The Enormous Culinary Potential of Costa Rica
“This country is edible,” says José González, the chef of San José, Costa Rica restaurant Al Mercat. He points out all of the things growing along the sidewalk as we speed through Barrio Escalante.
“Pitaya (dragon fruit). Boom.”
He “booms” each time we pass something delicious. Eventually, he screeches the car to a halt. “Look.” He gets out and collects some blackberries growing on a bush beside someone’s front door. A few minutes later we’re beside a run-down garage where there are hundreds of wild tomatoes growing out of an old patch of bamboo. We pass coffee, mangoes, and dozens of other urban edibles.
“We have a culture of having stuff everywhere,” he says.
Eventually, we reach Finca Al Mercat, his family’s farm on the outskirts of San José, which supplies much of his restaurant’s produce. With an agronomist father, González grew up on farms and plantations on the Caribbean Coast, as well as elsewhere in Central America. He knows what grows in Costa Rica like few others do.
We park near the gated entrance and walk along a dirt path to the greenhouse. There are pacay pods growing on the trees that line the path, which is colored pink from fallen flower petals.
A few more steps and he is climbing a tree to look for manzana rosa, a small fruit that has the flavor of a rose. They are out of season but there are a few still on tree. He’ll pickle them or make a granita with them. “When produce is this good I don’t do a lot with it,” he says.
He picks at other trees and weeds as we walk.
“He’s eating the mountain,” some of the guys working at the finca like to joke.
Most of the produce Finca Al Mercat grows are standard Costa Rican fruits and vegetables like chayote, arracacha, beets, carrots, tomatoes, and various herbs. They are adding trees from the high mountains of Talamanca to see how they’ll do, but there is plenty growing wild on the hilly property too.
Increasingly, the finca has become an extension of the restaurant, and vice versa. González runs frequent food tours to there, where groups explore the land and taste different flavors, have lunch, and then return home with a basket of produce.
When the restaurant first opened in 2014, González focused on creating tasting menus, like others were doing in nearby Panama. He planned on getting on the Latin America 50 Best Restaurant list, the first for a Costa Rican restaurant. He had just returned from four years in France, where he studied at Le Cordon Bleu and later took jobs in French kitchens and chateaus, so was more than prepared. Even though the tasting menu was just $40, Costa Ricans weren’t ready for it.
“I wanted to show Costa Ricans they could eat Costa Rican food,” he says. “So why am I going to serve them some fucking shit they don’t know what it is?”
He scaled back the menu, making it more casual and even more accessible. He shifted his focus to showing Costa Ricans how much they had and how healthy and flavorful their food can be.
“Meat isn’t going to be as good here,” he says, referring to raising cattle in the tropical climate, “yet still people demand it.”
The food at Al Mercat is what diners in Costa Rica should be eating more of. It’s fresh, colorful, and full of flavor. It’s filling without being heavy. There are dishes like sweet potato gnocchi with achiote, coconut milk, and ají chombo, as well as grilled smoked cheese with heart of palm and a romesco sauce made with cashews. He even has ribs on the menu, but they are glazed in tamarind sauce and sided by a salad with banana vinegar.
He’s a advocate of the gallo, Costa Rica’s version of a taco. He has to remind people to call them gallos, not tacos. They’re a uniquely Costa Rican version of the taco with a thicker tortilla and pile of local toppings, like pulled pork with achiote.
It’s not that he couldn’t make the Latin America 50 Best Restaurant list, he could, but his energy is better served elsewhere.
If you consider biodiversity to be an important factor in developing cuisine, as I do, few countries have as much potential as Costa Rica. Though the country accounts for just .03 percent of the earth’s surface, it contains six percent of the biodiversity. There are wetlands chock-full of shellfish, rare dry forests that are home to cactus fruits, high mountain ranges with trout farms and goat cheese makers, and lowland jungles with so many varieties of wild edibles that researchers still have lifetimes of research ahead of them to understand the extent of it. While cattle ranching and agricultural plantations (especially pineapple and palm oil) continue to threaten that biodiversity, for the most part the country has done a good job of conserving many of the most vulnerable landscapes.
Then there is Costa Rica’s exceptionally organized network of farmers markets. There’s one primary farmers market, or fería, held in every single canton (province) each Saturday, as well as many smaller, local ones. They are lively celebrations of farm life, often with music and festivities. Each one is a little bit different, showcasing the natural products of that region’s landscape. These weekly markets are an integral element of Costa Rican culture and should be major tourist attractions, as visited as the country’s national parks.
So if there is so much here, why is much of the food in Costa Rica so limited?
It’s hard to ignore just how much impact the gringo effect has had on the food system in Costa Rica. With 2.6 million visitors coming to the country in 2016, nearly one fifth of the country’s economy revolves around them, not to mention the tens of thousands of expats that now reside in Costa Rica permanently. A plethora of U.S. fast food chains have multiplied in San José, throughout the Central Valley, and several other larger cities and beach towns, however, other restaurants catering to these relatively new visitors are just as much to blame.
There are few things sadder than a tourist restaurant in Costa Rica. Most of them have the same jumbled menu: a burger, a burrito or tacos, steak, BBQ ribs, and grilled fish. They might throw in a Tico breakfast, but we all know that’s not really a Tico breakfast. While everyone can appreciate a thatched roof, gringo-owned beach restaurant with rock music, fried snacks, and cold drinks every once in awhile, it’s not something for every meal.
These restaurants put pressure on the same set of 50 or so ingredients, many of them non-native. Hundreds of luxury hotels, despite claims of being sustainable, often have the same pan-gringo menu and often use salmon imported from abroad or shrimp caught by reef destroying trawlers along the Pacific Coast. While the country’s biodiversity and sustainable tourism have become major taglines in tourism promotion, their culinary efforts are anything but. It’s time for an update.
I follow González in my car from San José and into the mountains to Monteverde. Not far along we stop at a roadside fruit stall in the middle of nowhere that has more variety than a Whole Foods. There are at least five types of mangoes, níspero (loquat), coconuts, cas, avocados, pejibaye, guanabana, and zapote, plus a selection of homemade vinegar, carao extract, and various artisanal snacks made by the families living in the cluster of houses along the road. A little bit further along we swing by the coast near Punta Arenas and there’s a line of restaurants selling ceviche from conchas negras (black clams). Back up the mountain near Guacimal there’s a feria going on and a guy is playing the marimba, the national instrument, in front of a mural of a watermelon.
In Monteverde, we arrive at Hotel Belmar, where González has been consulting on the menu for the past two years. The hotel is one of the oldest in the area and has been in the hands of the same family since opening, yet younger generations have given it an update, adding an organic farm, a small microbrewery that uses cloud forest water, and a food and cocktail program at their restaurant Celajes that rivals any in San José. Over the past two years González has helped transition their menu away from the Americanized main courses with a chunks of protein and a starch. Now the restaurant brings in local diners for their bocas, Costa Rican style tapas, which are free with one of their beers or a cocktail (which are made with house infused liquors and homemade syrups and bitters) in the afternoons. There are gallos on the menu, plus a Caribbean style curry and chifrijo, Costa Rican style nachos. The food is simple and completely satisfies the mostly American guests, but nearly everything on the menu is sourced sustainably.
As I traveled around the country over the next two weeks, restaurants in Costa Rica were repeatedly disappointing. The sad tourist restaurants often were the only option available in many of the beach towns I was staying in. The most reliable, not to mention inexpensive, meals I found were at the sodas, the no-frills, often family run restaurants that serve typical food, like the hearty lunchtime casado, a plate of rice, beans, salad, and meat, all of which vary from town to town. On the Caribbean coast the sodas used more coconut milk and jackfruit, with an Afro-Costa Rican influence throughout. In the north, they use more fruits and vegetables, while along the Pacific seafood is more prevalent. This is where real Costa Rican cooking is done and sodas don’t get nearly enough respect.
There are signs that a larger culinary movement is beginning. In San José, brunch and cocktail spot Maza Bistro and fermentation house Apotecario have created their own takes on local ingredients, while a promising contemporary Costa Rican restaurant, Silvestre, is opening soon. Luxe hotel brand Cayuga Collection has brought Dock to Dish to the country, matching each of their hotel restaurants with an artisanal fishermen. Even a big hotel restaurant, the Mangroove Hotel’s Makoko, was making good food based around what is found in Guanacaste.
Near the end of my trip a cook I met named Marlon Monge mentioned that a farm, Finca Loroco, in Bribri indigenous territory was making chicha (fermented maize beer) from a molded starter, so I went off in search of it, moving deep into the mountains with just a name. Eventually, after stopping at several isolated cacao farms for directions, I found it. In Costa Rica, indigenous groups have been pushed to the fringes of society, living in remote locations, rarely seen or heard. Yet, this small farm seemed to hold all of the country’s secrets.
Cacao was fermenting on a table beside a thatched roof hut, while a variation of mucuna beans were drying in the sun. The beans would later be ground into a powder and then mixed with water and drank. The owner, Mauricia Vargas, didn’t have any of the oko starter ready for the chicha, which was only made during festival times. She explained how they ground and soaked the corn and made it into a dough, which was then wrapped in bijawa leaves and left to ferment and mold. Later it was mixed with water and allowed to ferment even more. It’s a labor-intensive process that is in danger of disappearing.
In the same room where they produced chicha was a seed bank, full of native seeds from Talamanca: seven different varieties of maize, various tubers like sagú and malanga, rare fruits like biriba and arazá, and countless others. They were all in glass jars, hundreds of them, just waiting to be shared.