Friday, July 1, 2011

Tico Fare

As it is almost dinner time, let me tell you of the local Costa Rican food. It is delicious, simple, bland, fresh, nutritious, and healthy.

The mainstays of Tico diet are the Three Sisters (corn, squash, and beans) plus rice, and the occasional chicken, fish, or pork. The corn is most often served in the form of tortillas made by hand with masa (finely ground white corn flour) and water, dry pan-fried on very high heat: my skills at this are improving but not yet great. The local common squash, chayote, is green, the size of two fists, looks like it has puckered lips, and can be eaten raw or, more frequently, diced into tiny cubes and sautéed with oil, salt, and pepper. The beans are red or black, black being favored. As they come dried in large quantities, the beans take hours to slowly cook: to conserve gas in the cylinders that fuel the stoves, they are often cooked on a grill over a fire of scrap driftwood.

These common items are often combined for lunch or dinner in a plato tipico (typical plate) or casado. On such a plate, you would be served, in separate piles, a pile of white rice, a pile of sautéed squash, possibly a few strips of your choice of meat, a few slices of creamy fresh avocados, a plain salad of chopped white cabbage and tomato with lime juice, and a few pieces of super-sweet cooked plantanos (like bananas). For breakfast, one might enjoy the simpler blander gallo pinto, which is rice and black beans mixed together with a small amount of onions, garlic, cilantro, and possible tomatoes and lime juice and cilantro: an egg on top is optional.

Local dairy products are centrally processed (i.e. all go to one big processing/packaging facility before redistribution) but remain fresh and flavorful: fresh milk and butter are available in most stores where refrigeration is available. Here we are lucky to have a local friend, Zu, who makes a variety of delicious plain and fruit yoghurts of which we order massive amounts of each week. The local cheese is a very tasty firm fresh white cheese somewhat similar to mozzarella or Greek farmer’s cheese, but with a slightly stronger musk/whey flavor, and saltier: I wish I could eat it endlessly, but one slice usually fills me up.

A very local specialty is cerviche, which has the consistency of salsa but is made mostly of fish. The fresh local fish is usually red snapper, caught right off the beaches here by local fishermen in small motorized wooden boats. To make cerviche, the raw flesh of the fish is diced and put into a large dish (usually a bucket). The meat is smothered in the highly acidic, highly flavorful juice of the local small limes (confusingly called limons), and left to sit for about 10 minutes. Even in this short time, the acid actually cooks the meat, so it is palatable and chewy. To the stew of fish and lime juice is then added a little bit of finely diced onion, garlic, cilantro, and a healthy slug of ginger ale or 7-Up. This whole mess is served in a shallow glass dish like a gravy boat, surrounded by salty deep-fried plantanos chips and/or saltine-like crackers. Optional small side dishes are guacamole and refried black beans. I could eat this meal every day and die happy: it feels great in the belly, is very nutritious, and is super local, and the main dish is raw!

Let me not neglect the beverages. As is appropriate in a tropical, equatorial place, people value their liquid refreshments. We were lucky enough to have one of the ranch’s cowboys, Rodolfo, bring us sacks full of wild fresh limes every week, and granulated sticky raw brown sugar was de rigeur, so we practically bathed in some of the most flavorful fresh limeaid imaginable. Anyone with a blender (or sieve and a lot of patience and strength) could enjoy the juices of the many fresh fruits of the area, especially papaya, pineapple, mango, and guava and cas in season. Even more patience and strength could yield you the Costa Rican answer to horchata, a creamy, cinnamon rice-milk liquid treat that actually made me moan with greedy deliciousness. And hailing from the Caribbean coast, agua dulce requires the most effort of all, starting with the tar-like scrapings of the molds used in sugar processing, boiling in water for hours or days, adding copious amounts of pulverized fresh ginger root and limes, and guzzled in belly-aching paroxysm of its sweet spicy intensity.

Costa Rica’s most famous beverage is of course its coffee, and deservedly so. As you food history buffs of course know, coffee is not native to Central America, but damn does it grow well there: it’s as if the plants were just waiting for transportation to the high fertile misty volcanic slopes of the continental ridge to fulfill their potential. This is abetted by the simple chorreador, the Costa Rican coffee maker which is essentially a flannel sock that you hang above your mug or carafe, fill with grounds, and pour hot water through. The resulting brew is dark, rich, feels creamy on the tongue, has absolutely no bitterness, and truly needs no milk or sugar. Even in world-class award-winning cafes in the major cities of the world, I have never had a cup that even comes close to the coffee we could make on a camp stove here.

And of course, cervesa. Costa Rica’s beer is better known for its graphic design than flavor, with Imperial’s yellow and black phoenix blazoning the kitsch of many a tourist. Its flavor can more than hold its own to the claims of its packaging, though. There are really only two beers available in the country, both locally made by the same company: the aforementioned Imperial, and the simpler Pilsen. Both are light and lemony, with Pilsen being ever-so-slightly hoppier and Imperial a little smoother. While they are refreshing on their own at any time, they are often served as a michelada in a glass with a full lime’s juice squeezed in and copious salt on the edge. At the end of a hot sweaty day, this influx of cool acidy salt is like a blessing to the system, like alcoholic Gatorade. Other alchoholic options include guaro (sugarcane moonshine liquor) and the remarkably good Flor de Caña rums made in Nicaragua, but I rarely partook of these potencies.

Now I have made myself thoroughly hungry and thirsty.

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