Now that I've officially gotten that classic Rupert Holmes song stuck in your head, I'd like to tell you about my recent trip to Costa Rica. Yes, there were pina coladas involved. Far too many to count, I might add, and lots of those brightly colored umbrella thingys that scream girly fruity drink from a mile away. But when in Rome...
I spent two weeks traveling around the country with friends, eating, drinking, and hiking our way through the rain forest of La Fortuna, the cloud forest of Monteverde, and the picturesque beaches of Tamarindo. While we saw monkeys, macaws, toucans, frogs, sloths, bats, and bugs bigger than your head, I'm mostly going to focus on the food we ate.
I like to follow the Anthony Bourdain method of traveling- learning about a culture through their food. Now I'm not talking about the westernized chains catering to American tourists, I'm talking about the hole-in-the-wall spots that you won't find in your travel guides. The places recommended by your taxi driver, the place that they are going to eat after their shift is finished. I want to go where the locals go.
Sodas are inexpensive restaurants all over town where you can get the typical, or "tipico", food of Costa Rica. The most common dishes are called Casados; larger food platters that include some sort of meat, fried plantains, rice, beans, and salad or vegetables. This might sound like nothing extraordinary, but let me tell you, there was something magical-yes MAGICAL, about this combination of food and flavors. Notes of cumin, garlic, onion, and coriander permeate the meat and beans providing a natural compliment to the rice and slightly sweet plantains.
And no tipico meal would be complete without the Costa Rican condiment of choice, Lizano. I am regretting not bringing home vats of this stuff! Lizano can be found on every restaurant table in Costa Rica, and is very similar to A1 steak sauce, but much, much better. The flavor is smoky, savory, tangy, and sweet all at the same time. Lizano is the perfect accompaniment to cosados, or any meal for that matter. Check out your local latin market to see if they carry this, and if not it can be purchased online here.
Some of the other popular food options in Costa Rica were fish tacos, gallo pinto (beans and rice which are refried and then served with eggs or meat), and an interesting dish called chifrito. I referred to chifrito as meat salsa, well, because that's what it looked like. Chifrito is a combination of rice and pinto beans, topped with pico de gallo and fried chunks of pork, served with tortilla chips. This was definitely one of my favorite dishes.
Not only did we get to taste some amazing food, we also learned about it too. In Monteverde we did a coffee tour at Don Juan's coffee plantation and a tour of the Monteverde cheese factory. During the coffee tour we learned how coffee is made, starting from seedling and how it is turned into the roasted beans you put in your coffee maker. Surprisingly, the fruit from the coffee plant is actually quite sweet when ripe and ready to pick. The plantation put us to work having us pick beans, grind them by hand, and then setting them out to dry. Not only did we learn how coffee is processed, but we also learned how cocoa is made. I definitely geeked out, to say the least.
The Monteverde cheese factory was founded in 1953 by American Quakers, and makes 17 different kinds of cheese that are distributed all throughout Costa Rica. I was quite surprised to learn that they made so many different varieties since the factory was so small. Monte Rico is the locally preferred type, which is a very mild white cheese, much like monterey jack. The factory works with over 250 dairy farms in the area and all of the milk they use is hormone and antibiotic free. To top off the tour we got to sample a different variety of cheeses as well as caramel that they make with the leftover whey from the cheese. If you ever find yourself in Monteverde and you are a food nerd like me, I highly recommend taking some time out of your adrenaline filled activities to come to the cheese factory. And did I mention they give you cheese samples???? LOTS of cheese samples!!!
Words really can't describe how amazing Costa Rica is, so I'm going to let the pictures do all the talking.