“What is the food of Costa Rica like?”
The food of Costa Rica is so good that I’m probably going to actually try and cook some of it at home. Hear me out; it really is that good.
Costa Rica is a Central American country, and like many Central American countries that we know and love, beans and rice are staples of the local diet. However, in Costa Rica the beans and rice are of a regional variety known as ‘gallo pinto,’ in which the beans are smaller and blacker than we are used to and the rice is white, not Spanish rice, which seems to be a Mexican invention.
The Wednesday or Thursday of our first week in Costa Rica, several of my SOLmates (fellow students from the US in the same program) and I went with our program directors to the house of a woman who seems to base part of her income on traditional cooking demonstrations. The gallo pinto we had at her house was to die for; we mixed in not just beans and rice but a salsa called Salsa Lisano, a sauce that is to Costa Rica what that yellow mustardy stuff whose name I can’t remember is to Australia. Salsa Lisano is a staple sauce of the cuisine here; it’s definitely a salsa, but there’s almost no kick in it as the emphasis is on the unique tartness that the sauce adds to a dish.
One of the other highlights of the day was the pico de gallo (yes, they have that here, too), which was made up of tomatoes and onions and cilantro like you’d expect, but there were also sweet chiles, a hint of lemon juice, and just a touch of that Salsa Lisano. If anything would convince me to make my own food it’s this pico de gallo that we had. We spread it on our beans and rice, and did not think of leaving or of eating any other kind of food.
We also had homemade coffee. Something about the coffee here just makes drinking Starbucks feel like a scam; I could drink dark coffee with a pinch of sugar and experience a fullness of flavor that I’d never experienced before in my life. It was probably because the coffee was made with a ‘choreador.’ A choreador is a device that holds what looks like a sock suspended with its opening open towards the sky; the idea is that your Costa Rican coffee beans go in the sock and then you pour your water through, and then what comes out is a full and hearty-tasting coffee into a cup or pot that you have conveniently placed below the sock. I’m not a coffee drinking, but now I know that every single one of us in the US is being ripped off. I can’t be a coffee drinker now because I know what coffee is supposed to taste like.
One food that’s new to us who are estadounidense (the Spanish way of saying ‘American’) is the plantain. Basically, a plantain is a bigger, tougher sort of banana that has a slightly different flavor profile. Here plantains are chopped and fried as deserts, crushed and cooked into empanadas, and it even functions as a sort of potato because Costa Ricans will cut it up, bake/fry it, and add flavors and salts to it to make chips out of it. It’s a really tasty food that makes you feel healthier when you eat it, probably because even now there’s still some novelty with it. I mention the plantain because we had delicious bean and cheese empanadas at this woman’s house made with plantain dough that we helped to prepare.
We also had a drink made of some tropical fruit that I can’t remember (that’s how you know it was really delicious) and also some freshly baked bread from a traditional outdoor oven called an ‘horno,’ with a silent ‘h.’
“How is being a vegetarian in a foreign country?”
Quite well, actually. My host family has made sure that my vegetarianism at least doesn’t appear like a burden, because my host mom has made a massive variety of food for me and the rest of my host family. There doesn’t seem to have be any complaints thus far. I have pretty much loved every meal, and I feel incredibly lucky that I have because not all of my SOLmates have acclimated well to the food here. In fact, she was telling me that being a vegetarian has been a little bit easier on her because meat is expensive. It’s remarkable that traveling to another corner of the globe, you find that there are certain facets of life that are the same everywhere.
Additionally, many of the places we have visited have ‘vegetarian’ varieties for many of their platters. The best way I can sum it up is that I don’t have to think about the fact that I’m a vegetarian at all; it affects me about as much as it does in the US, which is hardly at all.
I don’t know how well veganism works here, though. I know that one of my SOLmates is a vegan but he is both in a different class and he arrived at a different time so there haven’t been many activities that I could discuss this with him; I actually only just found out he’s a vegan today. Part of the reason why I have my doubts is because dairy is a huge part of the diet here; I feel like part of my host mom’s reaction to my vegetarianism is to substitute the meat in certain dishes with cheese. My host mom’s cooking has given me the impression that cheese is important in the Costa Rican diet, but that eggs are essential. Most mornings feature scrambled eggs, and often when I receive a packed lunch from her that sandwiches contain scrambled eggs. She’s told me at least twice that eggs are one of the most nutritional things a person can eat.
And through it all, again, I feel like the food has taken to me well, and I to it.
“What is day to day life like?”
Glad you asked! Most days I wake up well before my alarm is set to because the sun rises here at 5 AM. What that translates to is that lots of folks begin working at 5, 6, or 7 AM. The particular house that I live in is directly across the street from a railroad, which starts running at 5 AM, taking commuters down to work at San Jose about 25 minutes south of here. During the first week and a half, I’d always slip open my curtains and look at the commuters faces as they sped by; that’s how close the train is. And since I’m on the second floor, every train means a little earthquake. I’ve gotten used to it by this point; waking up 30 minutes earlier than your alarm goes off just means more time to think, and get ready for the day.
The absolute latest that I get out of my room will be 7 AM; I shower, eat breakfast, and walk down to the university for my classes. One thing that I’m still trying to work out is how best to shower here; water heating systems for showers are more direct, IE the thing that heats up my water when I shower ever morning literally sits on top of the shower head, and I can turn it on and off. Thank God, I discovered early on that I shouldn’t touch it while the water is running, otherwise I’d get a nice little electric jolt. The reason why you’d want to do that is because the water heaters work really, really well. So well, in fact, that within 10-15 seconds the water is too hot to bath with. The way the device works though is that there has to be a certain amount of water going through the thing for it to turn on. So when the water gets too hot, I just turn down the water a bit, and it’ll promptly cool off before getting too cold, then I have to turn it up again. It’s a cycle that I’m still perfecting.
I walk to school via the railroad (watching for trains of course, Mom and Dad) and spend some time with my friends before heading in to class. This session my profesora was a young enthusiastic woman named Ariana who consistently brought energy, which would be needed after long nights in downtown Heredia. We mainly learned different sorts of conjugations: preterite, imperfect, imperative and others. We read stories that seemed to be more geared for kids with their animals and life lessons, but then again our class is still at that level where such stories with simple plots are necessary and even complicated.
Class runs from 8-11 AM, and if we don’t have an activity planned with our SOL directors, the afternoon is free for soccer, homework, and university clubs. Sometimes we’ll even head off on our own adventures to San Jose or nearby downtown Heredia.
I’m lucky that I can relate really well to my host family; there have been times where my host brothers, Oscar and Gustavo, have jammed out with me to some latin music. Oscar often shows me some of the best bassists in the world via Youtube; we’ve spent at least two hours just sitting in front of a computer screen showing each other music. I went with Oscar earlier this week actually to look at getting a stand for his bass, down in San Jose. I think on the 30th, I will go see him in concert with his band. He’s in a funky jazz~reggae outfit, and I’m definitely looking forward to it.
That’s all I feel like writing for now!