Almost 95% of the Costa Rican population are of Spanish or Mestizo (mixed) heritage, heavily influencing the country's cooking style. Costa Rica's traditionally mild, not over-spiced cuisine usually features rice and beans, which are also the main ingredients in the national recipe, gallo pinto.
Costa Rican cuisine is simple and chefs shun spices. Says Weissmann Travel Reports: "It's almost easier to find an American fast food outlet than a restaurant serving good, native cuisine." Comida tipica, or native dishes, rely heavily on rice and beans, the basis of many Costa Rican meals. "Home-style" cooking predominates. But meals are generally wholesome and reasonably priced. Gallo pinto, the national dish of fried rice and black beans, is as ubiquitous as is the hamburger in North America, particularly as a breakfast (desayuno) staple. Many meals are derivatives, including arroz con pollo (rice and chicken) or arroz con tuna. At lunch, gallo pinto becomes the casado (married): rice and beans supplemented with cabbage-and-tomato salad, fried plantains, and meat. Vegetables do not form a large part of the diet.
Food staples include carne (beef, sometimes called bistek), pollo (chicken), and pescado (fish). Beef and steaks are relatively inexpensive, but don't expect your steak to match its North American counterpart; at its worst you may be served a leathery slab cooked in grease. They're also lean (cattle is grass-fed). Despite 1,227 kilometers (767 miles) of coastline, seafood—especially shrimp (camarones) or lobster (langosto)—is expensive, because Costa Rica exports most of its seafood.
Other popular main dishes are Arroz Guacho (sticky rice,) higado en salsa (beef liver salsa,) Escaveche (chicken escaveche,) pozole, ceviche, Papas con Chorizo (Chorizo sausage with potatoes,) Frito (Pork Stew) Olla de Carne, Barbudos (String bean omelet,) and Mondongo (Beef Stomach Soup.)
Common tapas are Platanos Maduros (Fried Ripe Plantains), Platanos asados (Baked Ripe Plantains), Pejibayes (Peach Palm), Picadillo de Chayote con Elote (Minced Vegetable Pear with Corn), Picadillo de Papaya Verde (Minced Green Papaya), and Picadillo de Vainicas (Minced String Beans with Beef.)
Eating in Costa Rica doesn't present the health problems that plague the unwary traveler elsewhere in Central America, but you need to be aware that pesticide use in Costa Rica is unregulated. Always wash vegetables in water known to be safe. And ensure that any fruits you eat are peeled yourself; you never know where someone else's hands have been. Otherwise, stick to staples such as bananas and oranges. Remember, too, that the kitchen of a snazzy restaurant with candelabra and silverware may not live up to its facade. Eat where the locals eat. Usually that means tasty and trustworthy food.
Dining in Costa Rica is a leisurely experience, befitting the relaxed pace of a genteel vacation. Restaurants normally open 11 a.m.- 2 p.m and 6 p.m.- 11 p.m. or midnight. Some restaurants stay open 24 hours.
Now for the good news: In San Jose, many fine restaurants serve the gamut of international cuisines at reasonable prices. And though culinary excellence in general declines with distance from the capital city, a growing number of hoteliers and gourmet chefs are opening restaurants worthy of note in even the most secluded backwaters. Take the Caribbean coast, for example, where the local cuisine reflects its Jamaican heritage with mouthwatering specialties such as ackee and codfish (ackee is a small, pink-skinned fruit tasting like scrambled eggs), johnnycakes, curried goat, curried shrimp, and pepperpot soup, with its subtle, lingering flame. Here, simple restaurants such as Defi's, in Cahuita, and The Garden, in Puerto Viejo, are worthy of a review in Bon Appetit.
Many bars in Costa Rica have a delightful habit of serving bocas-savory tidbits ranging from ceviche to tortillas con queso (tortillas with cheese)—with each drink. Some bars provide them free, so long as you're drinking. Others apply a small charge. Turtle (tortuga) eggs are a popular dish in many bars. The eggs may have been legally taken with the first arribadas (mass turtle nestings) of the season. Turtles, however, are an endangered and protected species, and the eggs may have been taken illegally.
The best places to buy fresh food are the Saturday morning street markets (ferias de agricultor).
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This page modified January 2007
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