Most travelers and tourists assume that all Latin American cuisine is spicy, with many peppers, chilis, and corn-based foods. This is not true of traditional Costa Rican food, which is mild with spices but packed full of flavor. Garlic, herbs, and milder spices are all used to lend Costa Rican food rich flavors, and the majority of meals here center around the diet staples of rice and beans.
You can find just about any traditional Costa Rican foods in the little, mom-and-pop owned “Sodas,” or restaurants, that line the streets in almost every town. In taverns, various small dishes (boquitas) are served which include patacones with black bean dip, chimichurri (tomatoes and onions pickled in lime juice) accompanied with tortilla chips, chifrijo (rice and beans with chicharrones, which are fried pork skins, and chimichurri), ceviche (fish and/or shrimp with onions and pickled in lime juice) and vigorón (cabbage, chimichurri, yucca, served with a slice of lime).
Traditional Costa Rican Foods
- Gallo Pinto– This is the national dish of Costa Rica, a mixture of rice and beans, flavored with salt, cilantro, onions, sweet peppers, and Lizano Sauce. Usually served for breakfast with eggs, tortillas, bread, and sour cream, this delicious dish is a favorite among Ticos and tourists alike. Translated to English, “Gallo Pinto” actually means “Spotted Rooster.” There are many legends surrounding the creation of Gallo Pinto, and one of them involves a farmer who claimed he would serve his best rooster to the entire town. Another theory is that the name refers to the actual color and look of the rice and beans together.
- Casado– A dish often served for lunch or dinner, casado is a delicious favorite in Costa Rica. A traditional casado contains rice, beans, and some kind of meat, usually beef, chicken, pork, or fish. The word “casado” means “marriage,” and this dish represents the perfect marriage of rice, beans, and meat. Casados are often served with side salads and “picadillos,” which are small, chopped vegetables.
- Fried Plantains– Often served along with casados or during breakfast, friend plantains are a sweet and delicious snack and a great dessert.
- Empanadas– Fried bread stuffed with meat, eggs, vegetables, or cheese, empanadas are the perfect meal-on-the-go.
- Refrescos naturales– Served at most sodas, these drinks are often fruit juices or mixtures of several fruit juices. Pineapple juice, orange juice, carrot juice, and tamarindo juice are the usual refrescos naturales, but don’t be surprised if you are offered “Arroz con piña” or “pineapple with rice,” blackberry juice, or a fruit mixture with actual cut up fruits in it.
- Batidos– If you haven’t realized it by now, Costa Ricans are big on fresh fruit. And why wouldn’t they be? The fresh tropical fruit available here is just as good as any candy. Batidos are smoothies or shakes. Made with milk or water, they are blended ice and fruit. Batidos make for a delicious breakfast or a yummy addition to any meal. You can also get icecream batidos as well. These are usually like more traditional milk shakes.
- Imperial– The national beer of Costa Rica, this beer is a delicious golden color. Not too heavy or hoppy, any visitor to Costa Rica should stop by a bar for a nice, cold bottle of Imperial.
The Caribbean Side
Most folks in Costa Rica will tell you, the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica boasts a different flavor and feeling than the rest of the country. Heavily influenced by Jamaican culture, much of the food here is spicier with a more Caribbean flair. Rice and beans on this side of Costa Rica are often cooked with coconut milk, lending the concoction a much sweeter flavor. The cuisine on this coast also relies heavily on the many fish and shellfish that are caught daily, and the sea food here is truly divine.
Since Catholicism is very prevalent in Costa Rica, two of the biggest holidays in the country are Christmas and Easter. In fact, the week leading up to Easter is called “Semana Santa” or Holy Week, and many Costa Ricans take 3 or even 4 days off to celebrate. Holidays in Costa Rica are a time for families to get together and enjoy some delicious foods, such as:
- Miel de Chiverre– Translated to “Honey Squash,” this dish is unique in that it takes several days to prepare. The squash are cut up and dried for a matter of days, then they are mashed into a paste and cooked with butter and honey to make a spread that can be put on bread, tortillas, empanadas, or anything else you can imagine!
- Tamales– Costa Rica tamales differ greatly from the Mexican variety. Whole families often get together to cook them in the weeks preceding Christmas. The tamales are made of cornmeal patties and the filling is often pork with spices. The tamales are stuffed, then wrapped in banana leaves. They are steamed rather than fried.