The one word that can generally be used to describe the food in Costa Rica is fresh! The vast majority of the ingredients found in traditional Costa Rican food while on your family vacation, honeymoon, or even a destination wedding will most likely come from within the country and even the area where you are eating & traveling. So if you are into the eat local movement, because you understand the importance of looking after your health and the health of the environment, then Costa Rica is the place for you!
Fertile Soil Creates a Rich, Food Culture in Costa Rica
Costa Rica is located within the Tropic of Cancer. It is a very fertile country with rich, volcanic soils that are great for growing things. There are 13 climatic zones that span a wide range of elevations, from sea level to over 13,000 feet above sea level. The variety of fruits and vegetables that exist in Costa Rica is truly amazing and the sheer amount would have you convinced that in order to go hungry in this country, one would have to make an honest effort!
It is not abnormal to see trees and other vines so full of fruit that the abundance is falling off of the tree and going uneaten or unused. This is especially true with bananas, plantains and when mangoes are in season.
The Central Valley of the country produces most of the legumes and vegetables that Ticos eat every day, like onions and potatoes in the hills of Volcán Irazú or strawberries and tomatoes in the hills of Poás Volcano.
In the northern plains of Costa Rica, you can find big fields of cassava, pineapple, and bananas, but they also produce a lot of specialty fruits and vegetables like breadfruit, cacao, papaya and oranges, and spices like pepper and ginger.
The Pacific coast is where you will find rice fields, mango plantations, beans, potatoes, and sugar cane, among many others.
There are dairy and meat cattle everywhere in Costa Rica, free-ranging in lush-green grass fields.
Typical Dishes in Costa Rica
In addition to being fresh, traditional dishes in Costa Rica are quite simple in nature. Most of them you would probably be able to imitate at home, but we must warn you that once you taste them, you will find it difficult to get the actual delicious flavor! As simple as the dishes we are going to describe might be, there is a special touch to get the real Tico flavor in your meal and to learn how to get it, you definitely need to spend some time in Costa Rica (only eating the authentic cuisine).
Casado, or “married”
One dish that you are sure to come across while in Costa Rica is the famous Casado (a white rice and black beans dish). Translated, Casado means “married,” as in husband & wife, or in this case, it refers to all the pieces of the meal. While there are varying stories about how this name came to be, this tends to be the most common and easily explained.
The main elements of the Casado are the two staples of Costa Rican cuisine: white rice and black beans. These two carefully-cooked grains are served together throughout Costa Rica and as the base of Casado, they are accompanied by a source of protein and several vegetables.
The protein choices are chicken, meat, fish or an egg, and they all come prepared in different forms, from a simple, grilled piece of meat to meat slowly cooked in tomatoes sauce. One of the vegetable elements of Casado is (typically) a simple salad (sometimes just lettuce and tomatoes with a simple dressing), or what’s called a “creole salad” made with cabbage, carrots and cilantro.
Another thing that must be included in the Casado is a combination of some form of chopped and cooked squash, carrots and/or potatoes and/or plantains. This dish is called picadillo, and it could be vegetarian or have beef, all of it cooked within a light, chicken broth based sauce.
Also included in the Casado are some slices of fried sweet plantain, and sometimes a fried egg or some fires fresh cheese.
As we said, rice and beans are the staples of Costa Rican food, and if you mix them in a 60-40% ratio, you have what Ticos call Gallo Pinto, or “spotted rooster.” The best Gallo Pinto is the one that uses rice and beans that are leftover from the day before, along with sautéed onions, garlic, sweet peppers and lots of cilantro, a key ingredient in Costa Rican cuisine.
Gallo Pinto is the main ingredient to the favorite Costa Rican breakfast dish. When Gallo Pinto is served in the morning for breakfast, the meal will consist of mixed rice and beans, fried or scrambled eggs, sour cream, and tortillas. This dish is so big and heavy because it’s what farmers, coffee pickers, construction workers or anybody that gets up early for a long busy day at work will have to make sure they can hold on until lunch. Today this breakfast dish is so iconic and loved by Costa Ricans that many restaurants and sodas (small simple restaurants with usually just a single cook and one server) serve the meal all day long. Even more, this plate is so important to Ticos that they would often say: “Mas Tico que/de Gallo Pinto!” (more Costa Rican than Gallo Pinto) to describe things that are very Costa Rican.
Costa Ricans also know how to cook an omelet for breakfast!
The Caribbean Gallo Pinto: Rice-n-Beans
The Caribbean of Costa Rica has put its own flavor to the Gallo Pinto. Cooked with coconut milk, lots of thyme, and habanero peppers, the “Rice-n-Beans” of Limon must be enjoyed! Usually, this dish is more a lunch or dinner meal accompanied by Caribbean chicken or a whole fried fish in Caribbean tomato sauce, and patacones (fried green plantains).
Arroz con Pollo (rice with chicken)
This is the go-to dish when Ticos have big family events. The Arroz con Pollo dish consists of white rice with shredded chicken and lots of “especies” (onion, garlic, sweet peppers, celery, cilantro) all mixed together, sometimes cooks also include pieces of carrots, tomatoes, and green beans. The dish has a distinct orange color which comes from using achiote, a traditional (and native) natural spice of Costa Rica that gives color to food. Indigenous cultures would use achiote to dye their skin, food, and crafts.
Olla de Carne
This dish was the “magical” way Costa Rican mothers used to feed a big family. Simply put, the Olla de Carne, or pot of meat, is a soup made with a piece of beef, a spice (something flavorful but not so good to eat), and all the vegetables you can find, like potatoes, cassava, squash, carrots, celery, onions, cilantro, and more. The dish is served with white rice on the side.
Costa Ricans still love Olla de Carne to this day, and for many, it is the comfort food that reminds them of home and motherly love.
The New Costa Rican “Fusion” Cuisine
There is a fast-growing new movement in Costa Rica that wants to bring fusion cuisine to the Tico’s table. In neighborhoods like Barrio Escalante in downtown San José, Ojochal in Uvita (in the Central Pacific of Costa Rica, and Puerto Viejo in Limón province, foreigners and Costa Rican chefs are opening new restaurants that will blow your mind!
Ready to plan your trip and eat your way through Costa Rica? Contact us!
John Rabenau has been working in the eco-tourism & adventure travel industry in Costa Rica since 2002. He has worked in a variety of capacities from Outdoor Educator & Principle Guide to Itinerary Design Manager & Business Owner for numerous organizations. He has grown Costa Rica Escapes into one of the most reputable Costa Rica travel agencies since its creation in 2006, hosting more than 5,000 people with custom vacation itineraries.