What are the typical dishes of Costa Rica?
One of the most representative dishes of the country is the gallo pinto, known simply as pinto, patrol or burra, in some southern towns. Its origin dates back to colonial times and it is considered a mestizo dish with a strong African influence, forming part of the many American recipes made with rice and beans. In addition to these two basic grains, various seasonings are added, including onion, sweet chili and coriander. It has variations according to the region: more oily and toasted in Guanacaste; and more humid in the Central Valley. In the province of Limón, prepared with coconut milk and habanero chile, it is known as rice and beans.
It is frequently eaten as breakfast, although it can be served at any time of the day and, sometimes, it is consumed in the three meal times together with diverse garnishes. At breakfast it is usually accompanied by eggs, various types of cheese, avocado, plantains, sausage, black pudding, sausage, salami, chorizo, ham, custard, corn tortilla, melcochón, butter and/or a cup of coffee. Some people dress it with Lizano sauce and others prepare it with rice cooked the day before, which gives it a more intense flavor.
According to a study by the Costa Rican Ministry of Health, gallo pinto is consumed throughout the country and in all social classes, since Costa Ricans obtain a third of the calories and 34% of the protein they consume daily from this preparation. For these reasons, it is considered Costa Rica’s flagship dish.
Casado is a very popular and well-liked dish among Costa Ricans, and can be found on the menu of practically any restaurant or soda and in many homes. It is usually eaten during lunchtime, and consists of boiled rice (white rice dominates although it can also be eaten with brown rice) and flavored with onion, garlic, peppers (known as sweet chili peppers) and/or cilantro; accompanied with beans (seasoned with garlic, onion, peppers, celery and cilantro), garden salad, fried ripe plantain, pasta (usually macaroni in tomato sauce and/or cold salad), egg (fried, scrambled, hard-boiled or in Russian salad), picadillos or vegetables (boiled, mashed or steamed) and some portion of meat (beef, sausages, pork, chicken or fish). There are also vegetarian versions with eggplant, cheese or soy substitutes.
Casado is considered a composite dish that in itself constitutes a complete meal, since it is made up of a variety of recipes. Among the general population it is seen as a cheap option for home-cooked meals away from home, and for backpacker tourists it is a good economical food alternative. Of course, its origin is mestizo, integrating rice brought by the Spanish, beans consumed by Africans and indigenous people, pasta brought by Italians, fried plantains from Afro-Antillean cuisine and picadillos from Andalusian stews, among many other ingredients of different origins.63 At the nutritional level, casado provides vitamins A and C (salad, plantain and picadillos), E and B complex (picadillos), iron (beans), fiber (salads, plantain), protein (meat and others, combination of rice and beans), minerals and carbohydrates (rice, beans), with about 156 mg of cholesterol (meat, egg, pasta, fried), although the caloric content may vary depending on the preparation.
Olla de carne is a traditional Costa Rican stew. It consists of a broth with beef in small to medium-sized pieces, to which abundant vegetables are added, such as potatoes, yucca, chayote, sweet potato, elote, ayote, carrots, onion, plantain, cilantro, celery, ñampí, yam, tiquizque, tacaco and others. It is customary to accompany it with white or achiotado rice, which is normally served separately so that the diner can add it to taste.
This recipe is generally consumed as lunch, although in colonial times it was the last dish of the day. It can be served whole in a deep bowl, with bits of meat and vegetables, but some families preserve the tradition of the three vuelcos, dividing it into three parts: broth, vegetables and meat.
The olla de carne is considered the Creole dish par excellence of the national cuisine, a mixture of pre-Hispanic and Iberian. Its direct antecedent is the Spanish stew known as olla podrida, to which native American vegetables were added once the Spaniards settled on the continent.
Rice, the mainstay of Costa Rican cuisine, is present as a basic ingredient or garnish in the vast bulk of typical dishes, prepared in the most diverse ways and even used in desserts and drinks. Thus, there are varieties of rice very popular in the national diet, mixed with all kinds of foods: a la paella (of Valencian heritage, emulating the original it is made by mixing seafood and white meats), Cantonese (originated with the oriental crossbreeding, it integrates eggs, vegetables and white meats), with almonds (Arab heritage, it can be mixed with fried hair, raisins and spices), with tuna (combined with chopped tuna meat and various vegetables), with seafood (made with all kinds of seafood and fish), with pork (a mixture of vegetables and pieces of pork), guacho (with a very moist consistency, it is made with seafood and white meat) and jardinero or campesino (with vegetables and spices), among many others. However, there are two rice-based dishes that stand out in the national diet, whose popularity and traditional consumption make them typical gastronomic pillars of Costa Rican culinary culture: rice with palm heart and rice with chicken.
Rice with palm heart
Rice with palm heart is a typical Costa Rican culinary dish, very frequent during Easter66 and holidays. Its main ingredient is the bud of the pejibaye palm (Bactris gasipaes), known as palm heart, of which Costa Rica is an active mass producer since the second half of the 20th century, and one of the world’s main exporters.
This dish is made by mixing old white rice with abundant bechamel sauce and white cheese, also adding large quantities of chopped vegetables and spices such as onion, parsley and cilantro. Later, medium to large pieces or slices of pejibaye palm heart are added, as well as other ingredients such as mushrooms, asparagus, beans, chicken or ham. Since it is baked in the oven, occasionally cheese is also gratinized on the top layer.
It is usually served with garden salad, Russian salad, boiled vegetables and more white sauce. In addition, at Easter it can be served with various seafood and pickles, or as a garnish for fish, cod and sardines.
Rice with chicken
Rice with chicken is one of the main festive dishes in typical Costa Rican cuisine, as well as an essential component in Sunday lunches par excellence.69 This dish is among those with a European and African heritage, having notable similarities with various rice preparations typical of Sub-Saharan African cuisine for centuries (especially jollof rice), the same characteristic shared by various meals made with rice and pieces of meat, which abound in Spain and Italy (paellas and risottos, for example). However, the Costa Rican recipe, the way in which it is served and its festive background are an authentic result of national gastronomic customs.
To prepare it, the chicken meat must be boiled with abundant spices (such as onion, garlic, celery, bay leaf and oregano), salt and pepper, as well as rice to which is added the stock obtained after cooking the chicken, achiote and various chopped vegetables.4 Finally, it is mixed with the shredded meat, chili, celery, tomato, parsley, and cilantro along with all the spices, such as pepper, Lizano sauce, cumin and salt, leaving it to rest until it is integrated. It is often served with toasted potatoes, garden salad, ground beans, potato or Russian salad and ripe plantains.