Arroz y Frijoles: Daily Eats in San José

As someone who actively looks forward to each meal of the day, obviously I was excited to try all the food I could while in Costa Rica. The first day I arrived, my host mom was delighted that I had no dietary restrictions and was eager to taste anything. Later she would learn about my aversion to regular milk as I went on a hunt for oat milk instead, but besides that I genuinely do like everything.

The Costa Rican diet revolves around rice and beans. “Casado” is the traditional plate of food served for lunch or dinner, and consists of rice, black beans, fried plantains, a meat of choice, and often some lettuce and tomato as a small salad. Pretty much every restaurant here serves casado in some form or another, though there is a lot of variation from place to place which is what makes it so good every time – you’re never really eating the same exact thing. For example, last night our host mom made us casado with steak, potatoes, rice, beans, and plantains. The meat is always seasoned and cooked perfectly, and the fried plantains are the best part. Cecelia, our host mom, makes them in a little mini deep fryer. Last night she brought out a giant plate piled high with plantains. “I made extra because you girls like them so much!” she told us. You’d think something sweet and almost dessert-y wouldn’t go well with a bite of potato and steak, but it really does.

Last night’s dinner – steak, potatoes, rice, plantains.
Casado lunch from a restaurant in Cartago this past weekend.

Another component of lunches and dinners is a cold drink. It’s normal to be offered an agua fresca made from some type of fruit. Most restaurants have several flavors available every day – strawberry, passionfruit, pineapple, or a sour-sweet fruit called cas. From my understanding it’s really just fruit and water blended together – but how could you go wrong with that? Our host mom usually serves agua de cas or agua de piña. We also often drink this iced tea that is popular everywhere here – basically just sweet tea.

In the mornings, for breakfast, the rice and beans from last night’s casado are fried together with sliced yellow onion to make gallo pinto, probably Costa Rica’s most well-known and recognizable dish. It just looks like beans and rice stirred together, so when I first got here I was a little unimpressed. However, it’s so freaking good. The onions give the rice a ton of flavor and everything’s a little crispier than it was the night before. Usually my host mom serves it straight up, but I’ve had it at a few restaurants with toppings like fried eggs, pico de gallo, avocado, and bacon. If take any dish back to the States when I return to make for myself, it’ll be gallo pinto.

Gallo pinto (bottom right) along with fruit, pancakes, and coffee at a hotel breakfast.

If we don’t have gallo pinto in the morning, it’s likely we’ll have cubes of fruit and perhaps a sandwich or a couple pancakes. Today, Cecelia make sandwiches with toasted bread, ham, tomato, and refried beans.

My only complaint about the Costa Rican diet is that costarricenses don’t seem to tolerate spicy food. I practically dump Valentina or Tabasco on everything at home, but I’ve only encountered hot sauce as an option at a few restaurants, and we ended up buying our own. Even the hot sauce they do have is not quite spicy enough for me – but the flavor is delicious.

I could go on and on about food here. I haven’t even mentioned the alcoholic beverages. (Let’s just say the margaritas are hit or miss but I’ve learned to love a spicy shot of chiliguaro.) That’ll be for another post.


Strawberry Pancakes

My housemate Izzy and I popped downstairs for breakfast at 7:15am last Friday. Cecelia, our mama tica, or Costa Rican host mom, had laid out two pancakes for each of us, peanut butter, jelly, and maple-flavored syrup as toppings, and pineapple chunks on the side. She always puts each breakfast item on a separate little plate – even our coffee mugs get small china saucers.

“These pancakes are strawberry,” she told us, in Spanish. “I got two boxes of mix; one is strawberry, and one is banana because I know you girls like banana.”

“How sweet!” we responded.

To further prove her point, she brought the pancake boxes from the kitchen, proudly showing us her selections. I immediately realized both boxes were in English and both had a large photograph of a stack of pancakes on the front. On one box, they were garnished with strawberry slices. On the other, banana rounds. Both boxes read, “Original”.

“There were some other mixes, but I didn’t know what kind they were because they didn’t have the drawing on the box, y eran en inglés,” she told I smiled big at her, and on the inside, I crossed my fingers that no one would ever tell her the pancakes she had bought were all just regular pancake flavor with pictures of fruit. She is such a sweet, well-meaning lady, who, just like me, struggles to understand when things are not in her native language.

In the three weeks I’ve been studying here, there have been countless signs, labels, comments, and conversations that I misunderstood due to my lack of Spanish fluency.

Last Thursday, I went out with my friends and one of them tried to order a tequila soda. The bartender was confused and asked if she wanted a tequila with Coke. After a few more attempts to explain, my friend gave up and ordered a margarita (which turned out to be bright blue).

Once I accidentally ordered what was essentially a frappuccino when what I wanted was an iced coffee. Apparently at my favorite sandwich place, that’s as close as you can get.

Even my and my housemate’s nightly dinner conversations with our mama tica involve countless lapses in understanding between us. Izzy and I have a little debrief session on the way back upstairs after eating. Basically, we compare notes on words we didn’t understand or whether we both followed one of Cecelia’s long stories (she likes to go on tangents about the state of the world and how her sons and daughters are doing). I think collectively we normally process about 80% of what’s happenin

As becoming more fluent in Spanish is arguably my biggest priority while I’m here in San José, I put a lot of pressure on myself to understand and to be understood. Our plain/strawberry/banana pancake breakfast was a reminder that learning any language is not a fluid process. There will never be a full jump from “intermediate” to “fluent” or some point I reach where there are no more mistakes and no more to learn. Communicating outside your native language is messy, and if I’ve realized anything from the ticos I’ve spoken to so far, most are more than willing to patiently work with you to reach mutual points of understanding.

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Cecelia showing us around the neighborhood.