The Indigenous Costa Ricans That Cook With Flowers

When we arrived at Finca Kan-Tan, a 130-hectare plot of mostly forest covered land on ancestral Boruca lands in Costa Rica’s Punta Arenas province, Boruca leader José Carlos Morales and his neighbor Hernán, were hand pollinating vanilla. They had planted a few hectares of a non-native vanilla that has been commercialized all over Costa Rica in the hopes it could be developed into a source of income for the community. The vanilla wasn’t taking though. Bees, the orchid’s natural pollinator, weren’t showing up.

The finca has become something of a research lab into Boruca culinary traditions, which have been gradually disappearing for the past century. Thanks to Dr. Leila Garro Valverde, José Carlos’ wife, who was born in San José but has been studying Boruca culture and fighting for indigenous rights in Costa Rica for decades, they have a chance of survival.

The route to the finca required a five hour drive south from the capital along the Pacific coast towards the border with Panama. A good stretch of the route was blanketed with the seemingly never-ending uniformity of palm oil plantations, which have wiped out the native forests from the Pan American Highway to the ocean for dozens of miles and the chemicals they use there are the likely cause of José Carlos’ bee troubles. As we drove into the interior, up into the mountains parallel to the Río Terraba, the terrain became increasingly wild and rugged, the forest thicker. It’s here that I entered into Boruca territory with José González, the chef and owner of the San José restaurant Al Mercat, and another friend. Dr. Garro walked down to us from out of one of one of the thatched roof, open-air wooden buildings to greet us as we pondered the dilemma with the vanilla. Friendly, with gray hair, glasses, and a pink shirt, she let us know how grateful she was that we came.

“The part of food, newer generations know little,” she said, with a worried look on her face. “They are forgetting things.”

Boruca cuisine is simple and practical, making use of everything edible in close proximity. It makes use of its biodiversity without destroying it. It’s balanced, nutritious, and sustainable, everything a rural, impoverished part of the country could ask for, yet it has nearly been extinguished.

The Boruca, also called Brunka or Brunca, were integrated into Costa Rican society more than 150 years through the church and public schools. Rice, believed to have arrived to Boruca territory in the 1930s, was traded for Boruca beans and was quickly adapted into their cuisine, as was pork, especially the fat, which is used in almost everything. Modern cooking tools such as metal pans, woks, knives, and stoves entered into their kitchens. Many fled to cities or the coast for work and population numbers dwindled. While many can still distinguish the plants from their environment, but few knew their uses. As elders passed away fewer and fewer Boruca knew their ancestral knowledge it became a fuzzy memory.

In recent decades there has been reason for hope. In the 1970s the resurrection of handicrafts, particularly mask carving, has helped give the Boruca a new lease on life within Costa Rica’s blossoming tourism industry. However, an estimated 80 percent of the group’s members are making masks, leading to a glut. An alternative is sorely needed. Maybe their cuisine is it?

In 2010, Dr. Garro published the book Saberes y Sabores de Boruca, a phenomenally researched cookbook that gathered the collective culinary knowledge of the Boruca community. During research, she asked around to every Boruca she met, especially to elders, about things their parents and grandparents used to cook. One question would lead to another, and to another, and another until she had a rather full outline of how extensive this otherwise unknown cuisine once was. She consulted many times on how a dish tasted in their memory and if her version was accurate. This included recipes for dishes that were not being eaten by the Boruca any longer, some not for decades, like sun dried iguana and stews that rely on foraged tubers and flowers that few remembered where and when they could be found. Reading her book says as much about the surrounding biodiversity as the culture that lives amidst it.

For example, the Boruca cook with flowers. Not just a flower to garnish a dish, but flowers form the base of a more than a dozen of their traditional recipes. There’s the madero negro (Gliricidia sepium), for which they’ll spend hours upon hours to pick off the lilac colored petals by hand and they’ll add them to an egg fried with pork fat. Papayo macho (Carica papaya) flowers get wrapped in bijagua leaves with small river fish called brí^bo and are roasted over hot embers, while the palm-like toquilla (Carludovica palmata) flower is eaten raw in the forest, or ground and fried at home, or boiled in water and added to other dishes. Some flowers are eaten with unripe bananas or plantains. Some are grilled over open flames while covered by their outer leaves. Some are eaten with crab meat. Some are bitter. Some are sweet.

Then there are the mushrooms, of which at least seven are part of the Boruca diet. And the palms. Dozens of them are edible. Every Boruca woman knows which parts of the heart are the most delicious to roast. Some palm hearts are eaten raw, some are diced like a vegetable into a picadillo, some are added to stews. Palm fruits, of which there are also many, contribute much to Boruca cuisine too (açaí, pejibaye, coconuts), as are the leaves. In the small plot of agriculture a few minutes from the finca’s kitchen there’s corn, beans, bananas, cacao, plantains, culantro, achiote, and yuca, not to mention a forest full of game.

“Practically everything has a use,” she explained to us. “Stems, flowers, tubers are all edible. These products of nature can provide a great variety of nutrients. Indigenous cuisine could be our national cuisine.”

One of the huts on the finca splits a dining area and, separated by a partial wall, the kitchen. There’s an old iron stove as well as the more traditional wood-fired earthen stove that has added a metal grate on top to place pots and pans. Bunches of bananas, several varieties, hang from the rafters, while there’s some yuca in baskets on the floor. When we get out a bowl to start cooking, there’s a scorpion in it.

We came to learn from her and she wanted to learn from us too. She knows there is potential in Boruca cuisine, just like there is in handicrafts, though she unsure of what exactly can be done. There is enormous potential for sustainable Boruca ingredients to be sold in a country that seems to finally be coming around to its own cuisine, not to mention for increased tourism to the community. A group of four German tourists came to the finca on a day trip from San José while we were there. It was a stop on a larger tour of the south that included an authentic Boruca lunch and culture session after visiting the coast and the Pre-Columbian stone spheres in Palmar Norte. All of it was a part of a larger plan of cooking and sharing meals with like minded people. Something is bound to come from it, she thinks.

“We are looking for the light,” Dr. Garro laughed. “This is the force we have. We must evolve products to preserve them.”

In the kitchen, one woman peeled yautia, a native tuber, while another wrapped bits of pork, rice, and vegetables in a banana leaf to make tamales, which get steamed for 6 hours. The Boruca have a unique recipe that uses steamed rice instead of corn masa. José is sautéing some of the poró flowers in a pan with pork fat and boiling the itabo flowers in a pot on the stove. Just out the backdoor wood burned in a pit with sheet metal surrounding it to keep the animals out. Cuts of pork hung from a banana leaf that is wrapped around a stick set horizontally over the fire.

Before the meal we all walked to spot on the property, a cemetery, where stones were placed at four corners around it. We gathered around a central stone and offerings were made as Dr. Garro lit incense and spoke to the spirits that surrounded us. We closed our eyes and, one by one, she waved the incense around us like a magic wand, allowing the smoke to cover us from head to toe.

“We have everything we need here,” Dr. Garro said, as the spirits stirred, the scents and sounds of the forest intensified, and the vibrations bouncing off the earth crawled up our spines. “There is food to sustain us. Herbs to cure. We must listen to nature. Listen to each other.”

Twenty minutes later as we ate, Dr. Garro took out some of the chicha she and the other women had made. There was pejibaye, which was fermented for just a few days. It was smooth, fruity, with just a little bit of tang. There were other chichas made of ojoche, of germinated corn, and motete, each with a varying degree of fermented funkiness. Then there was the nance, which was nearly two years old and resembled a rum with notes of molasses. As we walked out of the kitchen, woozy from the chicha, weary from the day, Hernán noticed the vanilla flowers, not the ones they planted but a native variety on an old tree surrounded by overgrown vines, was opening. In the morning, he planned to hand pollinate them, but he didn’t need to. A swarm of small black bees was doing the work for him.