A Taste of Costa Rica

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Costa Rica
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Delicious food from a Central American paradise

dining table and chairs Costa Rica
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Pura Vida, the pure life, the simple life, is a mantra of the Costa Rican people. Pure and simple also describes many Costa Rican traditional foods.

Located in the tropics of Central America, Costa Rica is about the size of West Virginia. Amazingly, this little country has 12 microclimates, varying from hot and humid rain forests to cool and dry mountains and cloud forests.

A single trip to Costa Rica might include a visit to the exotic Arenal volcano, dense jungle, cloud forests, tropical dry forests, golden beaches, secluded waterfalls and rivers. My husband and I limited ourselves to two of these destinations on our recent trip—the rain forest in Tortuguero National Park on the Caribbean side and Manuel Antonio National Park on the Central Pacific Coast.

woman cooking Costa Rica
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Tortugeuro can only be accessed by boat or small plane—no roads or cars. Three species of monkeys and many varieties of tropical birds make their home in this region. From July to October (the rainy season), it’s also a nesting area for sea turtles.

On the other coast, Manuel Antonio is home to beautiful Pacific beaches, thick jungle, exotic birds, the shy three-toed sloth and endangered white-faced capuchin monkeys. One of the many trained nature guides will help you spot them, so it’s worth splurging on a guided tour.

Let’s Eat – Costa Rican Style!

fruit market
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Corn, beans, fish, plantains, chocolate and coffee are indigenous to Costa Rica. One of the chief meals is casado, which means marriage, in this case, a marriage of foods. Usually, a protein, beans, rice and a flavorful sauce are served with tortillas (thin corn wrappers) or arepas (thicker corn cakes). Every chef and every region has its own variation.

Foods of Costa Rica are corn-based and inherently gluten-free. However, many restaurants use soy sauce as a flavoring. Be sure to specify, “no salsa de soya,” when ordering.

In our lodge at Tortuguero, every meal was served with freshly made corn tortillas. Food choices were limited because supplies come by boat. It was helpful to have a gluten-free dining card in Spanish in this region.

Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica
A White-faced monkey feeds on fruit, Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica. © GETTY IMAGES PLUS/ ISTOCK/ PILESASMILES

Manuel Antonio is a major tourist attraction and more sophisticated. Several restaurants offer gluten-free options and one, Mirador in the Arenas del Mar resort, is entirely gluten-free. When we were there, everything was fresh and made to order and each dish was deliciously prepared.

Boat on a tropical beach with coconut tree
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“We know vacations can be risky. Guests can relax here,” said Mirador co-owner Jeremy Allen whose daughter, Emily, has celiac disease. The kitchen and wait staff are all trained in the Great Kitchens course by Beyond Celiac, a nonprofit advocacy organization located in Ambler, Pennsylvania. The kitchen can also handle vegan, vegetarian and dairy-free choices.

Across the street from our hotel in the heart of Manuel Antonio was Café Milagro, another gluten-free friendly spot.

Its proprietor, Lance Byron, hails from Chicago. He came to Costa Rica to start a premium coffee roasting business called Milagro; then he expanded it to add a restaurant and bar. The restaurant identifies the gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian items on its menu.

The following recipes are some of my favorites, adapted for home cooks, as well as recipes I re-created, inspired by the restaurants of Costa Rica.

Gluten-Free Costa Rican Recipes

Red Snapper with Cilantro Pesto

PREP: 20 minutes | COOK: 20 minutes
MAKES 4 SERVINGS.

red snapper with cilantro
Red snapper and quinoa pilaf photo by Oksana Charla

Quinoa Pilaf

PREP: 25 minutes
MAKES 4 SERVINGS.

Caribbean Chicken with Jerk Sauce

PREP: 5 minutes | MARINATE: 8 hours | COOK: 8-10 minutes
MAKES 4 SERVINGS.

gluten free jerk chicken recipe
Gluten free jerk chicken and corn cakes photo by Oksana Charla

Gluten-Free Corn Cakes

PREP & COOK: 15 minutes
MAKES 10 AREPAS (30 APPETIZERS).

Pulled Pork & Cumin-Lime Sauce

PREP: 10 minutes | COOK: 2 hours
MAKES 8 SERVINGS.

gluten free pulled pork
Gluten free pulled pork and corn cakes photo by Oksana Charla.

Gluten-Free Chocolate Lava Cakes

PREP: 15 minutes | BAKE: 15 minutes
MAKES 6 CAKES.

gluten free lava cakes
Gluten free lava cakes photo by Oksana Charla.
JETSETTING IMAGE
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Getting To Costa Rica

Our trip to Tortuguero National Park was arranged by Costa Rica Expeditions and included air transportation, lodging and meals. We stayed at Tortuga Lodge. We also visited Manuel Antonio National Park and Wildlife Refuge and Arenas del Mar Beachfront and Rain Forest Resort, a gluten-free-friendly facility.

Food editor Beth Hillson is a chef and cooking instructor. She is founder of Gluten-Free Pantry, one of the first gluten-free companies in the United States, and author of Gluten-Free Makeovers and The Complete Guide to Living Well Gluten Free (Da Capo Lifelong).

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