The Central American plate: What is the real taste of Central America?
It is often said that you have to taste a culture to understand it. Every week this month we’ll be doing our best (given the sensory shortcomings of the internet) to get under the skin of four very different cuisines. We’ll be talking to the food lovers and producers who are bringing the taste Jamaica, Thailand, Costa Rica and Italy to the UK. Chatting to us this week is foodie and Costa Rican artist Juli Bolanos- Durman.
Hi Juli, where did your love of Latin American food come from?
I grew up in Costa Rica but moved to the UK for my Master’s degree. When I first moved, I ate all the chips I could get [laughs], but then I started to crave the freshness of the Central American food I grew up with. I started cooking more and more and adapting recipes from home for the cold winters of Scotland.
What is a typical dish in Costa Rica?
The staple dish in Costa Rica is rice and beans. Like most Central American countries, it has never been particularly wealthy so it’s a very cost effective way to eat, typically people will eat rice and beans and mixed with the vegetables they grow on their land or some protein. At home, we eat it for every meal. For breakfast, we have ‘Gallo pinto’ which is just another way to eat rice and beans [laughs]!
It sounds quite healthy!
Beans are a great source of protein, so it is nutritious. When I’m at home, I really take for granted the abundance of fruit and vegetables. When you’re eating a piece of fruit so close to where it’s grown, it just tastes different. There are so many fruits that are hard to come by in the UK that I miss, like Guava, Papaya and Mango. My favourite is called sweet lemon- it’s not as big or as acidic as the lemon we’re used to here. It’s delicious.
Are they fruits you could buy locally?
Most people will buy their food straight from the supplier. In my neighbourhood, the fruit market is one street over from my house and is on every weekend. It’s a lot harder to buy food that way in the UK, particularly in the cities.
How have you adapted your taste in the UK?
During winter in the UK, particularly in Scotland, you want to eat something filling and warm, something to help your body survive winter. I understand why people eat haggis and stews and big pots of warming belly-fillers. I love the food here, but like anything, it’s about finding balance between heavy and light. Plus, Costa Rican food is so easy and cheap to make. You can buy a kilo of beans for £4. I invite everyone round for dinner and there’s still some left. I top it with tomato, and a red onion soaked in lemon- a kind of vegetable ceviche, and add some coriander.
What kind of reception does your cooking get from your friends in the UK?
From what I know, they really like it. It helps that there’s always more than enough for everyone [laughs]! It’s usually the first time they’ve tried anything like it. The closest I’ve found to a Costa Rican restaurant in the UK is Brazilian or Venezuelan.
I think the discovery of new flavours is part of the reason my friends have responded so well.
Is the food in other Central American countries similar?
Most countries in Latin America will eat rice and beans with shredded meat and also sweet plantain. There’s definitely a relationship between the different cultures. For example, Cuban food will use all the same ingredients, it is just the preparation that is different.
What would be your Latin American food recommendation?
Ceviche is delicious and is popular all over Latin America. It is really just a way of cooking fresh fish in the juice of a lemon. There is nothing better than enjoying ceviche along the coast- the citrus of the lemon works so well with freshly caught fish.
If you fancy trying a typical Latin American breakfast, here is Juli’s recipe for ‘gallo pinto’. Enjoy!
1 tin of Black beans.
8-10 sprigs of fresh coriander leaf
1 small or medium red onion
1 vine of baby tomatoes
½ small red or yellow pepper (optional)
700 ml chicken stock
2 cups of white rice
½ teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon (vegetable oil
1-3 Tablespoon oil to fry the Gallo Pinto
Drain the beans and add an inch of water to the pot and bring to the boil. Add salt, cover the pan and lower the heat to a low simmer until the beans are soft.
Cut the tomatoes in quarters and chop the coriander, onion and pepper finely.Add 1/2 the veg to a bowl and mix with the juice of one lemon.
Add 1/2 tablespoon of oil to a large pan on a medium heat and sauté the dry rice for 2 minutes. Add the remaining half of the veg to the pan and cook for another 2 minutes. Add the chicken stock, cover and reduce the heat to a simmer for 25-30 minutes until the rice is soft.
Once cooked, mix together and serve with the vegetable ceviche, some more coriander and the tomatoes. Eat with fried eggs or bacon for a real alternative fry-up.
Sample traditional cuisine for yourself on our Costa Rica escorted tours.
Nicola considers herself very lucky to have had the opportunity to visit a number of places around the world and these experiences usually involve searching for as many kinds of wildlife as possible. Recent highlights include penguins in Antarctica, bears and whales in Canada and Alaska and sea otters in California - but there are always more animals to search for.
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