It is morning – you can tell by the chorus of birdcalls and the chanting of the howler monkey. I think it is going to rain for, according to Wolf, the monkeys sing out at dawn and dusk but also to complain that the rains are coming. It is so hot and humid here in San Carlos, and the clouds are sitting so low, that I’d say the howler is probably correct. I think it is going to pour.
Last week while I was still in Monteverde, I was soundly asleep when all of a sudden there was a huge roar right outside my window. A congo (howler) was in the tree not ten feet from my window, about twenty feet from my bed. He was so close that I could hear the roar gurgling up in his throat, like coffee rising in the stem of the percolator getting ready to boil. I’ve heard these roars a hundred times, from a tent in the forest, and from a tree at the side of a trail. But nothing prepared me for the force that came out of that monkey that morning at 5 a.m. I woke with a start at the sound of it, looked at the clock, realized I had no intention of staying awake and once my heart beat slowed, I thought about falling back to sleep. However, every time I was just about back in dreamland, the guy started roaring again. I ended up lying in bed just listening to that roar in his throat building in force until he released his monkey-like cockadoodledo. Later in the day I ran into a neighbor who asked me if I had heard that monkey – how could I have missed him? She also couldn’t get back to sleep – a second monkey in a different troop was close to her house and these two guys seemed intent on keeping us awake that morning.
I can hear one outside now but he is probably half a mile away, which is an acceptable distance, so his roar is no louder than the rumble from the volcano. I’m up already anyway, getting ready to pack and leave for Alajuela and a family fiesta with Zulay before heading into San José for the big interview with the Tico Times tomorrow. The other thing that is telling me it is morning is the aroma coming from the kitchen – fresh Costa Rican coffee and gallo pinto (rice and beans) made with Lizano, the Costa Rican condiment of choice.
Last night we had Nectaly, Zulay’s cousin, over so we made a big pot of olla de carne – that is, a meat and vegetable soup/stew. I love this dish as it gives you a little of the redder-than-usual beef that is pasture fed along with a wide selection of the root crops, squashes and other veggies which are common here but more difficult to find imported in Canada – yucca, yampi, tekiske, elote, ayote, chayote, camote…bueno, there are many.
Nectaly waiting for Zulay to serve up the olla de carne
The last few days here we have been feasting on tamales which in Costa Rica are made with a milled and cooked corn mash, rolled with some vegies and chicken or pork inside leaves from the banana family and steamed; pejibayes, served with mayonnaise, which is the fruit of a specific palm tree and a food that sustained the natives for centuries and my absolutely favorite food here; breadfruit, a ball of dense vegetable that grows on the most beautiful large-leafed tree I know; and the nuts of the castaña, the false breadfruit tree.
I’ve been lucky in my life here in Costa Rica to have been introduced by my Tico friends to a wide variety of exotic fruits and vegetables, animals and even insects. I’ve spent hours pulling snails, sea cockroaches and other small critters out of tidal pools and off the rocks, then painstakingly cleaning the sand and refuse out of them to make a seafood and rice gastronomic delight. I’ve tried a bit of everything including iguana, armadillo (both with chickeny or rabbity-like meat), tepizcuentle (a small rodent-type animal that is known to be the best meat around and is now farmed – and truly tasty), and my first year here I ate turtle. I know that it was completely not right but I was staying with locals at the time on the Caribbean and they were still killing turtles for food then. And as I ate the tender pieces of juicy meat served in a spicy salsa, I have to say I understood immediately why people would eat these now endangered creatures – they are the filet mignon of the sea, a little bit fine steak, a little bit lobster. I also very politically-incorrectly sucked a turtle egg one night, but I won’t get into that….the event just about wiped out my reputation as having a social-conscience and all I can say is that it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Most people when they come to Costa Rica eat rice and beans in some form or other, as well as rice with chicken or shrimp, or casada – the daily meal named after what wives serve up for their husbands, combining a mixture of the more inexpensive foods that can be served up on anyone’s table (rice, beans, cabbage salad, ripe plantain and a protein such as egg, cheese, or meat), fresh fish at the beach, chicken or pork when inland. But if you get outside of the restaurants, and are willing to try new foods, there is no end to the variety here. Papaya, mango, pineapple, avocado and banana are common and can be bought anywhere – when in season, they are of course much sweeter and tastier here than you would ever experience with imported ones in the northern world. But there is also caimito, mamones chinos, guanabanas, guayabas, well the list goes on. And each one has its own flavor and texture. I’ve learned that mamones (a variety of lychee nut) are great for traveling as you crack open the colorful spikey skin and get a grape-like juicy treat from inside with a minimum of fuss and mess; that green mangos with salt and lime are very satisfying to curb your hunger; that there are a whole bunch of different fruits that involve sucking sweet white flesh from around large seeds inside pods, such as guavas or anona or cacao; that there are several varieties of citrus, including lemons and limes as we know them, but also sweet or sour, orange or green limones and oranges; that there is a tree that grows little fruit that taste like cookies and I never remember what they are really called so I just call it the cookie tree and love the little fruit whenever I find them; and that nanci, a small yellow fruit the size of a small crabapple, can be soaked in guaro, the national cane liquor, making what I call an authentic Tico martini.
A sampling of Tico food – a partially-used breadfruit (which became the centerpiece above); the nuts of its cousin, the castaña; pejiballes; papaya; creamy avocado and the leftovers of a tamale.
Of course in many parts of the country the influence of foreigners has brought new kinds of cooking, new spices, new flavors. When I first came in 1990, I couldn’t find a satisfying piece of pizza if my life depended on it (and sometimes I felt like it did) but now I’d say that the pizza you can get here, often in Italian-owned restaurants, is better than what I find in Canada (or you can go to Pizza Hut if you are so inclined). The variety of fish – red snapper, tilapia, seabass, calamari, shrimp – often cooked with a generous dose of garlic, keeps my seal-like tendencies very satisfied. I wouldn’t say that in general Costa Rica is known for its fine cuisine, but the freshness of its food often balances out the simplicity of its preparation. The jar of hot chili peppers, onions and vinegar that is often sitting waiting on the table as a condiment adds some spicy flavor. And the large presence of other cultures here means that you can find fusion-foods to die for in communities all over the country.
Then there is the question of red beans verses black beans – there is a whole discussion here about the intelligence, virility and general sex appeal of those who indulge in one type or the other (and we are talking daily), depending on which community you are in, but I’ve never really formed an opinion on that so will stay out of the controversy. But I will give you a small cooking tip – when preparing black bean dip to serve with nachos, a little leftover strong coffee and a touch of sugar adds great flavor. Mmmmmm, coffee, time to get the day started.
Beautiful Marilyn, Zulay’s niece – raised on red or black???