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Tasting the Great Food of Costa Rica

Have you ever tried ‘speckled rooster’? It’s the national dish of Costa Rica, and not what you’re possibly thinking. In Spanish, ‘speckled rooster’ is gallo pinto, and many Costa Ricans religiously eat it for breakfast.

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Have you ever tried ‘speckled rooster’? It’s the national dish of Costa Rica, and not what you’re possibly thinking. In Spanish, ‘speckled rooster’ is gallo pinto, and many Costa Ricans religiously eat it for breakfast. It is one of the many appetizing dishes on offer in this beautiful country. Due to Costa Rica being one of the great tourist destinations, there is a wide range of international cuisine available throughout the country, but it would be a shame to come here and not sample the fantastic traditional cuisine that is available.


Unlike other Latin American countries, Costa Rican recipes are usually not intricate, nor seasoned to the same extent of food in neighbouring countries.  However, don’t think that simplicity means lack of taste. The exact opposite is true when it comes to the many delicious meals and snacks available around the country, from the Central Valley to the beach resorts. You can savour numerous different dishes in a country where the cuisine can be as colourful and refreshing as the beaches and jungles themselves. I’ve set out below just a handful of the many foods offered. Sometimes, the only problem you’ll ever have with Costa Rican food is choosing from the wide range of scrumptious and refreshing meals available in cafes, restaurants and on food stalls throughout the nation. I’ve added some of my favourites below, although this list is by no means exhaustive. All of these dishes, and many more, are available in small, reasonably priced cafes throughout the country, as well as on market stalls, and even sold on the beaches and in the forest areas.

Warning: this list is likely to make you feel hungry!

Gallo Pinto. So, to the daddy of them all. Gallo pinto. This staple dish of Ticos is, at first sight, a simple meal of rice and black beans and served for breakfast or throughout the day. It can be served as a dish in itself or, typically, with fried or scrambled eggs. A traditional dish in both Costa Rican and Nicaraguan culture, gallo pinto is served nearly everywhere, generally with black coffee, and is a delicious culinary start to the day or a good filler at lunch time. Unless you’ve time on your hands, don’t comment to a Tico that it’s just rice and beans, as you might receive a detailed and lengthy lecture on how the beans are marinaded in Salsa Lizano, a classic Costa Rican sauce, often with garlic, coriander, ginger, sautéed peppers and onions. Good gallo pinto is that rare thing in world cuisine, and is an inexpensive dish that can be enjoyed from morning to night, and one guaranteed to stave off hunger. And, incidentally, if you’re wondering why it’s called ‘speckled rooster’, it’s because when the rice and beans are mixed together, there can be some interesting colouring variations that make the rice appear speckled. So now you can impress Ticos with your cultural knowledge!

Casado. Although gallo pinto is generally eaten for breakfast, a casado is the preferred lunch meal of choice. The casado is like a combination platter, with a green salad, plantains, and the universal rice and beans. It is usually served with a meat; pork, beef or chicken being the main options.  Casados frequently comes with tortillas with cheese, avocados and a dish called picadillo, which can come in different varieties and is generally potato based. At first this sounds like an unusual, and perhaps unappetising combination of tastes and textures, but once tried, I can guarantee that you’ll be back for more. It’s the variety that keeps it at the top of Costa Ricans’ favourite dishes. As the casado is made up of many foods, it can be seen as a marriage of tastes. And if you are still looking to impress your Tico friends, Casado means “married” in Spanish.

∙ Tamal. A favorite of many Costa Ricans, the tamale is as native as dishes come and a traditional Tico Christmas dish. My English teacher friend says that one of the great things about his first Christmas in the country was the amount of tamales his students brought him as Christmas gifts. “It was so delicious I was relieved to find out that it’s available throughout the year.” A tamale can be served as a vegetarian dish, or contain pork.  Wrapped in banana leaves, a tamale is a combination of ground corn, achiote sauce, peppers, garlic, and seasoning marinaded overnight. This combination is then immersed in a vegetable broth. It is then wrapped in the banana leaves and then steamed. Usually served with rice, it is, alternatively, a satisfying meal in itself, and nothing feels as authentic as peeling back the leathery banana skins and taking in the exquisite aromas of this dish.

meat Soup

Olla de carne. You and I are unlikely to feel winter conditions while in Costa Rica. However, the locals feel the drop in temperature in the winter months. This traditional meat and vegetable stew is a hearty meal designed to keep out those 18 degrees chills. Normally served on weekends, olla de carne takes advantage of the large number of cattle in Costa Rica, ensuring the dish comes with fresh, good quality beef.  Recipes vary, but you will usually find delicious winter stock vegetables in olla de carne, including potatoes, carrots, onions, sweet peppers, and sweet corn, as well as more exotic veggies such as yam, casava root (yuca), and chayote squash. It really is one of those dishes where you feel the goodness rushing through your body with every spoonful. It is said that this dish is served on weekends because on Friday and Saturday night Costa Ricans drink a lot of beer and this wholesome dish is the perfect restorative for the hungover Tico!

∙ Yuca Pie (or Cassava pie). Somewhat resembling a British Shepherd’s Pie, Yuca Pie, often known as Cassava pie), is at first sight an unprepossessing dish. However, after one mouthful, you’ll experience the rich and warming flavours that make it such a beloved feast of both Ticos and expats alike. Imagine a Shepherd’s Pie, and then substitute yuca for the mashed potato. Topped with grated mozzarella cheese, it’s as simple as that and very tasty. Yuka is full of carbohydrates, so this is definitely the dish of champions. A friend of mine did stress one drawback. “Love it though I do, I’d rather buy this in a soda (café) than cook it because yuca is one tough vegetable. You’re more likely to be counting fingers than calories when you try to cut it!”. Usually served with minced meat, a tasty vegetarian or vegan option is usually available.

Chifrijo. Looking for a great meal or snack while you’re perusing the farmer’s markets or mountain towns? Then the chifrijo is a perfect choice. Taking its name from an amalgamation of its two main ingredients, chicharrones (fried belly pork)  and frijoles (beans), the chifrijo combines white rice, red beans, pico de gallo, freshly fried chicharrones, avocado slices, and tortilla chips to make one of the most enjoyable and common Costa Rican dishes, rarely found outside of this country itself. It’s a typical boca (a small dish similar to tapas), and a tasty snack good with beer or a crisp glass of white wine.

And for dessert…

Arroz con Leche. Originally an Arabic dish brought to Costa Rica by the Spanish settlers, arroz con leche is one of the few desserts you’ll find immortalised in a children’s nursery rhyme, “Arroz con leche, me quiero casar…”. A delicious favourite of people across Latin America, basically, it’s rice with condensed milk, and the closest description would be a rice pudding. Like a traditional rice pudding, arroz con leche is often topped with cinnamon or accompanied by cinnamon sticks. Because it’s easy to make, and immensely popular, arroz con leche can nearly always be found at parties and festive occasions such as weddings and even funerals! I put on a few pounds when I first came to Costa Rica, and the main culprit was this sweet and delicious pudding.

As I mentioned at the beginning, this list contains only a small sample of the delicious and varied dishes that Costa Rica offers. The truth is, you have to come and sample them for yourself, as you can only truly experience the country’s wonderful dishes when they are combined with their aromas and the stunning scenery of the oceans, forests and jungles. As we say in Costa Rica – ¡Buen provecho!



William Harris has lived in Costa Rica (on and off) since 2004. He has a Masters in Applied Linguistics and has worked in the ESL/EFL field for 20 years. His interests include writing fiction and poetry, playing bass, and traveling locally and internationally.

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