The declaration can draw dumbfounded looks from soda waitresses after they have just asked whether you would prefer chicken or beef with your casado. But despite confused reactions from folks who aren’t in the know, Costa Rica boasts a thriving community of vegetarians (who don’t eat meat) and vegans (who don’t consume any animal products whatsoever).
A variety of factors motivates people to make the life change. Some cut meat out of their diets for spiritual or health reasons, others champion animal rights and still others have environmental motives. After all, Sir Paul McCartney famously said, “If anyone wants to save the planet, all they have to do is stop eating meat.” In a country pushing to be known as being eco-minded, it’s only logical that many would take this step. And many have.
While the prospect of finding and cooking vegetarian- and vegan-friendly food in a Latin American country may seem daunting, Costa Rica is way ahead of the game compared to South American countries like Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, where beef, and plenty of it, is a staple ingredient in most meals. A growing number of restaurants here offer vegetarian options, and helpful resources exist to assist veg-minded folks.
Four years ago Wendy Strebe, who moved to Costa Rica from the U.S. state of New Mexico in 2002, nearly died of cardiovascular disease. Her doctor told her that she needed to change her eating habits or she wouldn’t last much longer. She decided to cut animal products out of her life, and she hasn’t looked back.
“Just by doing that, I became a healthier person,” Strebe says.
Strebe – a former Tico Times Community Connection contributor – and her husband, Erich Strebe, originally settled in the southern Caribbean beach town of Puerto Viejo, where they owned and operated Cashew Hill Jungle Lodge. Earlier this year, they moved to the Central Valley and opened Casa Mettá (www.casametta.com, 2266-1635), a health-conscious getaway on the slopes of Barva Volcano in the Heredia province, north of the capital. The Strebes are versed and certified vegan chefs who specialize in cooking classes and food vacations as a way to give support to those wishing to maintain a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle. According to Wendy Strebe, it can help with health issues like diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and being overweight.
Classes, which usually last about two hours, can be tailored to suit almost any group. The cost is $50 per person for individual or couple classes, and $25 per person for groups of three or more. Depending on participants’ tastes, they can cover almost any style of cuisine imaginable. The price of the class includes the meal and recipes to take home afterward.
“What I’m really looking for are people who want to learn how to cook healthier and who call us up and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a group and we want to have a class,” Strebe says.
The folks at Casa Mettá also can instruct interested students and guests about how to buy organic, vegan and vegetarian cooking ingredients in Costa Rican supermarkets.
“I want people to know that we are what we eat, and if you change your diet you can overcome some serious health problems,” Strebe says. “I take no medications, and most people, if they’re [willing to] make changes, can do this. They can reduce medication or get off medications by being aware of what they put in their mouths and what it does to their bodies.”
As more people jump on the veg wagon, an increasing number of restaurants in the Central Valley and beyond are catering to the lifestyle. The well-known Tin Jo Asian restaurant in San José (www.tinjo.com, 2221-7605, Calle 11, between Avenidas 6 and 8) boasts a full vegetarian menu. Many Indian and Lebanese restaurants do the same, and Vishnu, a meat-free chain, has a number of locations in the Central Valley.
On the west side, Tzu Jan Vegetarian House in Guachipelín de Escazú (www.tzujan.com, 2289-4695, Plaza Golden, 50 meters north of ampm) has an expansive, exclusively vegetarian menu with many vegan options. Try the plate of the day or tofu and potato fritters, and chase them with a green tea and chocolate dessert waffle with ice cream.
Avenida Uno Cafetería y Artería in San José (www.avenidaunocafe.com, 2257-0419, south side of Supreme Elections Tribunal) is a quaint café that offers organic baked goods – think guava cheesecake and chocolate banana muffins – and daily vegetarian lunch specials, which include fresh-made fruit juice, a soup or salad and a hearty main course. The Tico Times recommends keeping your eyes open for the garbanzo curry.
Ileana Méndez, who owns the café together with her Chilean husband, Patricio Courbis, has been vegetarian for five years, and says it has changed her view on how important it is to know where her food comes from.
“Now what interests me most is that my food comes from a person with a first and last name and is fair-trade and locally grown,” Méndez says.
Méndez and Courbis are affiliated with Viva Veg, a vegan collective that meets twice a month and at the time of writing had 1,614 followers on Facebook. The collective functions as a local resource for vegans, and routinely publishes free vegan recipes on its blog (www.viva-veg.blogspot.com).
Got a restaurant to recommend to vegetarians or vegans in Costa Rica? Post comments to this story online at ticotimes.net/weekend.