Expat Food Conundrums in Costa Rica Part 1 | My Hunt for Comfort Food

 

Fish at the Feria
Fresh Fish at the Feria

 

Finding familiar or favorite foods can be a challenge anytime you move to another country and/or culture.  You can quickly become homesick for your favorites, especially if you do not know how to cook Рthat was me.

As a foodie, I became depressed about food after being here for about 3 weeks.

As a non-cook, I was sad about how hard it was going to be for me to teach myself how to cook.  The only thing I knew how to cook decently was spaghetti.

This inability to cook was the result of working full time my entire adult life and hardly having time or energy to cook meals at home.  I, like so many Americans, ate out a lot.

Cooking was interesting to me, but always had been intimidating. ¬†Why? ¬†Because over half the time, after putting in hours of work, whatever I cook didn’t turn out right, and I would just give up.

Because these discouraging cooking experiences, I knew it was going to require a lot of concentration and patience to learn how to cook, and because of that, the endeavor would be a major challenge.  So, like any normal person, I procrastinated.

Eventually instead of living to eat (my normal mode), I was eating to live (oh, rice and beans again?).

Finally I knew I could not procrastinate any longer.  I knew deep down inside that cooking the food I loved and cooking it well would be the cure for my homesickness.

Restaurant Dining

We don’t dine at American chains often (yes there are some here!) because they are pretty pricey. Even then, perhaps because of the types of ingredients available, the¬†food at the ones that we have tried have not been quite the same as in the states. ¬†When we went to¬†a restaurant featuring a certain type of cuisine, say a Chinese, Italian or Mexican restaurant, the food tasted somewhat like the cuisine, but not quite.

Comida Tipica (typical Costa Rican food) is delicious and healthy, but in the end I got tired of eating it all the time.  I would liken the experience to eating spaghetti everyday Рmaybe it would vary a little from restaurant to restaurant Рbut it all tasted pretty much the same.  My Asian-American taste buds were spoiled.  I needed variety and I needed MY comfort food (mostly but not exclusive to Asian dishes).

 

Casado, a typical Costa Rican Dish (with fish)
Casado, a typical Costa Rican Dish

 

When my husband Scott and I vacationed here in 2014, we noticed some specific things about the food here, such as the beef not being the right cuts, being tough, and occasionally tasting a bit “gamey.” ¬†The ketchup tasted really sweet¬†(when his son visited he said it tasted like cherry pie filling, which is exactly right!) and Half and Half was not a typical thing here.

Another couple on a tour with us got excited about finding some powdered non-dairy creamer packets, which they happily shared with me (my husband despises powdered non-dairy creamer so he stuck with milk).  I was excited too, because it did make my coffee taste more creamy like it had Half and Half in it.  After almost two weeks of using 2% or 0% milk to create grayish-tan coffee, I was ecstatic.

It’s funny what you can get excited about here in Costa Rica, food-wise.

Grocery Shopping

It has been and continues to be an interesting journey shopping for groceries here.  We started off mainly shopping in Tico (Costa Rican) grocery stores (small pulperias, mini supers, Mega Super, Pali, Maxi-Pali, etc.), which carry some but not many familiar American types of food or brands of products.  There was also the language barrier as far as understanding the packaging that was in Spanish, so google translate came in handy.

 

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Despite having Walmart (it has some American products, but caters more to the Tico population, as it should), Auto Mercado (an upscale American-style grocery store) and Price Smart (a Costco/Sam’s Club-like store)¬†it was¬†downright disturbing and frustrating not to be able to get certain foods and products, especially those¬†we take for granted in the United States (MY KINGDOM FOR KOSHER SALT!).

 

Price Smart on a Sunday afternoon
Price Smart on a Sunday afternoon

 

Let me be clear: ¬†it is not hopeless, and not at all really if you know how to cook. ¬†Most basic products and ingredients are readily available here to enable you to make your favorite dish at home. ¬†Whatever you can’t get, you can almost always find a suitable substitute, but the dish may or may not¬†taste exactly the same with that substitute. ¬†It just depends. ¬†There can be a lot of experimenting and research that goes into re-creating your favorite cuisines and dishes in Costa Rica before you get the recipe that works best for you.

La Feria (Farmers’ Market)

An awesome benefit of living in this agricultural-centric country is that there are farmers’ markets every weekend in every town and major city, overflowing with fresh produce, meat, fish, cheese and other items.

The fruits and vegetables sold at the ferias are mostly local (some are imported, like apples) and are extremely delicious due to being in season and fresh. ¬†You can buy a young coconut for about 50 cents, have the vendor crack open the top and put a straw in it, and then walk around replenishing your electrolytes by sipping on coconut water¬†while¬†you shop for your mangoes, bananas, pineapples, strawberries, lettuce, tomatoes, etc., and also a host of other interesting produce you’ve likely never seen or heard of before.

 

Feria at Alajuela
La Feria at Alajuela

 

There has been much talk about whether Costa Rica produce is non GMO or not and I have yet to really confirm what percentage is GMO here, but my impression is it is very low.  I do know that they use insecticide so we always thoroughly wash all of our produce before we consume them.

 

Unpasteurized milk and eggs
Unpasteurized milk and eggs from our neighbors

 

Eggs here are fresh and non-pasteurized.  No one stores their eggs in a refrigerator here.  They are sold on shelves in the grocery store at room temperature.  Crack one open here for the first time, and as a typical American (the kind that buys eggs exclusively from the supermarket in the US) you will marvel at how beautifully golden the yolk is, and they taste great!

We live next door to a farmer from whom we get fresh eggs and raw milk.  I had never had non-pasteurized, non-homogenized milk my whole life, and let me tell you, it tastes even more amazing because I am on friendly terms with the cows it came from (they are also our disposal for fruit and vegetable skins, rinds, and leftovers which makes us popular with them).

Handy Shopping Notes – What I’ve Learned

After living here for a little over a year you start to figure a few things out, to include the best shopping strategy to get the products you need or love:

  • You learn the best places to get certain things. ¬†For example, low sodium soy sauce comes in big 500 ml bottles at Walmart and is more affordable there. ¬†We had been buying much smaller bottles at Auto Mercado which were quite expensive and which we quickly went through! ¬†It goes without being said – I use a heck of a lot of soy sauce.
  • You decide on whether it is worth spending the extra money for certain imported products. ¬†After a few months here I finally broke down¬†and bought the¬†15 oz bottle of Worcestershire Sauce for $8 [only $4 in the US]. ¬†It’s a favorite, is called for in many recipes and a little goes a long way. ¬†Plus, it’s one less liquid to pack in my suitcase when I haul things¬†back from the states.
  • You decide what is best to haul back¬†or have visiting friends/family bring to you from the states. ¬†These items usually [1] cannot be found here (Korean red pepper flakes), [2] are hard to find here (Rotel), or [3] are very expensive here (the price of high quality coconut oil is outrageous for some strange reason!).

NOTE:  We are fortunate enough not only to visit the United States a couple of times per year but also to have plenty of visiting family and friends who bring the hard to obtain, regularly used items to us.  As Texans, we prefer to fly with Southwest Airlines (direct flight to Houston) Рthey allow two free 50 pound bags per person.  We do not pack very much when we visit the U.S. so we can maximize our luggage weight with our precious cargo upon our return.  Look out for another post soon about how we have gotten this down to a science!

What A Difference A Year Makes

I’m also glad that we have been able to (mostly) figure out grocery shopping in Costa Rica. ¬† We have become accustomed to many of the local products and use them. ¬†They are much more economical than imported products, and the ones that we use have the same or almost the same flavor as their imported equivalent.

I am proud to say that after a year of living here that I can cook, and pretty well I might add. ¬†Not only am I happy about it, but so is my husband. ¬†As far as I’m concerned, my house is among the best restaurants in Costa Rica, especially when it comes to Asian cuisine and pizza. ¬†I make almost everything from scratch and I know exactly what is in my dishes. ¬†This experience has boosted my confidence level and is very satisfying, especially considering my previous cooking track record.

I will also mention I am not the only one on this comfort-food mission. ¬†My husband makes a very tasty Texas chicken friend steak here and has learned how to make essential Tex-Mex from scratch. Smoked barbecue is his ongoing project as we search for US style butcher’s cut fatty brisket from Angus beef. ¬†Fingers crossed!

 

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None of the dishes above needed special ingredients hauled back from the US.  I just learned how to cook them!

 

I’ve become comfortable with substituting ingredients or if it is not essential to the recipe, doing without it. ¬†That’s a big step for me, because as a novice cook I was a “by the recipe” person. ¬†This is where the science of cooking comes in handy, and fortunately there are now plenty of books and YouTube videos on that topic to which I can refer.

I’ve even learned how to cook for high altitudes (we live 5400 feet above sea level). ¬†Boy, did that help a lot, especially with baking bread.

It has been an adjustment as well as¬†a challenge from time to time, but living in this beautiful country is completely worth it. ¬†Where there’s a will, there’s a way, but in the end it is what you make of it.

In a future post I will discuss specific food product scarcities and peculiarities that we have come across living here in the land of Pura Vida.  There are quite a few, but one of the greatest lessons that I have learned is that the open-minded and creative expat can always make the best of any situation.


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Thank you for your support and reading my blog.  Hasta Lleugo y Pura Vida!

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