Cooking in the Tropics: Thanksgiving
Food is culture. As the 18th-century French gastronome, Brillat Savarin famously pointed out, “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are.” You could say that we taste culture, and one of the most compelling reasons to travel is to experience distinctive cuisines. Although the global market has brought exotic dishes to a restaurant near you, it is very different to taste fruits and vegetables ripened on the vine and served the same day, spiced by locals for local tastes.
Twenty-five years ago, the global marketplace had not really touched Costa Rica. It was hard to find the herbs and spices so common in world cuisines. Although the fruits and vegetables available here are the same found in many Asian countries or in Mexico, traditional Costa Rican cuisine is not spicy, and the only sauce offered by most restaurants here was Salsa Lizano. Even local Chinese chefs cooked with it!
Although the standard bill of fare could be considered bland, Costa Rican produce is a revelation. Markets throughout the country offer fruits and vegetables rarely seen in North America. One of the greatest pleasures of catering in Costa Rica is sharing this bounty with visitors. A simple fruit platter can be the star dish of the evening, its colors, textures, and aromas rivaling the most complex creation from a five-star kitchen: rose-colored pitaya (dragon fruit), yellow carambola in the shape of a star, five different varieties of mangoes, papayas, guavas, and guanabanas. Here there are bananas in a variety of sizes and colors – ranging from plátanos and the cuadrados grown in every kitchen garden in Guanacaste, to finger sized guineas and those beautiful tiny pink bananas found in gardens in the Central Valley.
When we moved here, imported fruits were reserved for the holidays. I have vivid memories of our first Christmas in Costa Rica when little wooden carts selling apples and grapes were parked on every street corner. Apples and grapes! It blew my mind that the most ubiquitous of North American fruits were considered exotic here.
Tourism brought the world to Costa Rica, and by 1995 it became the most important industry in the country. People from all over the world were visiting, and many foreigners decided to move here permanently. Suddenly local companies were importing foreign condiments, and local farms planted the herbs and spices essential to authentic world cuisines. Italians made fresh pasta. Dutch immigrants created cheeses for European tastes. French residents baked baguettes and croissants and Germans offered sausage. Lebanese and Israelis added pita bread and baklava to the mix. Restaurants proliferated throughout the country, catering to visitors who wanted to eat sushi, pasta, quesadillas, pad thai and Indian curries. Even the most typical sodas (small diners) added pastas and Mexican style tacos to their menus. The new Costa Rican cuisine is a fusion of many tastes, reflecting the growing diversity of the population of this small nation.
These days, we can buy ingredients for the most popular world dishes right here in Tamarindo, although many imported ingredients can be very expensive (And some ingredients so common elsewhere, like lemons, endives, watercress and most berries are rarely even available.) One of the challenges of catering in the tropics is adjusting established recipes to fit the local reality, substituting fresh local ingredients for expensive imports while still satisfying the client’s taste expectations.
Case in point: Thanksgiving. We have catered this holiday for many years, and have developed a menu that is true to the spirit of Thanksgiving – giving thanks for the bounty that we have found in our new home. All of the essential elements of the North American meal are here: turkey, stuffing, gravy, potatoes, pie. What is different are some of the ingredients. Here is our menu for a Costa Rican Thanksgiving.
- Roast Turkey with Tamarind glaze (Tamarindo is named for the tamarind tree. The fruit of the tamarind is widely used as a base ingredient for curries, chutneys, and moles. Here in Costa Rica it is a popular refreshing drink.)
- Macadamia nut stuffing (with sausage, celery, onions, green mangos, and nuts)
- Hearts of palm gratin (Hearts of palm are an important export crop for Costa Rica. Palmito gratinada is a common dish in restaurants in the Central Valley)
- Cumin-scented roasted root vegetables (camote, yuca, and tiquisque are the most typical root vegetables in Costa Rica, used in many indigenous dishes here and throughout South America. Plantains and carrots add a little sweetness and even more color to the dish.)
- Mashed potatoes and gravy
- Corn and chayote relish (This is a Costa Rican version of succotash. Costa Rica is the world’s largest exporter of chayote, a fruit resembling squash that is now becoming popular in the United States.)
- Carambola salsa (Carambola or star fruit simmered in red wine and spices becomes a perfect substitute for cranberry sauce.)
- Tropical salad with mixed greens, mango, avocado & tomatoes
- Ayote clafouti with toasted cashews (This is our version of pumpkin pie. Fresh pumpkin is a recent import to Costa Rica. Canned pumpkin pie mix is also available. But ayote, a local squash that resembles pumpkin is delicious scented with vanilla and topped with toasted cashews, a nut grown throughout Costa Rica.)
- Passionfruit/ lime pie (the passion fruit is a common vine in local gardens. It adds sweetness to the tart lime.)
- Tropical fruit plate (The perfect end to any meal)
Christina Spilsbury and Rick Macsherry have lived in Tamarindo since 1989. They own and operate Sunset Catering.