Costa Rica And Its Food CultureWed 16 Oct 2013
Story by María Virginia Portillo Decán
Costa Rica is a small country in Central America. Near four million people live here, in a land blessed with fresh (and exotic, for some) fruits and vegetables, all year round. They are good quality, accessible, and affordable in price. However, 36% of Costa Rican adults are overweight and 26% are obese . That means that more than half of the population is dealing with weight-related illnesses that are costing millions to the social security system. Numbers in children are not so encouraging either. Why is this happening and what is being done to prevent the progress of these numbers?
The “casado”, among other reasons
From my personal point of view and some insights that I have learned from my work as a blogger I believe the “casado”, fast food and lack of information are the main reasons causing these numbers. It is culturally meaningful in Costa Rica to serve lots of food on your plate, especially if you are a guest.
In Patricia Vega’s book Food, consumption, and quality in the building of the Mesoamerican identity she mentions that: “In 1912, the military had lunch at 9:30 a.m. and they would eat a plate of rice, another one of beans, meat and potatoes, an orange as a dessert and a cup of coffee with a loaf of bread”. The same author mentions that a guest house would serve, in 1914, a lunch composed by oatmeal, two fried eggs, a plate with meat and vegetables, black beans, rice, oranges, bananas as a dessert, and coffee.
This all has remained synthesized in what is called today a “casado”: a complete meal that can contain from 800 to over 1000 calories, mainly composed by rice, beans, “salad” (which can be pasta and/or potato “salad”), a “picadillo” (that can also be made from starchy roots), fried plantains and a protein (fish, steak, chicken… sometimes an egg is also added and sometimes yes, these proteins are deep fried). This dish is popular and sold everywhere. It is rarely sold with fresh dressing-free salads or steamed vegetables, rarely sold in small portions (when this happens, it is considered as “expensive” because it has less food) and rarely shared by two people.
Another reason, from what I believe, is the constantly increasing popularity of fast-food chains. It is almost sad for me to see the doors of some restaurants of this sort open and, within hours, seeing it full of people looking for “fulfilling” and cheaper options to eat. Oh, wait. Some of these restaurants cannot be considered as cheap anymore. You can have two “casados” for the price of one fast-food chain combo. Pizza, hamburgers, tacos… you name it. There is also local fast food composed mainly of deep fried preparations, large amount of sauces and (you guessed it) sugary drinks.
Finally, for reasons that cover financial aspects and time management issues, people are not cooking enough at home. If they are, they rely on ingredients that are highly processed (cheaper) and quick preparations with shortcuts such as lots of sour cream (cheaper) instead of ricotta cheese or natural yogurt (more expensive), packed mashed beans and salsas, tons of rice and beans (apparently cheaper than veggies and fruits that are “more difficult to prepare”) to fill the family’s stomachs... and the list goes on. There is also not enough access to information for certain audiences that could use a little help replacing artificial seasonings, for instance, for herbs and other spices; that could learn that you don´t need a splash of oil to cook a single pancake; that needs to know that healthy food is not all about lettuce and cucumber with salt.
The slow awakening of a few
I can, however, mention that –fortunately- part of us is waking up. The first major sign is the Ministry of Education’s law to regulate school cafeterias in public schools (YAY!). Among other effects of this history-making law, food industry has been forced to modify some of its recipes of dairy and fruit beverages (lowered fat and sugar content) and cookies (lowered fats, sodium and sugars). This law forbids all type of point-of-sale advertisement in schools and obligates cafeteria administrators to cook based on the Ministry of Health Food Guidelines, in terms of portions, techniques and ingredients.
Another example, and the last part of this post, is the success that organic farmers markets such as the Feria Verde de Aranjuez have been having. The prices, although more expensive than regular farmers markets, are affordable to middle income and up and are sloooooowly but surely creating a consciousness that “there is something else out there beyond supermarkets” for this segment. Traditional farmers markets (take place during weekends) and city markets (open Mon-Sat) are highly popular among people as well. For the segment that go to these markets (middle income or lower), it all brings me back to the “casado”. They don´t know what to cook beyond that recipe and those portions. And it all comes, then, full circle.
About the author: María Portillo is a Venezuelan-Costa Rican journalist and food blogger. Comida Blog (www.comida-blog.com) is a website that gathers recipes, tips and culinary thoughts; oriented to help its readers to eat better through easier and healthier cooking experiences. On its fifth year of the blog’s existence, Marivi Portillo celebrates her designation as the first Food Revolution Ambassador in Costa Rica. Comida Blog’s content is based on the philosophy of variety and moderation as principles of a balanced nutrition.
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