For many, traveling means not only visiting somewhere new, but also diving into the culture. And food is one of those defining parts of a place that people can’t wait to experience. Something new, something fresh, and something other than what they eat at home. Although Costa Rica may not be wildly famous for its cuisine, it does have some traditional tastes that can stay on your taste buds for years. In this post, we’ll tell you about a few of our favorite traditional Costa Rican foods.
Most Central American countries eat some form of rice and beans so it’s really about how they are prepared that makes the difference. In Costa Rica, rice and beans is traditionally served for breakfast and comes in the form of gallo pinto (pictured above). Translating to “painted rooster,” gallo pinto is a mixture of black beans, white rice, onions, sweet peppers, and cilantro. To give it the authentic Costa Rican taste, a tangy sauce called Salsa Lizano is added. Make sure to pick up some of this secret sauce at a local grocery store or online if you plan to replicate this dish at home. Gallo pinto is usually served alongside eggs and often has tortillas or toast, fried plantain, or fresh fruit.
One of our favorite treats for a hot day at the beach is ceviche. On a menu there are usually several types to choose from, like pescado (fish), camarones (shrimp) or mixto (mixed seafood), but they are all delicious. Ceviche is actually a raw dish, but the lime juice acts as an acid and sort of cooks and tenderizes the fish. Cilantro, finely chopped onions, and sweet peppers in the mixture bring it all together. With two coastlines, the Pacific and the Caribbean, you know that the seafood will be fresh no matter where you are in Costa Rica and nothing tastes fresher than ceviche.
Chifrijo is a common bar food, especially near the capital of San Jose, where it was first created. It combines rice, beans, fresh pico de gallo, and fried chunks of meat (usually pork) in a bowl and is topped with some tortilla chips, jalapeno peppers, and sometimes sliced avocado. This is a perfect dish if you’re just a little hungry and don’t want to commit to something bigger.
Tamales are found all over Central America, but they differ greatly from region to region and even household to household. In Costa Rica, tamales are made with a corn-based filling (masa) and contain small pieces of vegetables and meat. The filling is then folded in a banana leaf (other countries use corn husks) and cooked or steamed in boiling water. We have had some tamales as simple as just the corn filling with small chunks of pork and chicken, and others with an intricate mixture of masa, potatoes, carrots, olives, peas, capers, and smoked ham. Tamales are a seasonal treat offered around different holidays, especially Christmas, so you might not be able to find them all the time. But if you do see them, make sure to try a few different ones to compare.
Casados are the lunch staple of Costa Rica. Found in every soda (small local restaurant) across the country, they are mixed plates of food that include a protein (fish, chicken, pork, or beef), some white rice, black or red beans, a couple of different side salads, and a piece of fried plantain. The side salads and flavor of the beans differ between restaurants, but you know you’ve found a good spot if the place is full of locals. Casados are typically around five or six dollars and sometimes include a fruit drink.
Arroz con Pollo
Another popular dish in Costa Rica for lunch and sometimes dinner is arroz con pollo (rice with chicken). This pan-fried rice dish is loaded with different seasonings, vegetables, and shredded chicken. Think of it as a Chinese fried rice with Latin flavors. It usually comes with a small side salad and French fries (yes, this meal has a few carbs). Other variations of the dish include arroz con camarones (rice with shrimps), arroz con calamares (rice with squid), and our favorite, arroz con pulpo (rice with octopus).
The first time we tried this dish, we had no idea what we had ordered. Luckily when it came we were hungry because pescado entero translates to whole fried fish. Usually that means a medium-sized red snapper (pargo), but it could be whatever is fresh that day. Although a little intimidating at first, the fish tastes so moist and flavorful when cooked this way. It is definitely a food memory that will last with us forever, and one that we revisit often.
These are just a sampling of Costa Rica’s culinary delights and we hope you get a chance to try some. If you’re into food, there’s a lot more to explore locally and regionally. You can find things like coconut-flavored rice on the Caribbean coast, savory red beans on the Nicoya Peninsula, or even a sweet Churchill ice-cream treat near Puntarenas, just to name a few.
What is your favorite Costa Rican food? Let us know in the comments below (email subscribers click here to post your comment online).
Looking for more practical info to help you plan? Check out these posts:
- Money Matters: Currency, Exchanging Money, and Tipping in Costa Rica – Trying to figure out how many colones to bring or how to exchange them once you get here? This post will help.
- Simple Spanish for Visiting Costa Rica – Learn a few basics for your trip. Costa Ricans really appreciate if you try to speak a little Spanish, even if it is just an hola or adios.
- Driving in Costa Rica: What to Know Before You Go – Driving in Costa Rica can be intimidating at first, but knowing what to expect before you get behind the wheel can make all the difference.