Feasting on local gastronomic delights is undoubtedly one of the best things about taking an adventure vacation in Costa Rica. The country’s love-affair with wonderfully organic, wholesome, fresh foods infects all who visit, avid foodies particularly. Even more so when you’re planning to spend days on end swinging from treetops, kayaking raging rivers and scaling the vertiginous heights of some of the country’s most impressive volcanos. You’ll be needing some serious epicurean feasting to keep your energy levels up!
Yet the best Costa Rica food treats can also be easily replicated at home and what better way to channel your inner Tico holiday-maker than by preparing three of the country’s most revered flavors? Ceviche, tamales and decadent Tres Leche: a delectable trio of delight no visitor to Costa Rica will ever forget.
Here’s how to bring all the wonderful flavors of Costa Rica to your family’s dinner table.
Costa Rica Ceviche
A staple along the country’s seemingly endless stretch of coast, ceviche is in-arguably one of the most mouth-watering dishes you’ll ever savor in Costa Rica. Freshly-caught fish is marinated in an abundance of freshly-squeezed citrus juice which literally ‘cooks’ it when given enough time. A deceptively simple dish to make, ceviche gains its wicked success from the freshness of its ingredients and it’s the simplicity which makes it stand out from the Costa Rica food crowd.
Ceviche takes barely 10 minutes to make, a few hours to marinate and, if you’re anything like us, mere seconds to devour.
Make this a day ahead for a greater taste infusion.
COSTA RICA CEVICHE – Serves 4
- 1-pound fresh fish with a firm white flesh (mahi-mahi, marlin or sea bass) cut into cubes
- 1 red onion, sliced as thinly as possible
- 1 chopped sweet red bell pepper
- 1 minced garlic clove
- 1 cup chopped fresh coriander (cilantro)
- 1 red chili, or jalapeno, finely sliced
- 1 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
- Salt & black pepper to taste
- Combine all the ingredients except the salt and black pepper in a ceramic bowl (avoid stainless steel or any metal bowl as it reacts with the acidity of the juice)
- Make sure every ingredient is covered by the juice (add some water if not), cover and leave to marinate in the refrigerator overnight if possible, or for 4-5 hours at the very least
- Every few hours, or as often as you remember, take the bowl out of the fridge and give everything a good stir, ensuring the ingredients continue to soak up all the flavors
When ready to serve, season to taste and serve with warm tortillas to soak up the marinade and balance out the spiciness. In other parts of Latin America, ceviche is served alongside sliced of warm steamed sweet potato, which does a fabulous job of toning down the chili and adding a sweetness to the taste balance that is simply divine.
Costa Rica Tamales
If you’ve ever been lucky enough to enjoy an end-of-year Costa Rica adventure vacation then you’ve also probably been lucky enough to savor Costa Rica’s scrumptious tamales. These boiled pockets of meat and vegetable yumminess are combined with a cornmeal paste and wrapped in banana leaves before being boiled in water and stock. Traditionally, they are usually only made at Christmas-time although restaurants in some of the country’s most renowned tourist-spots offer them all year long. As opposed to ceviche, tamales are quite labor-intensive yet the rewards are simply sensational, least of all for the fact that once you get cracking on these you’ll want to make a big batch so your hard work can be rewarded for days on end.
A traditional and quite historic dish, tamales are believed to have been around since the days of the Aztecs and are commonly found all over Latin America. Source out some Maseca Instant Mix for Tamales to cut a huge corner out of the preparation: this is really as good as one made from scratch but takes out a bucketload of work.
Ready to try out these bad boys? Then source all the ingredients, get some friends together for a day of traditional Costa Rica food cooking and enjoy unwrapping your steaming and totally delicious creations.
COSTA RICA TAMALES – MAKES 30 TAMALES
When it comes to seasoning, you’ll need to taste each portion of the recipe as you go along and add as you see fit. The tamales dough mix is not extremely flavorsome so you’ll want the meat, rice and potatoes to be tasty of their own accord and add spiciness to your liking.
- 2 lbs Maseca Instant Corn Masa Mix for Tamales (like this one, which you may also find at your local Mexican food grocer)
- 5lb banana (plantain) leaves (you can use corn husks but, if using, remember that you’ll have to steam the tamales and not boil them)
- 3lbs pork shoulder or butt, chopped to bite-sized pieces (looking for a lighter version? Use boneless chicken thigh fillets instead)
- 4 cups rice
- 2lbs potatoes
- 5 lb sweet bell pepper
- 8 garlic cloves
- 1 onion
- 1 teaspoon each of cumin, black pepper, oregano
- 2 teaspoons of salt
- A pinch of saffron
- 1 bunch fresh coriander (cilantro), divided in two serves
- 1 cup vegetable oil
- 1 cup water
- 3 cups stock
- Sturdy cotton string
- DOUGH: Follow the instructions on the Maseca packet to prepare your dough, set aside
- MEAT: Brown the meat in half a cup of oil, adding the garlic, 1 teaspoon of salt, black pepper and cumin in the last few minutes, before adding the water, covering, and simmering for 3 hours. Let cool and adjust seasoning if needed. Drain the meat and reserve the liquid stock
- RICE: Heat one tablespoon of oil in a frying pan, add the dry rice and stir for a couple of minutes. Add the onion, red pepper, saffron and remaining coriander, stirring for another couple of minutes. Add the 3 cups of stock, cover, lower the heat and cook until done (about 20 minutes). Let cool and adjust seasoning if needed
- POTATOES: Peel and boil with salt, oregano and 1 serve coriander until tender. Drain, let cool and chop into small cubes
When it’s time to prepare your tamales, you’ll want to have your banana leaves washed and dried. Place one on a clean table top, top at the center with 3 tablespoons of masa mix and 2-3 pieces of pork and potatoes, a tablespoon of rice and anything else you wish to add, like a couple of raisins, olives or sliced boiled carrot. All these are traditional additions found all over Costa Rica.
Fold the tamales lengthways first, twice (like you would a paper lunch bag), then tuck the sides in and tie with sturdy cotton string, making a compact and sealed pocket. Make bundles by tying two tamales together as they cook much better when tied in pairs. Cook the tamales in gently boiling leftover stock with added water (enough to cover the bundles) for about an hour.
The final step: drain, unwrap and enjoy with your loved ones!
Costa Rica Tres Leche Cake
Costa Rica’s decadent desserts are a wonderful way to end any meal and if you’re looking for a full recreation of an authentic Costa Rican gastronomic experience then you really can’t drool past Tres Leche, the country’s national sweet delight.
A soft and spongy cake infused with three different types of milk (hence the name) Tres Leche is traditionally topped with whipped cream and crushed nuts although you could drizzle it with melted dark chocolate and a few sliced of chopped fresh strawberries too. The cake is relatively easy to make and considering it needs time to sit and set firm, is best made 1-2 days in advance, which makes it a super convenient option if you want to serve it after the ceviche or huge feast of tamales. Rich, sweet and totally decadent, Tres Leche is that Costa Rica addiction you never knew you needed in your life!
COSTA RICA TRES LECHE CAKE – MAKES 12 SERVES
We recommend you use an electric stand mixer for this recipe as mixing by hand just doesn’t cut it, especially as you’ll need to whip egg white until a stiff peak form. This is what gives the cake its divine sponginess. Traditionally, the cake is sold in local bakeries topped with frosting but as the cake is sweet enough on its own it barely needs a thin layer of whipped cream and some fruit or nuts, in our humble opinion. Serve chilled or at room temperature.
- 5 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon powder
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 cup white sugar
- 4 eggs, at room temperature, white and yolk separated
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- ½ cup milk, at room temperature
- 5 cups heavy cream
- 1 can evaporated milk
- 1 can sweetened condensed milk
- Whipped cream
- Chopped strawberries and crushed nuts, or as you wish
- Preheat the oven to 350F, butter and flour the base and sides of your cake form
- In a dry bowl, mix the flour, baking powder and salt until well mixed, set aside
- Beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form and start adding one egg yolk at a time with the mixer still running. Gradually add the sugar and 1 teaspoon of the vanilla extract and beat for 10 minutes, until fluffy
- Turn the mixing setting to low and gradually add half the flour mix then the milk (slowly) then the remaining flour mix, until cake dough forms
- Bake the bake for 25 minutes and let cool, on a rack, for at least half an hour
- Whilst the cake is baking, pour the heavy cream and evaporated milk in a small saucepan, add the cinnamon stick and bring to a gentle boil. Simmer for a few minutes, turn the heat off and cover and set aside
- In a separate bowl, pour the condensed milk and add the remaining vanilla and cinnamon powder and whisk well. Strain and add to the pot with the cream and milk
- Once the cake has cooled, place in a serving form and poke holes all over using a fork or the thinner end of a chopstick. Pour the milk infusion all over the cake, cover and refrigerate overnight.
For best results, add the whipped cream and your toppings just before serving.
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