Cooking and eating through a new culture


Whoa. It’s been awhile. I would like to say my time was taken with watching the revolution unfolding in Egypt, but I think I was just having a lazy week. That, and weird things just kept popping up. So when Sunday rolled around, I NEEDED to do something.

So what better way to spend a Costa Rican Sunday, than in a sugar cane field. But let me back track a bit.

My family is addicted to sugar. Both sides. When my grandfather had open heart sugary in the 80’s, my grandmother told stories of how she would find caramel and peanut brittle stashed all throughout the house. Ice cream was his crack and he begged neighbors to bring him some when grandma was out shopping. He kicked the two pack a day habit, but not sweets. While in college, I worked at three different chocolate factories and can still suck chocolate syrup straight out of the bottle…during certain times of the month.

While driving down here, I was in awe of the endless fields of sugar cane. Guatemala and Honduras had the most, just based on sheer miles through them. Huge slow-moving trucks would haul the cane to the processing plants, littering the streets with errant stalks. Pepsi and Coke have huge operations in Central America and based on what corporation owned the surrounding fields, the adjoining town would be literally wallpapered with their logo. Even the cop cars had logos on them. I imagined towns coming to blows over taste tests results…A Latino West Side Story, based on soft drinks.

Costa Rica produces its share and usually exports between 130,000 and 140,000 tonnes of sugar a year. Not very much on the global scale at all considering world production is at a record 168.955 million tonnes. That makes my teeth ache.

Needless to say, there is still a lot of sugar here. Since I have never been a big fan of over processed, bleached products, I wanted to buy real raw Costa Rica sugar and yes, you can get that at the farmers market. It’s cool. Farmers take ripe cane and run it through a mill squeezing out all the juice, dehydrate out the water and you get Tapa dulce. My OJ guy does that too. He runs the raw cane through right there and you can buy the fresh sugar-water by the glass…and it is divine. I am afraid to buy more than that for fear I would down a whole bottle and be awake for a week. You can buy sugar in two forms; a packed circular cake or roughly ground. I buy the ground for the sugar bowl. It has a smooth caramel-like flavor and the little chunks that the grinding process misses are a treat (I am also a little afraid that if I bought the cake, I would just gnaw on it constantly.)

On a cloudy, windy day Rafa and I went out to breakfast after running errands. Not in the mood for coffee but still wanting something to chase the chill, Rafa ordered me a leche dulce, which is just warmed milk and the raw sugar. Very yummy. It’s funny how cocoa is literally growing off of trees but there is very little in the way of chocolate here.

So yesterday…knowing that V-day fell on a Monday with work and school for Rafa, we packed a small bag and headed out to explore the area. Driving down the highway, Rafa pulls over deep on the shoulder, “Okay.”

Okay, what? All I see a wall of sugar cane. All the same, I grab what I can and hike after him, up a small hill and onto a deep rutted dirt road. Within a minute after getting into the cane, the highway was muted by the tall stalks. The dirt road led to a small shady grove of mango trees and a cluster of large rocks. It obviously was the resting area of the cane workers but on a Sunday, the place was blissfully deserted. Rafa assured me that farmers here don’t shoot people.

Cane fields and mangos

Costa Rican Chicharrons, yucca and wine.
In the shade of ripening mangos and the wind shaking the cane, making a sound like the tearing of silk, we unpacked a modest meal of delectable tender chicharrones, buttery yucca and an excellent bottle of Chilean wine.
Now I have read a lot about food, especially now with the holiday. People who have bragged about eating caviar by the heaping spoonful, or dining in some exclusive, star-studded restaurant and I think…Philstines.
And that my life is pretty damn sweet.

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