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Food from the soul of Costa Rica

Coast of plenty: the Caribbean coastline of Costa Rica specialises in fresh seafood

From the gastronomic delights of the capital San José, to the simple country pleasures of gallo pinto and casado, Costa Rica is becoming as famed for its food as its natural splendours, finds Joe Furey

Costa Rica’s popularity with beach-seekers, eco-tourists and adventure holidaymakers has ushered in a culinary revolution. You’ll now find great food all over the country, particularly in the capital San José.

The heart of Chepe, as the locals affectionally call their main city, is its downtown. This is a patchwork of dinky districts such as Barrio Amón, with its galleries, cafés and colonial-era architecture; Barrio Escalante, a hip neighbourhood and home to the Paseo Gastronómico La Luz, six blocks of exciting new bars and restaurants; and Paseo Colón, the long avenue that leads to La Sabana Metropolitan Park, with its mix of hostels, restaurant chains and pubs that have grown out of the boom in local craft beer.

Drink it in: the Agüizotes brew pub in San José’s Barrio Escalante district

Yes, the brewpub has landed in Costa Rica. Stiefel’s, in Barrio Amón, and Agüizotes and the Casa Brew Garden in Barrio Escalante have everything you could want for a great night out: speakeasy lighting, good music and drinks ranging from stout to pilsner, made by local producers Perro Vida, Treintaycinco and the Costa Rica Craft Brewing Company.

Once you’ve whetted your appetite, when it comes to eats nothing is off the menu, whether from a restaurant or food truck.

Furca, in the Rohrmoser district, specialises in house-aged steaks –  and “special” is the word for its prime rib with roasted ayote sauce. Tin Jo is an exceptional pan-Asian eatery, part Szechuan, Indonesian, Thai and Filipino, with many vegetarian choices. And at the Restaurante Grano de Oro, the French chef Francis Canal gives Costa Rican ingredients a European twist with delicious results. Dishes with a local accent yet a global outlook – such are the delights of the city. But no discussion of the Costa Rican food scene would be complete without taking a country trip out to the Caribbean coast.

The country staple, the dish that Ticos (aka Costa Ricans) serve for breakfast every single morning, is gallo pinto. Day-old beans and rice are pepped up with onions, celery, red peppers and coriander, and served with eggs, tortillas, fried plantains, the sour cream-like natilla, and the local condiment Salsa Lizano. Costa Rican pride in the dish has given rise to the saying: “Más tico que el gallo pinto” (“More Tico than gallo pinto”).

Perfect match: Casado, meaning “married man”, is a Costa Rican favourite

Casado is another favourite dish, a platter of beef, chicken or fish served with black beans, rice, fried plantains and a tortilla. Casado means “married man” and refers to the days when men working in the fields were brought mixed lunches wrapped in a banana leaf by their wives. Look out, too, for the much-loved chifrijo, whose name is a portmanteau of its two main ingredients, chicharrón (pork rind) and frijoles (beans).

Costa Rica’s economic fortune has been largely tied to the fates of two beans: the cacao and the coffee. The cacao bean was once vital to the country, both economically and culturally. The Chorotega – the indigenous people of Costa Rica – used it as currency up until to the 1930s, and the Bribri people of Limón province made a drink from it to accompany their sacred rituals. Sadly, in the late 1970s a fungus devastated the industry. However, working with disease-resistant strains of the plant, companies such as Sibú have put Costa Rica back on the chocolate map.

Cherry ripe: examining the coffee berries – or cherries – at the Finca Rosa Blanca plantation

The arabica coffee bean was there to pick up cacao’s slack, however, and remains the country’s most important crop. Within 30 minutes of landing at San José International airport, you can taste some of the freshest brews on earth. Aim for the Finca Rosa Blanca coffee plantation in Santa Bárbara de Heredia, take a tour of its 42 acres and marvel at the effort and science that goes into producing your daily espresso. That one experience alone will make you glad you travelled to Costa Rica.

For a guide to Costa Rican restaurants, go to Visit Costa Rica