Santiago Fernandez, one of San Jose’s leading chefs, is talking about his ‘light bulb’ moment “I was working in a top Spanish restaurant. People were comparing notes about their national cuisines and I realised I knew almost nothing about my own.”
This remark explains the impetus behind one of Costa Rica’s most interesting gastronomic trends. It’s exemplified in Fernandez’ restaurant, Silvestre, by a menu bursting with intriguing combinations of cutting-edge techniques and arcane indigenous ingredients. A signature dish, dedicated to the civilisation responsible for the mysterious and ancient Pre-Colombian stone spheres found in the rainforest of the Osa Peninsula, combines corn, guava and cashew nut butter with a primitive strain of cacao seeds from the Bri Bri tribal area of Talamanca into a sophisticated and creamy treat.
This is the greatest single culinary movement in Latin America in recent years: the rediscovery of the foods of the indigenous inhabitants of the region, eclipsed by centuries of colonialism and modernisation. Researchers are busily investigating the culinary practices of tribes such as the Bri Bri and Boruca who still live in remote communities on the southern border with Panama, and the Maleku who inhabit the forested northern highlands. At the same time chefs are incorporating this research into their cooking.
Interestingly, the easiest access to this isn’t a visit to the distant communities themselves, but to enjoy the menus of a handful of fashionable restaurants, such as Silvestre. “Indigenous people are very protective of their culture,” says Marcos Sanchez, a researcher working with the Bri Bri near Talamanca. “You can’t just wander into a village and start asking for recipes. I work long-term via aid projects with doctors and psychologists.”
Sanchez’s work, like that of pioneering culinary ethnologist Leila Garro, paints a fascinating picture of a culture in which food is respected, ritualised and protected, and coffee drinking, for example, is almost a religious activity.
The new seekers of indigenous truth now include leading members of the restaurant world, and their focus is a much on rare ingredients as ancient recipes. Vegetables such as the tacaco root — endemic solely to Costa Rica and once virtually unknown — are turning up on menus. Santiago Fernandez has just returned from a visit to the mangrove-bordered beaches around Punto Arenas with a party of botanists. “We found three new varieties of edible pejibaye,” he says. “I’m thinking of how to use them now.”
Perhaps the most comprehensively documented region in Costa Rica is the north, where the researcher Manuel Tuz, working for the Ministry of Culture, has compiled a book of local recipes, many gleaned from indigenous Maleku and Guatuso hill communities beyond the Poás Volcano National Park. Ciudad Quesada, Tuz’s base, is a working town, a world away from the festive atmosphere and smart restaurants of its near neighbour, tourist town La Fortuna. But the town’s stock of sodas (traditional restaurants) and pizzerias has recently been joined by Tuz’s own venture, El Chiringuito de Manuel y Ana, a rustic, 16-seat bistro featuring dishes such as pescado a la marifuseca — a filet of local tilapia with a pesto of anis plans wrapped in banana leaves — or a ceviche of pejibaye palm hearts and green plantains in pipa juice. The idea, says Tuz, isn’t to replicate indigenous dishes but to offer “a creative and varied daily menu using ancestral knowledge of nutrition from the original inhabitants of the region”.
Even cocktails aren’t exempt from the roots revival. Stefhanie Miller, a mixologist neighbour of Tuz in Ciudad Quesada, devotes herself to creating mixed drinks from locally grown ingredients. Not surprisingly, guaro, Costa Rica’s fiery sugar cane spirit, features prominently: witness Miller’s guarril, a combination of hibiscus-macerated guaro, lemon juice, sugar and Triple Sec, which manages to be delicious, refreshing, alcoholic — and (possibly) healthy. For a bartender, Miller’s work is remarkably philanthropic. “I’ve tried to inspire as many people as possible to invent their own drinks,” she says. “We can’t afford to lose the taste for our own products in favour of international ones.”
If the work of these culinary pioneers is anything to go by, there’s not much danger of that.