If you think Costa Rican cuisine is nothing but black beans and rice, congratulations, you're half right. Gallo pinto, to give the dish its proper name, is a staple here and is usually served at every meal. It still appears on the breakfast table among the poorer urban population.
The locals like to joke about it.
``Care for some more Costa Rican caviar?'' offered a grinning waiter as he presented a large dish of the ubiquitious fried bean and rice mix to a guest at the elegant Cariari Hotel.
All kidding, and gallo pinto aside, there is more to the cuisine here. For example, the varied physiographic and climatic conditions of this lush country is perfect for growing abundant varities of tropical fruits.
On practically every corner in San Jos'e, vendors set up rickety wooden stalls that bend under the weight of fresh pineapples, bananas, mangoes, avacados, water apples, guavas, and sapodilla, to name but a few. Costa Ricans tend to eat their fruit on the run, rather than at a sit-down meal.
Two coastlines - the Caribbean Sea on the east and the Pacific on the west, provide a variety of fresh fish. A wonderful ceviche, made with fresh sea bass ``cooked'' in lemon or lime juice and seasoned with coriander and onion, is available as a starter in every hotel.
And a salad of tender, fresh hearts of palm dressed with a tomato cocktail sauce is another cool and refreshing first course here.
Because the Costa Rican population is mostly of European roots, the food is more bland than you might expect. There is little trace of the highly spiced native Indian food associated with the more northern Central American countries and Mexico.
In San Jos'e, there is a profusion of continental restaurants - Italian and French, especially. And Chinese restaurants are more visible than the Chinese. Typical Costa Rican food is harder to come by, though hotel restaurants will serve something called a ``plato tipico'' (typical plate), which approximates the local cuisine.
One exception, and the most famous, is Tiquicia Restaurant, high in the hills above San Jos'e, with a spectacular view of the Central Valley. There's no messing with the old traditional recipes here.
``If it's haute cuisine, it isn't Costa Rican,'' insists owner Roberto Schlaker. ``Some ladies like to style the food and decorate it, but that's certainly not what they do here. And there's a lot of people going around writing `Costa Rican' cookbooks. And what's in them? Boston cream pie and spaghetti! And they call that Costa Rican!?''
You won't find Boston cream pie here. And no cr`eme fra^iche or grilled miniature vegetables either.
Mr. Schlaker's remodeled 135-year-old adobe farmhouse is a bastion of basic, good, honest home cooking.
An appetizer one Friday evening consisted of corn tortillas covered with a local, rather salty, cheese and homemade sausage. Dinner was served on a long table covered with a plastic tablecloth. It was a simple casado, probably the same dish being being served in most urban houses throughout the country.
``Casado,'' Schlaker explained, ``means `married man' because once you get married, you have it every day.'' It consisted of stew beef, cabbage salad, fried plantain, and, no surprise, gallo pinto - all together in a tin bowl, and eaten with a spoon. ``Most of the population eats with just a spoon, rather than knives and fork,'' he says.
Friday evenings here are devoted mainly to tourists. Entertainment is provided by a troupe of enthusiastic dancers and musicians. Most of the clientele, though, is Costa Rican.
On Saturday, Schlaker fires up a large clay oven and usually roasts pork. ``You might think we eat a lot of chicken here,'' he says, sipping a refresco, ``but we don't. Chicken is expensive so it's usually served on special occasions like weddings - with gallo pinto, of course.''
Costa Rican food, according to Schlaker, has been influenced by the Spanish, Italian, some native Indian, and Chinese and North American fast food.
``Believe it or not, even in poor Costa Rican farmhouses you'll find a lot of chop suey. Chinese influence is very strong here. And so is the North American hamburger, and hot-dogs,'' Schlaker says.
Maybe so, but not at the Tequicia restaurant.
Gallo Pinto 1 large onion, chopped 4 cloves garlic, chopped Pork lard or oil for frying 1 cup dried black beans, well rinsed 2 tablespoons butter, melted 1 cup white rice, cooked according to package directions
In a large pan, fry onion and garlic in lard or oil until soft. Add washed black beans and three cups water. Cover partially, and simmer two to three hours over low heat until beans are tender.
Drain liquid from beans. Add melted butter to beans. Add cooked rice (about three cups). Mix well and serve.
Ceviche 1/2 lb. sea bass fillet, or any white fish, chopped 2 onions, chopped 2 green peppers, seeded and chopped 1 rib celery, chopped 1/2 cup fresh coriander, chopped 1 1/2 cups of fresh lemon juice 2 tomatoes, chopped Salt and Tobasco sauce to taste
Combine all ingredients in large bowl. Stir well and refrigerate two hours. Serve with tortilla chips.