Culinary Travels in Costa Rica: Part 1

A view of Volcan Arenal from a hiking trail that traverses old lava flow from its 1992 eruption. Arenal is the third most active volcano in the world.
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We hiked through rainforests and gasped at volcanoes, lounged on white sand beaches and wound our way around perilous mountain passes. Oh yes, we also ate. I just returned from six days in Costa Rica, one of the many ecological jewels of Central America, and aside from taking in an almost unfathomable level of sheer natural beauty we ate our weight in tropical fruits, fresh ceviche, and, of course, rice and beans.

Hit the jump for more.

It's difficult to describe just how important the combination of rice and (black) beans is in the culinary life of Ticos. Calling it a "staple" somehow doesn't do it justice -- it neither projects forcefully enough the integral nature of the dish to the country, nor does it give enough credit to the range of preparations and flavors produced from a relatively humble meal. Make no mistake: Ticos are proud of their national dish. This is, after all, a country who three years ago entered into a strange competition of pride with Nicaragua, submitting a 5000-pound batch of rice and beans as proof of their starchy superiority.

An outdoor soda sitting along Playa Escondida in Central Pacific Costa Rico.

At the many thousands of "sodas" (inexpensive, roadside restaurants) dotted across the countryside, rice and beans is dished up in massive, siesta-inducing quantities. It's the main attraction of casado, a massive plate usually heaped with salad, fried plantains, a variety of root vegetables like yucca or potato, and sometimes meat, which can be the stew-like carne en salsa or simply a piece of roasted chicken. The rice and beans though, are always present. The rice is always plain, but the beans are often doctored with peppers, cilantro, onion, or lime.

A typical plate of casado. Avocados grow in abundance here, and amazingly bright, fresh, and creamy.

There are as many variations of casado as their are homes in the country; the only rules is that everything on the plate works to compliment the rice and beans. The salad can be a loose shred of cabbage mixed with tomato and onion, or, as we had at one sleepy soda off the main drag in San Ramon, a mince of raw plantain marinated in lime juice and cilantro. (Unfortunately I didn't get to snap a picture of that meal: it was the first we had off the plane and my camera battery was dead, naturally).

At another soda, the plate came with the strange combination of Chinese-style noodles, grilled skewers of chicken, and long strips of fried plantains.

A beautiful slab of caramelized queso fresco.

Vegetarian platters (almost every place offered this) usually came with a slab of queso fresco, a fresh cow's milk cheese. Sometimes it was raw, other times the cheese was grilled to a crisp on the outside, enabled by it's almost tofu-like texture and ability to be heated without melting.

The other feature of every soda was the bottles of salsa that lined the tables. These salsas are basically what we'd call hot sauce, but there is a staggering variety of them, owing to that many sodas have their own distinct recipe. Tomorrow I'll talk a little more about these hot sauces plus a way to fashion your leftover rice and beans into breakfast. Think: Frijolecakes! (Not really, but that would be fun.)

-- John Linn

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