Costa Rica has long been a melting pot, with myriad peoples — from indigenous people to African slaves, Spanish colonialists to Dutch spice traders — all leaving their culinary mark. Starkly different cookery traditions have collided with the country’s world-beating range of produce to create a thrillingly eclectic food scene.
But for those who live and breathe it daily, this isn’t fusion: it’s just Costa Rican cuisine. “We’re so lucky, because our diverse landscape and climate means we can grow anything — corn and squash, mushrooms and tropical fruit — and, to me, all of these are Costa Rican flavours,” says José González, chef-owner at San José’s popular farm-to-fork restaurant, Al Mercat. But while González champions local produce, the Paris-trained chef knows international cookery inside out — his new concept, Mercado Escalante (also in the bustling heart of San José), throws together dishes from around the globe. At this outdoor, market-style eaterie, you can choose between the likes of a vendor selling New York-style hot dogs and German bratwurst; a pizza oven turning out oozy salami and sage slices; and a charcuterie counter slicing up pastrami and porchetta made from Costa Rican meats. Or, simply enjoy a flavour-packed gallo, the Costa Rican taco. Rather than the traditional stewed pork filling, González has styled up a vegetarian version with grilled onions, grilled mushrooms and avocado, proving that even the most traditional bites aren’t beyond reinvention.
But González isn’t the only chef pushing the boundaries of the country’s food scene. Santiago Fernandez, of fine dining Restaurante Silvestre in San José, puts wide-ranging techniques to work with the crème-de-la-crème of regional produce. “We should be thinking global, and acting local. I want to work with endemic ingredients that are seasonal and responsibly sourced — but if I can find great-quality Costa Rican soy beans, why shouldn’t I try to make soy sauce from them?” His San José restaurant — all dark woods and botanical wallpaper — opened less than two years ago, and plates some of the country’s most under-used ingredients with contemporary finesse. “We have so many varieties of herbs, flowers, and even hearts of palm that people sadly don’t use. We even have bottarga cured fish roe, which in Italy is prized and very expensive.”
Fernandez says he’s inspired by chefs around the world who make the most of their local larder — citing Noma’s René Redzepi; Spain’s Roca Brothers, and Faviken’s Magnus Nilsson as examples. And following their lead, he’s reimagined one of Costa Rica’s favourite dishes: the tamale. Keeping in mind the flavour of the best tamales from his childhood, Fernandez tested more than 30 recipes to get it right. To lovingly-made masa (corn dough), cooked at exactly 74C in banana leaves, he adds crisped rice and pork crackling (for crunch), 14-hour-cooked sous vide pork and a jus reduction made from Creole spices. “People call it a ‘deconstructued’ tamale,” he says, “but to me it’s the opposite. It’s a ‘constructed’ one — a homely Costa Rican meal, elevated to enjoy in a modern restaurant.”
Change is at the heart of any fusion cuisine, and it’s clear that the chefs of Costa Rica are embracing it. As Fernandez says, when talking about what’s in store for his restaurant: “The future is looking bright.”