitas
The one word translation—snacks while apt, falls short of a full description. Bocas are a cultural item as much as a food item and an experience in and of themselves.
They are small to medium sized snacks often complimentary when you purchase a drink at a bar. Much of the standard Soda fare can be had as bocas, but there are usually other spicier, more exotic choices on a good Bocas menu—more reminiscent of north central Mexican cuisine than tipico food.
If you are lucky and the Bocas are large (or you drink a lot), you can make an excellent meal out of them. Please stay away from the huevos de tortuga (turtle eggs, eaten raw, sometimes with a little red pepper).
While Costa Rica doesn’t have any fruits to rival the undisputed champion of bizarre, the Southeast Asian durian, there are a number of unique and exotic flavors and textures to explore.
One of the best ways to sample a number of the unusual fruits is in refrescos, a Tico take on a shake. Refrescos or batidos as they are sometimes called are found nearly everywhere. Familiar flavors like mango, blackberry (mora), pineapple (piña) and raspberry share the menu with oddities that arrive looking like a glass of frog’s eggs and tasting something like sweetened ice tea.
Fruits to try for the first time include limón dulce (sweet lemons) which make a unique lemonade, mamones which resemble small limes, crack like eggs, have flesh like grapes and a seed like an almond, and pejibaye which are fruits but their starchy flesh might remind you of boiled potatoes.
If you visit Lake Arenal, you won’t soon forget a meal like charcoal grilled freshwater bass served with a palmito salad and guanábana batido. Along the Caribbean coast, try the spiced breads and mouthwatering Jamaican jerk influenced chicken and seafood dishes. San Vito in the southern Cordillera de Talamanca has a significant Italian population and the restaurants reflect it.
Other culinary delights worth investigating are smoked trout and marlin, ceviche, a pipa fresh off the tree on the beach, Christmas tamales and other holiday and festival specialties, real cup of Costa Rican coffee from a chorreador de café, and let’s not forget gallo pinto.