Eating Fresh in Costa Rica

IMG_6038I posted this picture to Instagram a while ago with the caption “pinch me…it’s January and this is what I bought at the Feria Verde (Farmer’s Market).” One of the greatest things about living in Costa Rica is the access to incredibly fresh and delicious produce. It’s rare for a fruit or vegetable to not be “in season,” and there’s not much that doesn’t grow here. In my yard alone we have four mango trees (different varieties), and avocado tree, a fig tree, two lime trees (one with mandarin limes  which are typical here and one with what I would call “regular” green limes), an orange tree, and a star fruit tree. I have two of my very own pineapple plants (all you do is plant the top of a pineapple, and you can grow a new one). Surprisingly, we don’t have a banana or plantain tree; they seem to be in everyone else’s yards. When I moved in, the mangoes were in season; I made mango everything because it was heartbreaking to see them wasting away on the ground. If my freezer were bigger, I would have stocked up. As the mango trees in this area stopped producing, the price of mangoes increased a little, but they remained available throughout the year. One of the amazing things about Costa Rica is the different “microclimates.” Where I live in the Central Valley it tends to be cooler, but travel an hour or less toward either coast, and the temperature rises significantly. To make it easier to embrace the local offerings, I bought a little fold out guidebook with pictures and descriptions of native tropical fruits and have enjoyed sampling some of the more unusual varieties.

I’ve gotten to know quite a few of the vendors/farmers at the market and I often buy from the same people each week. Marta is my banana lady; she doesn’t speak any English, and despite my limited Spanish, we always manage a friendly conversation; she always asks about my kids whom she met when they were in town. Her bananas aren’t always the prettiest, but they are incredibly tasty, and I love supporting her. She has invited me to visit her farm in Cartago, and I look forward to doing so some day. My herb and greens guy is Geraldo (I only learned his name last week because he, too, invited me to visit his farm). He always has Lacinto kale as well as regular kale, bok choy (the Costa Rican version), arugula, spinach, lettuce, and amazing fresh herbs. He usually brings one of his two daughters to help him at the market. Interestingly, I’ve only seen one stand that advertises as “organic”- it’s just not really a thing here. Very few of the farmers are mass producers (although I think some of the vendors buy from other sources, but even the largest producers would still be considered relatively small), and because pesticides are not as readily available, and are expensive, most farmers avoid using them. Often times my kale has been “tested” by some critter. It actually makes me feel better when the produce I buy has some munched on spots, is smaller than what you might find in the US, or looks less than perfect. To me, this suggests that it has not been treated with pesticides. In addition to the fruit and veggie farmers, there are always individual vendors who sell eggs, chicken, fish, cheese, honey and jams, dry goods, fresh juices (I buy a glass of fresh carrot juice every time I go) and amazing coffee.

When people complain to me about how expensive food is in Costa Rica, I often question what they are buying and/or eating. There are what we call “Gringo grocery stores” (one is owned by Walmart, and the other is similar to a high end grocery store you might find in the US) and we have a version of Costco. So, if I really crave Honeycrisp apples (I haven’t yet), Brussel sprouts, asparagus, or lemons, I can find them- at a premium cost. I think lemons cost about $8 a kg. Boxed, bagged, or packaged foods tend to be fairly expensive here, but those are all of the foods that we should avoid. Dry goods and grains which are grown here (rice and beans) are incredibly inexpensive. So, I guess the point is that if you eat like a Tico (or Tica in my case), food is not expensive, but if you come to Costa Rica and only seek out imported or uncommon foods, your paycheck won’t last very long. I can’t remember exactly what I spent on all of the produce in the photo, but that’s a pretty typical Saturday morning haul, and I usually spend less than $35 US. I don’t buy much at the grocery store (I try to support my local neighborhood grocery), but I do occasionally  buy pasta, rice, dried beans, canned tomatoes and soda water- none of which are very expensive. While it can be challenging to find some ingredients (believe it or not, chili powder is nearly impossible to find here), it is definitely easy to eat fresh, healthy and local food on a limited budget.

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