Are you a vegetarian traveling to Costa Rica or are you committed to a plant-based diet / vegan diet? Then you will be pleased to know that your tip to Costa Rica won’t be as taxing on your diet as you might think. Your health and well-being doesn’t have to move aside for those looking to explore the local food culture. While Costa Rice is arguably rather meat-centric, it is also very easy to forego animal products and head down to the farmer’s market and hunt down delicious plant-based foods, all locally grown. This article is focused on a vegetarian diet but can easily be altered for vegans.
Costa Rica and vegetarianism
Is Costa Rica conscious about vegetarianism? Not really. The environmental and ethical lifestyle choices are very slowly gaining prominence but even though vegetarianism in itself hasn’t really caught on yet, the traditional dishes can be eaten without meat quite easily. Consider Gallo Pinto and Casado. Gallo Pinto is the traditional Costa Rican breakfast. It is a delicious mix of rice and beans, often spiced with cilantro and served with scrambled or fried eggs and sometimes cheese and tortilla. No problems there. In fact, iron and protein deficiency is a concern some vegetarians have but rice and beans are nutrient-dense foods that offer these in abundance. The Casado is a traditional lunch dish. Rice and beans are served separately with a salad, plantains, tortillas, cheese, and a choice of meat. Forego the latter and you have a vegetarian lunch!
Order off the menu
Don’t be afraid to start a conversation about food. The Ticos are very hospitable and will always try to help in every way. They carry a deep love for their food and culture and will share whatever they can with you, no matter what your preferences are. When visiting the Sodas off the tourist path, however, I have at times received some weird looks when using the word ‘vegetarian’. Sometimes they would even respond with ‘No problem, we have fish ‘, or, ‘But chicken is fine, right?’
That’s why whenever I go to a Soda that doesn’t actively promote vegetarian options, I simply list everything I would like to eat. The rice and beans, which vegetables, eggs, cheese, maybe even fruits. You can assume they have everything you want and they usually just add meat to it. It is that easy.
If you go to the more touristy restaurants, you will find that vegetarian, vegan and even gluten free option are often added to the menu.
The best option I have found before living here, is to chase down some hostels that have a shared kitchen and head down the supermarket. I started doing this more and more after I discovered some Sodas would prepare the dishes by adding chicken or beef broth instead of plain water. To make it cheaper (and more culturally interesting), buy your fruits and vegetables at one of the farmers’ markets!
Farmers’ markets aren’t just a great way to sample fresh and local produce and support local communities, it is also a great way to be part of them. The food is only one of the elements that draws people here. Another is the social aspect. Locals come here to catch up on the latest news and gossip and often make a half day trip of it, just like we would with our own markets or trips to the mall.
You will find farmers’ markets pretty much all over the country. San Jose has many, but here are some of the most visited:
- Verde de Aranjuez – Saturdays from 7am to 12.30pm
- Feria Verde de Colon – Tuesdays from 1pm to 7pm
- Feria Organica el Trueque – Saturdays from 5am to 12pm
- La Feria en Zapote – Sundays from 7am to 1pm
- Mercado Natural de Curridabat – Sundays from 8am to 2pm. Here you can also get massages and take yoga classes.
- Feria de Atenas – Fridays from 5am to 12pm
If you can, combine your farmers’ market trip with a touristy one. Atenas, for instance, has more to offer than just the market. It is home to the famous Costa Rican Carretas (oxcarts), now part of UNESCO’s World Heritage.
These are by no means the only markets, just the most prominent ones. You can expect most communities to have weekly markets you can visit.
Try Costa Rican fruit
One of the best things about Costa Rica is the amazing fruit. Whether you are a vegetarian or a vegan, you can go crazy here. There are zapote, guanabana, jocote, pejibaye, rambutan, maracuya, … And many more. You will have a great time hunting down all of them and giving them a try. You can find them at the above mentioned markets, a smaller (and pricier) collection in the supermarkets and at times sold on the side of the road.
Buying at the market or even roadside is not only more economical than at the supermarket, but you can also enjoy a more familiar and friendly interaction while shopping. You can ask about information on the fruit, what way it is best enjoyed and you can even have a taste before you buy.
Eating out – Top vegetarian restaurants in Costa Rica
One of the best places I went to as a restaurant and hostel guest both, was Casa Paraiso Veggie Restaurant at Playa Samara. There is a real, hippie vibe ruling this place and the food is fresh and incredibly delicious. You can lounge about in a hammock enjoying your meal while you hang out with the owner’s cats and dog. They have great pastas and gnocchi but I would recommend you try the veggie burger especially.
Speaking of burgers, Luv Burger has developed quite a reputation as the place to be for quality, plant-based cuisine. The burger stars in the menu, of course, but you can also enjoy some traditional dishes here like the Gallo Pinto and Casado and other international mains such as Hummus plates and Falafel bowls. Luv Burger has restaurants in San Jose and Playa Samara.
For a more intuitive and creative style of cooking, Arbol de Seda in San Jose is a great option. Here you can enjoy vegetarian fusion mixed with Spanish, Peruvian, Japanese, and Italian influences. Café Kracovia in the student area in San Pedro combines simple and delicious vegetarian dishes with the possibility to practice your Spanish. They also offer similar opportunities for English and German.
For a wider choice of restaurants covering more destinations, you can always consult HappyCow’s list of cruelty free dining!
Cooking a traditional breakfast
Gallo Pinto is the ultimate Costa Rican breakfast. Luckily, cooking this dish is not a big challenge. Essentially it is just cooking rice, cooking beans, and then cooking them together. But there is a little bit more to it. The most important part is the seasoning.
As far as flavors go, there are two staples in the Costa Rican cuisine: cilantro and Salsa Lizano. Salsa Lizano is a condiment similar to Worcester sauce or HP Sauce. The flavor is sweet but also slightly acidic. You can use it at table-side to flavor your meal as you go or you can use it in the cooking process. The latter will add an extra punch to the Pinto.
Gallo Pinto recipe
- 2 cups of cooked white short grain (if you prefer brown rice you can use it too, but know that white is traditionally used)
- 1 cup of cooked black or red beans
- 1/2 cups of Salsa Lizano (optional – but if you choose not to add it, have it on the table-side anyway to enjoy a more authentic flavor)
- 1/3 of a red bell pepper
- 1/3 of an onion
- 1/2 tablespoon of finely chopped garlic
- 1/3 cup of chopped cilantro
- Sauté the onions, garlic and pepper in a large pan
- Add the cooked beans and the Salsa Lizano
- Simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally for 5 minutes
- Stir in the cooked rice
- Simmer on very low heat, stirring occasionally until all excess liquid is absorbed – The low heat and stirring is rather essential here. I have been to a couple of Sodas where some bits of rice were hard or burned. For me, it ruins the entire dish.
- Add the fresh cut cilantro
TIP: If you don’t want to add Salsa Lizano or if you want a less powerful concentration of it, keep some of the access water from when you cooked the beans. This will help in adding the typical color and some flavor.
Add what you like …
Now that you have cooked a traditional Gallo Pinto, you can add whatever you want to make the dish more delicious to you. Costa Ricans usually add either fried or scrambled eggs to it. Platanos Maduros (sweet, fried plantains) is another authentic addition you can make, although it is more commonly added to the Casado.