Recipes & Food of Costa Rica
Traditional Costa Rican Food & Recipes
Drawing mainly from the Caribbean and Central American culture, Costa Rican food is characterized by its use of basic grains like rice, beans, and corn, which are included in almost every meal. Breakfasts consist of a rice and beans dish called “Gallo pinto” or just “pinto,” which is usually served with sour cream, eggs, plantains, and cheese. “Pinto” can also be found in other meals throughout the day and is served almost everywhere in the country.
A traditional lunch is called a “Casado” because it was what was served to married men by their wives. Casados usually include rice, beans, meat, plantains, some stewed vegetable (like potatoes, chayotes, or yucca), and salad. Dishes remain predominantly similar all over the country, with slight variations according to a local specialty. Casados near the beach is more likely to include fish, for example.
While Costa Rica isn’t renowned for its cuisine, which lacks the distinctive flavor of Latin American staples like Mexican or Brazilian, it makes up for the lack of autochthon dishes by providing foodies with various fruits and vegetables they can adapt and use in their dishes.
Like much of Latin America, Costa Rican food is characterized by its use of basic grains like rice, beans, and corn, which are included in almost every meal. But whether you love spice or can’t stand the heat, there’s no question that Costa Rica’s traditional fare is downright delicious.
Tropical fruits and vegetables decorate the plate at every meal. Seafood is fresh. Chicken is usually free-range, and beef is grass-fed. Family-run sodas, or diners, offer up heaping portions at unbelievable prices. Bar food offers up a Latin version of deep-fried comfort. And the nation’s upscale restaurants offer Costa Rica’s version of tropical fusion.
A Costa Rican vacation is incomplete without thoroughly sampling some of the nation’s most typical dishes, so here’s a quick rundown of Costa Rica’s traditional foods. Which are you just salivating to try?
Costa Rica's most lavish praise is, “You’re more Costa Rican than Gallo Pinto.” The unofficial national dish, savory Gallo pinto—or just pinto—is a delicious blend of onions, sweet peppers, cilantro, black beans, and rice, topped with salsa Lizano, a zesty sauce. And despite what you may expect, Gallo pinto is served at breakfast—not lunch or dinner—with some combination of eggs, sausage, plantains, cheese, and sour cream.
Of Costa Rica’s traditional foods, fruit is easily the cheapest and most exciting to sample. (Also, not talked enough about!)
Head to any feria (farmer’s market), and the kaleidoscopic choices will wow you. The familiar favorites, like mango, pineapple, papaya, and strawberries, are joined by goldenberries, soursop, passion fruit (maracuyá), and it’s lesser known and much sweeter cousin called granadilla, dragon fruit (yes, it has proper scales and a deep magenta color), sour guava, water apples, local version of lychee (mamón chino), and a many more.
Lunch or Dinner
This fresh fish dish (say that three times fast!) is most common in seaside towns, but you can find it throughout Costa Rica. Raw fish is marinated in sour lemon or lime juice to “cook” the meat and served with a savory combination of onion, sweet pepper, and cilantro. There are even vegan options of ceviche, featuring green mango.
Costa Rican ‘Casado’
This dish, named for the “married men” it traditionally fed, is an inexpensive but filling staple at home and in local restaurants. Choose your protein—beef, chicken, fish, pork, eggs, and cheese are usually available—to combine with the day’s side dishes, which often include rice, beans, green or cabbage salad, picadillo, and fried sweet plantains. Dishes remain predominantly similar all over the country, with slight variations according to a local specialty.
Not to be confused with Gallo pinto, Gallos is a bit like Costa Rican tapas:
- Take a dollop of picadillo (see below).
- Add it to a corn tortilla.
- Wrap and gobble down.
Delicious and affordable, at $1-$2 each!
Rice and Beans
Don’t mistake Gallo pinto for rice and beans: though both are made with rice and beans, the latter is a Caribbean staple made with red beans, rice, coconut milk, and a generous touch of habañero pepper.
This delicious stew is an absolute must-eat for any Costa Rica Caribbean visitor. Crafted from a mix of seafood, fish, and available produce, rondón is simmered in coconut milk and spices for 24+ hours before enjoyment.
Like in the rest of Latin America, a Costa Rica Christmas wouldn’t be the same without tamales! The Tico version is square and wrapped in banana or plantain leaves, with the cornmeal being filled with pork, carrots, garbanzos, bell pepper, and other ingredients. Every family has its unique recipe.
Bocas - Costa Rican Version of Tapas or Snacks
Green (unripe) plantains are cut in one inch pieces, fried, then mashed and formed into mini pancakes, and re-fried to create this Caribbean appetizer. Patacones are usually served with beans or pico de gallo but can become a complete meal when topped with shredded beef, beans, and cheese.
A tropical version of French fries, yuquitas are thick, fried slices of yucca, also known as a cassava root. Another version of the dish is yuquitas rellenas or stuffed yuca balls, deep-fried delight usually filled with a piece of cheese or meat.
These fried pork cracklings are nothing like you’d find in a bag—or on a traditional Mexican plate. Instead, thick, juicy hunks of pork rind are deep fried to produce this crispy—and ultra-meaty—bar standby.
The Costa Rican version of seven-layer salad (or seriously supreme nachos), chifrijo is a splurge-worthy bar favorite that layers pork rinds, pico de gallo, and red beans over white rice, usually served with a slice of lime and serving of fried yucca.
Picadillo is one of Costa Rica’s signature dishes, having been developed throughout the years to stretch out vegetables. These chopped, cooked vegetables usually serve as a side dish, although they can be wrapped into a tortilla to form a Gallo, the Tico version of a taco.
‘Pan de Elote’
Costa Rica’s sweet cornbread, or pan de elote, is pure comfort – and very filling. But, despite its name, you should know that this traditional favorite has neither the taste nor texture of the cornbread you may be used to in North America.
These hot, sweet corn cakes are baked on a griddle and topped with natilla, Costa Rica’s version of sour cream.
Super sweet and delicious, granizados are like Costa Rican snowcones, only served in a plastic cup. Choose your favorite flavor: tutti frutti, root beer, or grape.
‘Naturales’ and ‘Batidos’
If you love fruit, you’ll love Costa Rica’s fruit drinks! Available in every restaurant, naturales can be mixed with water and batidos with milk. Both are delicious. Be sure to ask for no additional sugar added “sin azucar” as Ticos love their batidos extra sweet.
Coconut water isn’t a fad in Costa Rica – it has always been a hit! Pipas are green coconuts, usually chilled before having their tops sliced off and straws inserted for immediate enjoyment.
All of the Above
Costa Rican Empanadas
Costa Rican empanadas are like deep-fried sandwiches, packing meaty fillers, like beef or chicken, into corn pastry before deep-frying it to golden, crispy goodness. We have seen people eat them for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks!
As we have been in Costa Rica, there have been limited times that we have been disappointed with the Costa Rica restaurants or “Soda” shops. Sometimes, we wonder if the little Mom and Pop shops are better than the big restaurants due to the love being put into the meals. The Tico family serves a lot of people not only at their Soda Stand but also within their family.
Try everything. Take back a full belly and a happy heart.
FAQs About Costa Rican Traditional Food
What food is Costa Rica famous for?
It is the Gallo Pinto that makes us melt. You may be thinking, “Rice and Beans,” but there is something here that will make you want to come back for more. You won’t be disappointed with it.
What are the three most popular foods in Costa Rica?
Something that we see in the beach towns is incredible fresh ceviche. Sometimes, the restaurant will run out because the restaurant bought no more fish from yesterday’s catch. Another popular dish is Casado, which consists of meat (chicken, beef, or pork), rice, and beans, not Gallo Pinto. There may also be a salad with it. Another popular meal in Costa Rica is your traditional tamales.
What are the most common foods in Costa Rica?
Gallo Pinto, Patacones, Chifrijo and Casado are some of the most common foods. And the patacones, we can’t even describe the drool that comes off our mouths when they serve it. You could even get it as a pizza or a bowl with ceviche.
What type of food does Costa Rica have?
While Costa Rica isn’t renowned for its cuisine, which lacks the distinctive flavor of Latin American staples like Mexican or Brazilian, Costa Rican food is a flavorful delight: savory but not spicy—except in the Caribbean, where habañero peppers add pep to favorite dishes.
What is the street food of Costa Rica?
Street food in Costa Rica is excellent. From the “Naturales” and fresh coconut water to Ceviche and Gallo Pinto, you know that your food will be perfect. Check out the homemade empanadas or turnos, grilled to perfection.
What is a typical Costa Rican dinner?
Straightforward meals such as a type of chicken or beef casado, or seafood (shrimp, squid, octopus, fish), rice, and beans. The stew is very popular with, of course, rice.