I’ve now been in Costa Rica for nearly 4 weeks, and I think I’ve figured out how not to starve to death. It was a bit touch and go for a while there.
Part of the problem is that I don’t really cook, and for the few things that I do know how to make, the ingredients can be hard to come by here. Take peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, for example. You’d think you could get the ingredients for PB&J pretty much anywhere. Yeah, not so much. Bread is easy to find, and you can buy jellies and jams, although it isn’t plentiful or particularly cheap. A lot of the smaller grocery stores don’t have peanut butter, though, and where I’ve found it, it’s the equivalent of $6 for a ten ounce jar. I shelved the idea of PB&J pretty quickly.
And in case you’re thinking “Mexican food,” well, first of all it seems to be impossible to buy anything like cheddar cheese here. There’s a lot of white cheese; I bought a big block of something that tastes like a bland mozzarella. It’s okay on sandwiches, but it doesn’t really melt, per se. As for salsa and other tomato-based sauces, there’s like a half an aisle at the grocery store devoted to “salsas,” and I have no idea what most of them actually are. Imagine an aisle where everything vaguely sauce-like is just labeled “sauce,” and you have to go by the list of ingredients on the package to figure out what it actually is. Roughly half of it seems to be ketchup. I’m not kidding; Costa Ricans apparently love ketchup (pronounced KAY-choop). I ended up buying something called “salsa Inglesa” (English salsa), which is about as bad as it sounds. It’s like runny ketchup with added sugar.
Pasta is relatively easy to find, although buying pre-made spaghetti sauce was a bit of a challenge (I’ve since begun making my own sauce, but at first I was just trying not to starve). I’ve also found pancake mix and breakfast cereal (though not many brands you’d recognize); the prices of such packaged foods tend to be comparable to prices in the U.S. In general, it’s easy to find processed and pre-packaged American-style snack foods for about the same price as you’d find in the U.S. I’d get fat really quickly if I shopped entirely at the corner store, which is filled with such crap.
My mom sent me a couple of simple recipes that she thought I’d be able to find the ingredients for, but again I ran into problems finding some ingredients that would be a given in the States. Applesauce was one. Another was chili powder. For the applesauce, I ended up using an overripe apple. For the chili powder, I had to Google the ingredients and buy them separately. I also had fun trying to describe such things as bouillon cubes to the grocery store staff. Apparently they’re called cubos de pollo here (chicken cubes), which makes perfect sense.
A few days into my stay, I was told about a weekly farmer’s market near Alajuela, which I can reach by bus. The market was amazing. It’s huge, with hundreds of vendors selling dozens of varieties of fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as cheese (mostly the same white stuff), eggs and meat. Mangoes and bananas are the best bet for the price. I’ve bought a dozen bananas for the equivalent of a dollar. Tomatoes are pretty cheap too. Apples, grapes, and other fruits common in the U.S. are somewhat more expensive. Potatoes, rice and beans are cheap and easy to find anywhere. Rice and beans make up a hefty proportion of the typical Costa Rican’s diet.
You can also buy fruits and vegetables at many small stands along the streets in the cities. For buying meat, your best bet is one of the many carnicerias (butcher shops) around town. Costa Rica seems to have a much less centralized, less consolidated economy than the U.S. You just don’t see many big one-stop-shopping type places. It’s all about the tiny little bakeries, fruit stands, and carnicerias. There are also lots of places where you can buy delicious fruit shakes called batidos. Grocery stores tend to be a little small, cramped, and lacking in selection compared to their American counterparts. In Alajuela there is something called Pricesmart, which is evidently a warehouse membership-type-store like CostCo or Sam’s Club. I understand there is also a Wal-Mart, but I haven’t been there yet.
The restaurant equivalent of these tiny shops are called sodas. I don’t know why they’re called that; what we call soda (or pop) is called refresca (or refresca gaseosa, to be precise). A soda is just a tiny restaurant, usually staffed by one or two people, with seating for somewhere between ten and twenty customers. It seems like about half of these places offer fried chicken, which is generally served with a tortilla. I guess you’re supposed to hold the chicken with the tortilla. That’s what I do, anyway; I could be on the verge of starting some kind of international incident for all I know. The other popular Costa Rican dish is ceviche (seh-VEE-chay), which is raw fish cured in citrus juice–something I found out after eating it. It’s not bad; but personally I don’t see the appeal. It seems like something you’d make if you had a lot of raw fish, no way to cook it, and a steady supply of citrus juice. Eating at sodas is relatively cheap; you can get a decent chicken dinner for less than $5.
There are fewer ethnic-themed restaurants here than in the U.S. I don’t see many Italian, Indian, Thai, etc. restaurants; most restaurants seem to serve comida tipica, which I take to mean typical Costa Rican food.There are, however, plenty of Chinese restaurants. Apparently the Chinese have a large presence in Costa Rica. I understand there’s a brand new Chinatown area of San Jose that has recently been finished. In general, I suspect San Jose is more cosmopolitan than the rest of the country. I don’t know, because I haven’t actually been there yet (the “San Jose” airport is not actually in San Jose). I’m sure it will be the subject of a future post.