Preparing for the Independence Day feast, I could not help but wonder what it should be. Typical tamal and rompope with guaro? Gallos, grilled meat, corn and Imperials?
Costa Rica’s culinary tradition is a symphony of many songs, and it has been evolving for more than 500 years. All the items in my grandma’s kitchen were a combination of ideas and flavors perfected through the centuries, and a merging of different cultures that clashed on this tiny, rugged isthmus.
I remember spending many cold and rainy September afternoons inside my grandmother’s den, where she cooked our meals in her outdoor wood-fired stove. My cousins and I would feast and listen to her stories as the smells of burning coffee wood, pastries and breads wafted to our noses. It was a magical event and led us to wonder about the origins of the food.
The recipes date back to our aboriginal ancestors’ diet of corn, beans and squash, which are complemented by bountiful fruits, greens, tubers, legumes and vegetables as well as fishing and hunting. This was happening for hundreds of years on the edge of the Mayan empire in Guanacaste, all the way down to where the Incan influence crept north from Panama.
At the time the Spanish conquistadores arrived, they found an organized system of kingdoms and cacicazgos divided along the country, with vast areas under the control of powerful kings. The most famous was Cacique Garabito, king of the western Huetares and the country’s first guerrilla leader. He fought the Spanish and opposed their cruel practices and brutal control system of encomiendas.
After arriving at the Pacific, settling for a while, then marching into the jungles, conquistadors like Juan de Cavallón, the Central Valley’s first explorer and Garabito’s latter sworn enemy, settled inland and established themselves south of San José.
In March of 1561, they founded the city of Castillo de Garcimuñoz, the first town in the valley where the city of Desamparados now stands. Later, under Juan Vásquez de Coronado’s leadership, the Spaniards moved the main city to the eastern part of the valley and founded Santiago de Cartago in 1563, just over the Ochomogo hills.
Most of the settlers moved here, and then the colonial merchant era began with bovine, equine and porcine cattle, along with products like lemons, oranges, rice and wheat from Spain and Europe. This helped establish a new diet based on the availability of fruits and veggies, and the beginning of the production of meat and dairy. Costa Rica began to obtain European staples such as butter, cheese, cream, milk, ham, and bacon.
The pasturelands, replete with rich volcanic soil, rolled down the foothills of Irazú and Turrialba volcanoes, where fresh air, fog and rain created a perfect environment for cattle. Creamy milk, rich butter, thick sour cream and soft fresh cheese became a normal part of the diet in the soon-to-be capital of Costa Rica.
Cartago grew as a city and became the political, economic and gastronomic center of the country for almost three centuries, with tremendous growth in the agricultural production of potatoes, corn, squash, beans, greens, coles, berries and all things dairy. This lasted well until the mid-1800s, when San José, Alajuela and Heredia became powerful players and exploited the high elevation of the mountains to develop similar economic activities.
European techniques started to appear, as some cheese was made mozzarella-style and rolled in balls to what we know now as palmito cheese, commonly sold at roadside stops. Another was queso fresco, which grew up to be either Turrialba cheese or aged and salted Bagaces cheese, which is used by Tico cooks as parmesan.
The rich products such as cheese and ground beef were combined with ever-present corn, mostly in the Mesoamerican standard of tortillas. Take a freshly made tortilla and slap some grilled skirt steak or pork chop and some fresh stringy cheese on top, and you have the birth of a classic Costa Rican gallo.
Potatoes thrive in the higher hills, so the meat, onion and achiote (annato) made their way with potato cubes to form picadillo de papa or hash; then it was wrapped around a soft tortilla or encased in masa dough to be fried into empanadas. A new dish included a cornmeal pastry filled with hash or beans and cheese, and deep fried in hot oil or butter, European style.
Then in the early 19th century, coffee was introduced in the country, and another European staple came to the heart of the Costa Rican society. The soil was perfect for growing arabica coffee, and a new era was born.
After that, generations of cooks have mixed old European recipes with the bountiful products of the New World to make unique cuisines that vary even within the country. From the Guanacaste meat and corn-based cowboy dishes to the Caribbean coconut, seafood and spice-based coastal diet, we’ve got quite an array of flavors here in Costa Rica.
So I planned my mid-September menus with all this in mind, and with a better understanding of our culinary past. When I think back to my grandmother’s den three decades ago, I can still smell the hominy boiling, along with the fresh cheese and butter for the corn tortillas or just-baked sour cream bread.
I can picture a nice big cup of steaming coffee with milk, brown sugar syrup and a spoonful of chirrite, along with warm chorreadas (sweet corn pancakes) and fresh tortillas topped with palmito cheese or dipped in fresh sour cream.
Chorreadas with Palmito Cheese and Guacamango
For the Guacamango:
- 1 small red onion, diced
- The juice from one big lemon
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 2 tbsp. fresh cilantro, chopped
- 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
- 1/2 tsp. ground coriander
- 1 big ripe mango, cubed
- 1 ripe avocado, cubed
- 1 tsp. extra virgin olive oil
- A dash of hot pepper sauce or to taste
- Salt and pepper to taste
1. In a medium bowl, combine onion, lemon, garlic and cilantro and let rest for five minutes.
2. Add spices, mango, avocado, and olive oil and toss until well combined.
3. Add salt, pepper, hot and mix well.
4. Reserve refrigerated with the avocado pit inside to prevent browning.
For the Chorreadas:
- 4 ears of corn in a cob or 2 cups canned corn
- 1/3 cup of corn masa or flour
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- A sprinkle of sugar
- 1 tsp. extra virgin olive oil
- Water if needed for binding
- Butter or oil for cooking
- Palmito cheese to serve, shredded
1. Wash well and degrain the fresh corn, or use can-ready, well washed and drained.
2. In a blender or food processor, work the corn with the salt, sugar, masa or flour and a little water if needed until well blended. Reserve.
3. In a skillet at medium heat, add 1/2 tsp. of butter or oil and spread 1/3 cup of the mix over it as it if was a pancake about 1/4 inch thick.
4. Cook for two minutes each side or until golden brown, adding more butter if needed. Reserve.
5. Repeat with the rest of the mixture until all pancakes are ready.
1. Heat up the chorreadas and have them ready.
2. In a plate assemble the hot pancakes alternating with the grated palmito cheese up to three layers.
3. Top and garnish with the guacamango and serve with extra hot sauce if desire.
Makes 3 servings
Inspired by that memory, these dishes exemplify the convergence of cultures that have enriched Costa Rica and made it a melting pot since the days of conquest and colonization, all the way to our independence and to the present day.
Author Marco Gonzalez