Gallo Pinto & More Gallo Pinto: (Not) Getting by as a Vegetarian in Costa Rica
Lauren Weihe is a student at Doane College and is an ISA Classmates Connecting Cultures blogger corresponding with students at Pound Middle School in Lincoln, Nebraska. Lauren is currently studying abroad in San Jose, Costa Rica on a Fall 2B program.
A major part of any culture you visit is the food, and often times you can learn a lot about the people by sampling the local cuisine or visiting a supermercado or even a local feria (farmer’s market) if you can. In San Jose, I recommend the Feria Zapote, which takes up an entire city block and is packed full of vendors selling freshly-grown fruits and veggies as well as homemade bread, cheese, meat, and artisan crafts. It’s wonderful!
Being vegetarian in Costa Rica means there are a lot of dishes I won’t try, but I usually don’t have a problem asking for something vegetariana or sin carne when I eat out. For this post, I tried to compile a “top ten” list of foods in Costa Rica, but very quickly realized that once I listed gallo pinto, the national dish in Costa Rica, there were few other foods I could think of. Sure, there’s plenty of restaurants in San Jose, but as soon as you walk into a soda (small, local restaurant with few options and usually very cheap) or restaurant with typical Costa Rican food, there is little variety to be found. Nonetheless, here are ten foods I’ve eaten in Costa Rica that are more or less unique or otherwise very common in the country.
1. Gallo Pinto
The infamous gallo pinto is, as I mentioned above, the national dish of Costa Rica. It consists of fried rice, black beans, some cilantro, and a few basic spices. The dish itself is quite simple and incredibly versatile; it’s not uncommon to eat gallo pinto for breakfast, lunch, or dinner (or all three). I often think of it as Costa Rica’s steak and potatoes or bread and butter. There is no possible way you can leave Costa Rica without knowing (and most likely eating) gallo pinto.
A casado is more a dish than a food and would be a typical lunch at a local restaurant or soda. It usually consists of black beans and rice (or gallo pinto…), lettuce or some vegetable salad, meat (chicken, beef, or fish seem to be the most popular, although when I asked for something without the meat I got avocado), and plantain. Casados are usually very cheap and you get a lot for what you pay.
Plantains (or plátanos) resemble a large banana but are firmer and not as sweet as ordinary bananas, although they have a similar “banana-y” flavor. They are always cooked (fried or grilled) before eating and depending when they were picked can be savory (when green or under-ripe) or sweet (when mature or maduro). They are found accompanying many typical dishes, such as in a casado, and you can easily find plantain chips by walking into the nearest small convenience shop.
4. Sopa negra
One of my favorite dishes is Costa Rica is sopa negra, or “black soup.” It is a soup made with black beans (you can use the leftovers to make gallo pinto), vegetable or chicken broth, onion, garlic, pepper, and cilantro and topped with a hard-boiled egg. It basically tastes like you’re eating black beans in soup form but with hard-boiled egg.
Mamones (actually called mamón chinos, but they’re more common than mamones) are a new and interesting fruit I’ve tried here. The outside is red and spiny/hairy and very easy to peel off. The inside, the part of the fruit that is edible, is a translucent white with a large seed in the center. The fruit is small, and I eat the whole thing the same way you’d eat a cherry. The flavor is very similar to that of grapes (but a mamón is much more fun to eat).
A chayote is a vegetable in the gourd family that grows in Costa Rica, Brazil, and Mexico. It is always cooked and similar to a squash. Being vegetarian, my Tica Mom cooks this for me a lot. The vegetable by itself has a subtle flavor, so she usually adds some salt or herbs. She claims it is also very healthy.
Yuca, or cassava (not yucca as I wrongly thought until I looked it up) in English, is a starchy root vegetable very similar in texture and flavor to a potato. I’ve had it prepared the same way you might prepare a potato: baked or boiled, in a soup, mashed. You can even buy a bag of yuca chips right next to the potato chips in the supermercado. Yucas are a staple of many other parts of the world and the starch is used to make tapioca.
Basically like sour cream, except a little thinner and it comes in a bag instead of a tub. Besides maybe yogurt, this is the most common dairy product I’ve seen here. You can buy it with or without salt added.
9. Agua de Sapo
This is a popular drink along the Caribbean coast of many Latin American countries including Costa Rica, that I made in a cooking class offered by ISA this week. Really, I like to think of it as a jazzed up lemonade. It’s made with water, lemon, honey, and ginger. These are all boiled together then cooled. The ginger is sifted out and the drink is served on ice (I think I’d like it with one of those little drink umbrellas).
So obviously this isn’t unique to Costa Rica nor is it something I go out of my way to eat. Jamon, or ham, can be found in almost any type of dish here, sort of like an equivalent to bacon in the United States. I asked around about the Ticos’ seeming obsession with the stuff and was only told that it was a very cheap meat. That being said, I have found myself ordering food on numerous occasions thinking it would be vegetarian and finding, to my surprise: ham. It’s like a ninja food; you don’t expect it, but like it or not it finds its way onto your plate anyway, hidden under the cheese on your pizza or lurking near the veggies on your pasta.