All About the Costa Rican Food You’ll Find While on Vacation
One of the most exciting things about traveling is experiencing local cuisine.
Every country has a different flavor palette and ingredient list to offer. In fact, a lot of people think one of the fastest ways to learn about a new country is through the stomach. You see, food is not only about the flavor, but about socializing, learning, experiencing, and sharing with others around you.
Here in Costa Rica, we have a huge variety of fruits, dishes, and drinks. So, let us teach you about the most popular food in Costa Rica. If you’re planning a Costa Rican vacation, then keep this blog to give you an idea of what to order at restaurants!
Top 5 Costa Rican Dishes
These are the five most typical dishes you are bound to encounter throughout the country. There’s a good chance you’ll find at least one of these dishes on most menus you come across in Costa Rica.
Costa Rican Dish 1: Gallo Pinto
No Costa Rican breakfast is ready without some Gallo Pinto. Usually served with eggs, which you can have fried or scrambled, Gallo Pinto is a mixture of rice, black beans, peppers, onion, and the Costa Rican salsa, Salsa Lizano. Even fast-food chains offer Gallo Pinto as a breakfast option. Every family has its own recipe, and no Gallo Pinto will taste the same, but we are sure all of them will be delicious. In addition to eggs, Gallo Pinto is often accompanied by some combination of the following:
- Fresh cheese or fried cheese
- Fried ripe plantain
- Natilla (similar to sour cream)
- Baguette slices
Costa Rican Dish 2: Casado
This classic dish is usually served for lunch. In order to be a Casado, there will be a side of white rice, black or red beans, a protein such as chicken, steak, or fish, and a salad. The name Casado means married in the masculine. As the story goes, only married workers would bring such a good lunch to the job site, earning the dish its name. A Casado is the perfect combination of carbs, protein, vegetables, and flavor, all in one place.
Costa Rican Dish 3: Chifrijo
If you ever go to a bar in Costa Rica, you will most likely see a version of this dish on the menu. Often served as a boca (small portion or entrée snack), Chifrijo is usually served layered in a bowl. You will find a bed of rice topped with some red kidney beans and pork rinds (could be skin or meat, though the latter is more common these days). It is also served with Pico de Gallo or diced tomatoes with onions and cilantro. A healthy squeeze of lemon finishes up this local favorite.
Costa Rican Dish 4: Ceviche
Here is another classic bar boca usually found in the beach regions of Costa Rica. Ceviche is a refreshing dish composed of diced-up raw local fish, red onion slices, and cilantro. The fish is cured in lime juice, making it a safe option for any seafood fan. You can find variations everywhere, where chefs play with ingredients, like adding coconut milk and habanero (chile panameño as it’s known in Costa Rica) to make it a Caribbean ceviche. If you’ve tried Peruvian ceviche, you’ll notice that the fish element is usually chopped up much more in the Costa Rican version and isn’t nearly as dry.
Costa Rican Dish 5: Plátano Maduro
This fruit is so versatile that it can be served fried, caramelized, or even steamed. Platano, known in English as plantain, can be served in many different forms. The most common one is sliced and fried as a side for Casados or Gallo Pinto. Another way is steamed and boiled for soup. In some cases, people will fry it and top it with cheese or sugar for a quick dessert. Some fusion sushi restaurants even use it as an ingredient in their sushi rolls. If you see Platano Maduro on a menu, it will be fried and a little naturally sweet.
Must-Try Food in Costa Rica
Now that you know about the most popular food in Costa Rica, it’s time to learn a little bit more about some other must-try food in Costa Rica. You might have heard of these Costa Rican dishes, but we wouldn’t be surprised if you haven’t tried them yet.
Costa Rican Dish 6: Picadillo
This dish can technically refer to any vegetable cut up in square pieces, cooked, and served. Picadillo is most commonly served as a side dish in a Casado. It can also be its own boca when served with tortillas or combined with rice.
However, there are a few Picadillos combinations that are noteworthy.
- Picadillo de Papa (potatoes with ground beef)
- Picadillo de Ayote (a local type of pumpkin and ground beef)
- Picadillo de Zanahoria y Vainica (carrots and green beans)
- Picadillo de Chayote (a local plant that’s mild-flavored and very low on calories)
Costa Rican Dish 7: Arroz con Pollo
Here is another of Costa Rica’s rice-based dishes. However, this one can be a game-changer. Arroz con Pollo is basically rice and chicken cooked together. But it’s so much more than that. The secret ingredient is one of the spices used to give it a distinctive yellow color called achiote (annatto). Most families also add a variety of veggies to give it flavor and texture. It can be served with refried beans and potato chips or a side of salad and Picadillo. Most local families will have Arroz con Pollo as a meal to offer to guests during large gatherings such as birthdays, social events, and even funerals. You may also see variations of this dish, such as Arroz con Camarones (shrimp), especially on the coast.
Costa Rican Dish 8: Olla de Carne
This soup is most Costa Rican’s comfort food. Originally, this beef broth was not known as Olla de Carne. In fact, this soup was only made of vegetables. Later, meat was added into the mixture, and it became Olla de Carne (literally pot of meat in English). Most locals will make this soup days before being served since the flavor is enhanced by each day in the fridge. You will find vegetables like yucca, potatoes, carrots, ayote (similar to pumpkin), sweet potato, corn, and green plantains.
Costa Rican Dish 9: Tamal
If you visit Costa Rica for the end-of-year holidays, you can try this dish as early as October. Every Latin-American country has its own version of Tamal. Here, it is a Christmas tradition to make tamales with the family. It is made with a corn-based dough and filled with pork, chicken, vegetables, and sometimes even an extra ingredient like raisins. What makes this dish extra special is the way that it is wrapped and cooked. A tamal is wrapped in a plantain leaf and boiled until the dough is no longer sticky. The way you wrap the Tamal is crucial for its proper cooking and is a technique passed from generation to generation.
Costa Rican Dish 10: Rice and Beans
We know, we know. Another rice and beans-based dish? Well, this one will not disappoint you either. Not to be confused with Gallo Pinto, Rice and Beans is a local dish from the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica. It’s spicy and coconutty and a unique flavor you can’t miss out on. You’ll usually find Rice and Beans served with chicken or fish with a side salad. How spicy is it? Depends on the chef!
Typical Costa Rican Desserts
No meal is ready unless there is dessert involved! And even though you could find desserts like brownies, ice cream, cream puffs, or tarts on many menus, you simply cannot leave Costa Rica without trying these typical local Costa Rican desserts first.
Costa Rican Dessert 1: Arroz con leche
This rice-based dessert is a surprise to most palates. It’s served hot and is the perfect winter dessert, despite being a Costa Rican family tradition. The rice is cooked with sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk and is topped with cinnamon or raisins (or both). Its creamy texture and warmth is a delight to everyone that tries it.
Costa Rican Dessert 2: Granizado
This is shaved ice like no other. Though you can usually ask for many flavors, your typical Granizado will be made with Kola syrup (a sugary red, delicious liquid) layered with powdered milk and topped with sweetened condensed milk. It’s perfect for cooling down on hot days at the beach!
Costa Rican Dessert 3: Cajeta
This tiny square is packed with flavor and is absolutely delicious. Often made with powdered milk, a Cajeta is a solid but chewy mixture that’s often bite-sized and packed individually. Other flavors and ingredients can be added to the mix, such as dulce de leche, sweetened condensed milk, peanuts, almonds, or coconut.
Happy Stomach, Happy Trip
Can you order US classics in Costa Rica, like burgers, steak, or a salad? Of course, you can! But when there are so many delicious and nutritious options here, a salad might just not cut it. Gallo Pinto is gluten-free and can easily be vegetarian. Ceviche and Picadillo de Ayote are Keto-friendly, and Platano Maduro can be a perfect organic and more natural dessert!
There are so many local foods to try while you’re here. With the amount of walking you will do while visiting Costa Rica, there’s no doubt you’ll work up an appetite to try everything!