Cooking and eating through a new culture

Archive for the month “July, 2011”

Irazu Challenge

Rafa steps out of the car, wind and rain lash against him, “I’m not happy.”

In all honesty, I feel the same way but I am way too excited. We trudge across a soccer field/parking lot to a little building with dozens of people milling about. It’s pouring and the wind is blowing the rain sideways. We huddle inside. Everyone is dressed the same, geared out in boots and jackets and awaiting the start of the Irazu Challenge, a 10k hike around the volcano.

The Irazu Challenge, organized by Decatlon, actually has a number of races: 10k, 20k, marathon, ultra marathon and bike races too. I have been pleasantly surprised at how athletic Costa Rica is. Rafa has been running a number of 1/2 marathons and I have been trying to get out and run with him as much as I can. Rafa has a gazelle like stride and grace, where I am more like the Shetland pony, plodding along steady and sturdy. So when Rafa suggested the Irazu Challenge, I was eager…just not for the run. Trail running is great but it puts a toll on your body, especially with those brutal hills. The hike was more my speed.

So here we were, waiting for the hike to begin. Like most things here, it was on Tico  time and the funny thing being that the race was run by a French guy. Go figure. As luck would have it, as soon as the bell sounded, the rain lightened and within a matter of minutes stopped all together for the rest of the hike.

The first kilometer or so was on paved road until we came to a rocky farm road that parted fields of potatoes and cow pastures. Rafa and I like to go on mini day road trips checking out the surrounding towns. We will find a spot to stretch out a blanket and have a small picnic and some wine. Great times. But this crazy rabbit warren of roads cutting through the countryside are breathtaking. All you hear is the wind rustling the trees and a few random moos. The air is fresh and crisp and clouds converge and part offering unimaginable views. It truly is magical and I promise you, the pictures do not do it justice.

For the first 4 or 5k, it was all uphill and when we finally turn downward, we bounded down the trail careening around the uneven ground. I was amazed I was able to stay on my feet. Farmers looked up from their labor to see us bouncing down the hill laughing like mad. Periodically, there would be a rest area offering water and some goodies. Should you find yourself in a race or craving something sweet, I highly recommend these little jelly packs. They are about the size of a Halloween candy bar and come in a variety of flavors called Tricopilia. My favorites are fig and guaybaba. You can buy them in the stores too but beware: they are very addicting. It was a good thing I had some on hand when we hit the last hill, cause it was a bitch! The last kilometer was a painful climb nearly straight up and into the wind. Gusts of wind would nearly knock me backwards. What was truly amazing were the little homes hunkered along the road on this incredibly steep hill, miles from the nearest paved road. These people would have to haul themselves up this road regularly to catch a bus into town. Oy Vey!

In two short hours we conquered the Irazu challenge, tired, happy and no worse for wear. While we rested a bit before heading back down the volcano, my legs tingled with exertion and my face flushed with color. Rafa sat across from me munching down a banana and sandwich with a smug, satisfied look.

“What a great day.” he said between bites.

Next year, we’re doing the 20k. Can’t wait!


The Magic Of Mangosteens

“Oh My God! Turn around!” I squeal.

What?What?” Rafa has an edge of panic to his voice.

“I think I just saw mangosteens back at that fruit stand!”

Rafa slows the car, and looks at me. “You saw what?”

“Mangosteens. I NEED some.” I implore with all the drama I can muster.  I rarely pull the puppy-eye look, but I bat my lashes for all they are worth.

“Wow. Okay.” he chuckles and I beam at him, giddy with excitement.

Judging from Rafa’s reaction, I am guessing mangosteens,  Garcinia mangostana, are relatively new here, and unless you’re Southeast Asian, these would be odd to the rest of the world too. Luckily, I have had some interesting jobs and I was introduced to these lovely fruits over a decade ago. In fact, I almost came to blows with a co-worker over these lovely fruits. Mangosteens are a dark purple fruit about 2 to 3 inches in diameter, about the size of a tangerine, and are not related to mangos. The hard rind can be nearly one inch thick but easily cut. At the center is the soft opaque white fruit, which resembles a head of garlic but the taste….it’s out of this world. It’s a delicate sweet and tangy dance on your tongue. It’s glorious!

In fact, there is a legend about Queen Victoria offering a reward of 100 pounds of sterling to anyone who could deliver to her the fresh fruit. Here it’s only $3 a kilo! WooHoo! Due to restrictions on imports, mangosteens are not readily available in certain countries, especially the US. They only way to taste this ambrosia stateside is either frozen or in juice form and both are wickedly expensive.

Touted as a “superfruit”, mangosteen properties are often attributed to the xanthone content; a class of polyphenolic compounds commonly occuring in plants and have been shown to have extensive biological and pharmacological activities. Over 200 naturally occurring xanthones have been identified so far and approximately 40 of those are found in the mangosteen. Xanthones appear to possess numerous potential beneficial properties such as, “antiallergic, anti-inflammatory, antituberculotic, antitumor, antiplatelet, Betaadrenergic blocking and … anticonvulsant” properties. (Marona H, Pekala E, Filipek B, Maciag D, Szneler E. Pharmacological properties of some aminoalkanolic derivatives of xanthone. Pharmaxie. 2001;56:567-572). These are more potent than Vitamin C or Vitamin E.  Mangosteen also contains Garcinone-E,  which researchers suggest may be useful for the treatment of certain types of cancer. Who knows? They taste damn good and that is all I care about. In fact, Costa Rica (probably due to the HUGE influence of China) has been growing mangosteens and rambutan. This place just keeps getting better and better!

I suppose you could make something out of these like a drink or a sorbet…OMG MANGOSTEEN BEER!…but lets face it…I ate them all, one after another and poor Rafa, bless his heart, only ate one.

So far, so good

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I’ve been here over six months. Last year at this time, I had a broken thumb, Rafa just moved in to take care of me, thus fomenting the whole idea of moving to Costa Rica. It was surprisingly painless to free myself from the bondage of job and house, not to mention mind-blowingly liberating. Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing. Driving from NY to Costa Rica was an amazing trip, Sure people said I was brave…or crazy, the two seemed interchangeable, but man were they curious! So Rafa and I only had known each other a few scant months, and I never had been to Costa Rica, let alone Latin America, and I left a big paying, high-profile job (with a boss I fucking hated) and well, his offer to follow him down seemed certainly better than the shit storm I was living in. Really, why not?

Looking back on my time here…about the road to the Caribbean: they painted on lane dividers now, not that I haven’t seen drivers ignore them completely, but hey, they’re on the road. Now if you’re up for a more leisurely drive (if 4 hours from San Jose to Cahuita is just not long enough for you), you can go through Cartago, to Turrialba and connected with the main highway at Siquirres. I must admit, the lack of semi trucks and incredible vistas does make this trip worth it, not to mention the added bonus of stealing a few chayotes out of the fields. Teeheehee.

I rarely go for very long without feeling something crawling over me. Bugs are everywhere and although I don’t scream that loud anymore, they still can send me back on my heels. I am somewhat use to it now but what I haven’t been able to figure out is the lack of screens. Rafa said it is because it’s too redneck, that only rural poor people have screens. Hmmmm, they seem pretty smart to me. After being eaten alive while sleeping, I put up a mosquito net around the bed. The family got a good chuckle out of it, but I sleep better, and wake up with less bites and Hello?, have you seen the size of those May beetles! It sounds like a DC-10 flying around the room. Repeat after me: screens are good.

Tin Jo closed for a period of time because of “health concerns.” Really? I have eaten in some seriously sketchy places and they closed THAT place. I did a little research and well, I wasn’t convinced. There were some major discrepancies in the report and word on the street was that the closing was personally motivated. I stand by my review.

Rafa has been busting his ass at his new job and date nights have been few and far between. Instead, we have the Sunday Adventure Series which consists of traveling to parts unknown with a bottle of wine and some pastries. Any direction you travel here will reveal some amazing secrets. There is not a single weekend that goes by where I don’t see something that blows my mind.

Rafa still doesn’t let me go to the Central Market alone.

I have a Loli instead of a Lily. It’s bittersweet…

My kitchen…yeah, well…someday.

Certainly, my life couldn’t be more different. Being plunged into a Latin family and culture has its challenges. There is not a doubt in my mind that they and myself have looked across the culture gap and wondered “WTF.” As an only child, I struck out at an early age and never really looked back. Sure, my parents will always be there for me but I never had relied on them since I was a teenager and being away, I maybe talk to them once every two weeks or so, which is the exact opposite of Rafa’s family. My family is all about ignoring and denying, sometimes for decades. It’s an art for them.  I know what you are thinking, “You are sooooo screwed Chica! Latin families are all about the drama!”  All I can say is that sometimes it’s a blessing not knowing the language. I am a Gringa. I will never be a Tica regardless of how long I will live here. I love Rafa and I love his family but I will always be the “white” sheep and I am fine with that.

Bird Brain

There is a new member to our little family: Loli.

This was completely unplanned. Now, I have always had birds. They are incredibly fascinating to me and I can sit and admire them for hours…spoken like a true biologist. But the truth is, when I went for my biology degree, the ornithology professor had died and they never back filled his position while I was there, so I concentrated in mamalogy instead. Everything I have learned, I learned on my own.

Then there is the other side of my career: owning birds. They do not make good pets. Aside from parakeets/budgies, canaries, and a few species of finches, most people do not have the time or ability to take care of birds, especially parrots. Social, sensitive and equipped with a powerful beak, most parrot owners refuse to interact with them once they get bitten. And all parrots will bite you at one point or another. Trust me, I have the scars to prove it. Secondly, all parrots are protected under international law. Why? Because of illegal pet trade and smuggling. FYI: nearly 90% of illegally smuggled birds die in transport under horrible conditions. I would love to buy every single bird I see in the markets. But rest assured, there will be more back the next day.

All of my parrots have been rescue birds. All had some disability and some more severe than others. My most beloved parrot was neglected so badly that his wings literally atrophied from lack of use because he was kept in a cage too small for him to properly exercise. My vet said she had never seen anything like it in her career. He passed after 15 years. Happy years he would not of otherwise had. As hard as I tied to rehabilitate another parrot, he self mutilated himself to death and died of secondary infections. To have a single bird alone in a cage for hours upon hours can literally drive them insane to the point that they self mutilate by pulling their feathers out or even chewing off their toes. My last parrot was taken from a home of hardcore smokers and she literally stunk of cigarets for months until she molted. She is still happily alive and the main reason I went back stateside. I truly believed I had everything required for her importation, but vet services in Costa Rica was asking for certification on diseases that don’t even exist in the US. It was a down to the wire decision and I was not willing to risk the life of my parrot because one sentence did not translate properly.

I just wanted a canary. Really. Just like I wanted “something different” and ended up in Costa Rica.  I missed having the antics of a bird in my home, even just a small one. Every once in a while I would hear the sweet song of a canary come from a home I would pass and I missed my feathered friends. As luck would have it, I found an ad and called. My canary guy sounded legit and I was interested and then he said, “I have a parrot too. That I will give away to the right person.” Hmmmm…a free parrot? I had visions of a neglected, insane, feather plucking screamer. I was skeptical. Rafa on the other hand, was, “Yeah, we’re picking up a parrot today.”

The guy had lovely canaries. And he had Loli, a red-lored amazon parrot. And Rafa was right. I was completely smitten. Loli was bright and vivacious and lovingly cared for. Her only issue being a bum foot that works well but not good enough to survive in the wild. Her owner admitted seeing her as a tiny chick in a market and bought her up. Circumstances being what they were, he and his family had moved into a smaller home, leaving Loli outdoors, which is fine in Costa Rica, but she had also been visited by the neighboring hawk. She was no worse for wear but her future seemed rather uncertain, until now.

Birds are very cautious and I have let Loli get use to her new surroundings. Believe it or not I shipped a huge parrot cage down, thinking it would be Lily’s. We shared some papaya and a peanut butter and guayaba jelly sandwich. All good relationships take time and trust and we are taking it slow. She is incredibly sweet and I feel fortunate to care for her.

This morning over coffee, she let me scratch her head. Yes, I am very fortunate.

Costa Rica’s Craft Brewery

You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline – it helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.
-Frank Zappa

While I was back stateside, I drank beer every day. Now, I know that sounds a tad excessive, but it wasn’t….really, you gotta know my family. Most days, it was just one and I was very particular about which one it would be. This was about quality, not quantity and I carefully choose my brew. Then again consider my selection:

Divine US beer selection

Other days, I was not so restrained. I was asked a number of times what I missed the most and I would tick off the usual friends, family, etc…but deep down, what I truly ached for, was good beer.

For the most part, Ticos drink only two beers: Imperial and Pilsen. Neither beers live up to their namesake and both of which, I consider to be swill, but lets face it, Latin America is not known for beer (paradise does have its limits). The import selection is dinky and woefully overpriced. Beer was even a factor Rafa and I discussed before moving down and he assured me my sacrifice would not be in vain. We had both brewed our own beer in the past and as soon as we got settled, we would start-up again. Did I mention that my kitchen is only drawn on bare walls?

My first weekend back found us in Cartago on errands. Now, we knew about Costa Rica’s Craft Brew and had sampled their products….extensively. Since we were in the vicinity, we decided to pop in.

Now, I have toured brewerys like some people hit winerys. I have seen everything from simple pole barns to historic brick brownstones and I must say….CRCB is an impressive operation. Unannounced and basically closed to the public, we were greeted by the Brew Master himself, Chris Derrick. I don’t know whether it was our pie-eyed enthusiasm or the palpable pride Chris took in his operation, but he offered us a lovely tour.

I am a bit of a social misfit in the sense that it is nearly impossible for me to fake interest. If I don’t find someone engaging within 30 seconds, I move on. I refuse to suffer fools but I could have stayed at the brewery and listened to Chris all day. His passion for the CRCB and Costa Rica was infectious. I was throughly impressed at how every aspect of the business involved Costa Rica. This was not some haphazard gringo operation planted in a foreign country but a well though out, Tico involved business. From the logo, to the names of the two main brews, to the pride in the craft itself; I was in awe.

At this time CRCB offers two beers: Libertas, a tropical golden ale, and Segua, a red ale. Libertas is an excellent ale with rich complex flavors. It’s described as “refreshing”…yeah, refreshing alternative from the rest of the crap that is offered…but I would say it is medium bodied beer, not necessarily light and refreshing but comfortable and palatable. Very easy to drink…much to my demise.

Segua Red Ale is named after the Tico legend of La Segua (The Mare), a gorgeous woman who goes after drunk and unfaithful men. She would lure drunk male travellers by asking for a ride on their horse along the dark, deserted colonial roads of Cartago. Once up in the saddle, her face would turn into a hideous horse skull with flaming red eyes and terrible teeth! And this beer lives up to its name. It seduces you with a beautiful red gold color and nice frothy head pour. The hops on the nose were mild but aromatic, a nice spicy and floral arrangement. Then there is a burst of sweet malt, followed by a light hop snap. The finish is strong and fades nicely into a hoppy fruitiness. This beer can certainly sneak up on you and it has a kick!

Our first introduction to CRCB was their stout, specially made for St. Patrick’s Day. Chris admits he was reluctant to brew a stout since the company was so new and still unestablished, but it was a blessing, at least for us. I think Rafa and I drank the majority of the small batch they brewed. If you do the real tours, scheduled on their Facebook page, you will also be offered a sampling of new brews and experimental batches. Quite nice. Chris also confided that a new IPA will be coming out shortly. The tasting confirmed that THIS will be my new beach beer here.

CRCB and myself have been operating in Costa Rica for about the same amount of time. Do yourself a favor; if you find yourself in Cartago, around Irazu, or coming back from Orosi, make this a destination too. Gringo or Tico, you will find the place inspiring and the beer delicious.  CRCB is expanding into local drinking establishment found on their Facebook page, but if you want to take some home, you need to stop in personally. Sorry my Northern kin, they do not export…you will just have to come visit. They have big shoes to fill but after our visit, I am confident in their success.


Coming Home

I am ready to go back home.

Let it be known as I write this, I am sitting in a chi-chi coffee shop stateside lamenting my lack of decent mangos. It’s been two weeks since I left Costa Rica and as much as I loved seeing all my friends, I miss my little lot in life. I thought I would be eating my way through my hometown, but even after two days I felt…well, full. In the short time I have been away, my diet has changed and I am having a hard time adjusting back to US food. It’s too much. I haven’t weighted myself in almost a year, but I know I have lost weight and I can feel it creeping back in just the short time here. But, everything seems too much here. I feel like I am in Disneyland. It’s bright and shiny and clean and everyone smiles at you and they are sickingly polite. There is so much waste.

Rafa can cast a critical eye on his fellow countrymen and, admittedly, he is right. The fact is, a lot of gringos in Costa Rica lament about one thing or another. Even I commented about the style of dress, but I will stand by the fact that you will never see a Tico going to the store in their pajamas, but back to my point…this little stint stateside just solidified in my mind that well, everyone is the same no matter were you go. There may be subtle cultural differences, but for the most part, people in every corner of the globe bitch, worry and want about the same things. Only the degree is different. From my little perch in this cafe, I hear the same diatribe over, and over. “So-and-so did this”, “So-and-so cheated on her”, “I never got that”, blah, blah, blah. It could be in any language, but there is an arrogant edge to Americans. Costa Rica has gotten labeled one of the happiest countries in the world but I think they are missing the mark. It’s not an over abundance of happiness, but a lack of bitterness.

People drive crazy up here. People will still careen into you on the sidewalk. People wear wildly inappropriate clothes, have disapproving relationships, and are selfish and self-absorbed, and it has nothing to do with country lines. Looking out over the city, I am overwhelmed. There is just so much of everything. It hurts my head. I lasted 20 minutes at the mall. A posh home store that I would have normally cooed over, left me ill. A trip to the grocery store makes me dizzy. I already have enough stuffed packed into my luggage to make the baggage handlers get hernias. I gave up an amazing house, a solid, well-paying career and all the fixing that go with that, to move to a country I knew nothing about. The funny thing is, where I ended up really didn’t matter. I went from a 3000 sq.ft. house to four pallets and what I could fit in a Subaru. What could I possibly want? Really, what do I need?

I knew the answer instantly.

I called Rafa yesterday and said I missed my home. There was a deafeningly silence on the other end. I knew what he was thinking, and without hesitation I added, “With you.” He let out a huge breath, “Then come home.”

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