An underlying factor has boosted the Tico success story. Raising a large family in Costa Rica has never been an extreme hardship until recently. The combination of heavy rains, moderate to warm temperatures and rich volcanic soils make most of Costa Rica an agricultural wonderland. Coffee, garden vegetables and resplendent flowers grace the lands of the Mesita Central, while banana, sugar cane, pineapple and palm oil plantations dominate the low lying coastal regions. Ten foot Fica trees at our inn in 1995 are now over eighty feet high, preventing nearly every ray of sun from reaching the ground. At one time I cringed when I saw our yard man hacking away at them with his machete to thin them out, however in less than a year they needed thinning again!
With such a plethora of plant species able to grow here, it is surprising how plain and limited the Tico foods really are. Costa Rica cuisine is not a result of years spent in a culinary school in France. The staple for nearly every Tico, gallo pinto (spotted rooster), is basically fried rice and beans, with a bit of onion and minimal spices. Add a few vegetables and they applaud your creativity. They seem afraid of experimentation. Gallo Pinto is eaten at breakfast, often with sour cream, and perhaps a fried egg. Rice and beans, separate this time, also dominate the lunch menu (traditionally the largest meal of the day), with a shaved cabbage and tomato salad, fried ripe plantains and perhaps a boiled egg, a couple of slices of fresh avocado or a small amount of beef, chicken, pork or fish. Though the land is rich, food today is relatively expensive for the average landless Tico and meat consumption is low. Family gatherings often include a big pot of Olla de Carne, a beef rib soup with huge pieces of carrots, potatoes, corn, cabbage, yucca ( a waxy tuber), onion and garlic, delicious but greasy.
Though Costa Rica is on two oceans, most seafood is exported, thus it is expensive here. One popular dish that is seen throughout Latin America is ceviche, raw corvina (sea bass) or sometimes white marlin. Marinate the fish in fresh lime juice for an hour, then add chopped onion, sweet pepper and cilantro. It is high in protein, vitamins and minerals, low in fat, and absolutely delicious! Many of the foods recommended by dieticians, avocados, plantains, root vegetables, nuts, citrus fruits, and a variety of herbs grow naturally in Costa Rica. More are being discovered every year (often by foreigners) as the benefits of the rainforest buffet are explored.
Herbal remedies and nutrients from the rainforests can be found behind stalls in organized heaps in San Jose’s Mercado Central. An assortment of leaves, flower tops and roots boiled to become odd tasting teas have various medicinal properties for asthma, prostate, pregnancy, heart, liver, skin, and eyes. Whatever the illness or concern, they have a natural supplement. I enjoy the strong tea made from the root of the Cuculmeca tree, served hot with sugar and milk powder. It is intended for muscle growth and brain functions. Bitter leaf-based teas Sen and Sorosi can be taken together three consecutive days to cleanse your entire system. Another syrupy fruit based elixir called Noni is receiving international acclaim for its energy and stamina enhancing attributes. It has the flavor and smell of what my young sons once called “Lucas Sangster feet” (a friend from school).