The Taste of Pura Vida, Celebrating Costa Rican Diversity

Erik Oberholtzer, Co-Founder of Tender Greens and Food Forever Champion

Last month I was in San Jose, Costa Rica with the Food Forever Initiative to cook with some of the country’s top talent. It was part of the second Global Conference of the One Planet Network: Sustainable Food Systems Programme. We were challenged to use ingredients on the edge of the food system in Costa Rica and to create a diverse dinner for conference participants – including leaders from Costa Rica’s Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, Hivos, WWF, the Foundation for Costa Rican Gastronomy (FUCOGA), and the Nordic Food Policy Lab (Norden).

The ingredient I was assigned was kelp – a kind of thick, slippery seaweed, commonly used in some Asian cuisines but little-used in Central America. While I had cooked with kelp before, I had yet to experience some of the more native ingredients and used the few days leading up to the event to learn more about the range of local offerings.

After arriving in the capital, San Jose, I was jarred by the glut of fast food chains. Fortunately, a walk around the city’s central market and corner produce stands offered ideas for all kinds of healthy, exciting and delicious meals.

I had the pleasure of walking the central market with chef, Ivo Reno Brigitha, of Chateau 1525, a restaurant-turned-training center that offers free courses in the areas of gastronomy and sommelier (the art of training knowledgeable wine professionals on wine and food pairings). We shared experiences from our days working and living in San Francisco and New York City while he introduced me to the ingredients of Costa Rica.

As we foraged the market, Ivo lit up as he described the traditions and techniques associated with each of the fruits and vegetables we tasted. We sampled caimito, a kiwi-like purple fruit with a distinct grape flavor; marañon, also known as cashew fruit, which is reminiscent of persimmon, and many other local favorites. As a chef, the market reminded me of how little I know about some of the diverse foods out there, and how deeply I love the world of food itself.

I’d met Ivo the day before at Chateau 1525 where I had the opportunity to host a cooking class with Costa Rican culinary students.

During the class, we used ingredients also found in the markets, including different varieties of chayote (one of the earliest crops to be cultivated in Mesoamerica with edible fruits, roots and flowers and high in vitamin C) and malanga (a nutritious root vegetable similar in texture to potato and an important crop across South America and Africa). The result was a ratatouille of garlic, olive oil, blistered tomatoes, chayote and spicy Costa Rican peppers accompanied with some crispy malanga chips. And a lot of smiling faces.

What came through in the students I worked with was a strong commitment to environmental stewardship and celebrating the culinary delights of the region, which I soon learned through conversations with the conference organizers was also a strong focus for the country in general. In fact, Costa Rica has made a pledge to become one of the first carbon neutral countries in the world, an effort that will require a shift in food culture to one that celebrates what is unique to local ecosystems rather than ingredients imported from afar.

This commitment was only made more evident in the conference dinner, as chefs championed regional crop diversity and highlighted how instrumental these foods can be in creating a stronger food system.

Throughout the dinner, I was inspired by the culinary vision of all four of the chefs I cooked with.  From early prep work to the finishing touches,  I could feel and taste the beginning of a Costa Rican food movement, led by passionate chefs searching inside themselves, their families and their country to develop a style uniquely Costa Rican.

Drawing from the experiences of Mexico and Peru, the Costa Rican Pura Vida culinary movement is on the rise. If you spend even a short amount of time in Costa Rica, you will encounter the notion of Pura Vida, meaning the pure or simple life. For Costa Ricans, I was told, it embodies a simple appreciation of life and all that comes with it, which was evident through the chefs’ dishes and authentic approach of letting the ingredients speak for themselves.

Mayra Salas used an ancient cooking technique utilizing hot river rocks to prepare a Sopa de Piedra (stone soup), a folkloric dish, which legend says was first created when hungry newcomers to a town convinced residents to share a small amount of their food to make a communal soup, which everyone could enjoy.

Randy Siles made a floral Enyucado con aiere de cas (a homemade cassava cake), which is a labor intensive dish that puts the drought tolerant cassava front and center. Enyucado is a staple in Costa Rican street food and a less common but delicious way of eating cassava.

Emilio Valverde did a miel de tacaco (a tacaco puree) that brought the unusual fava bean-like pod, which resembles a tiny green football, to new heights. And Pablo Bonilla inspired me with his mayonesa de tacaco, flor de itabo en vinagre de guineo (a mayonnaise of tacaco with cassava in a vinegar of guineo). Guineos, akin to extremely unripe bananas, are said to be one of Costa Rica’s best kept secrets and are used in a variety of sauces as a thickening agent. They also add a nice helping of vitamins and minerals – not to mention a flavor boost.

I did my best to keep up with their dishes with a refreshing salad of kelp noodles, hearts of palm, local chilies and blue-green algae vinaigrette. I even had some of the students from my culinary class the day before join me as sous chefs for the evening, reaffirming that the next generation of Costa Rican chefs are committed to promoting and using the vast spectrum of diversity that exists in Costa Rica and beyond.

I look forward to following the evolution of Costa Rica’s cuisine and cooking again soon alongside this talented group. My hope is that the group of chefs championing the use of greater diversity in our food system continues to grow.

If you are a chef and interested in working with us, you can sign up to be a part of the recently launched ‘2020 for 2020,’ campaign, which calls on chefs to advocate for the amazing wealth of diversity within our food systems and to put it to use in their kitchens and beyond. You can sign up for the campaign through the survey here and find a collection of resources with ideas and inspiration here.

After a week of amazing experiences in San Jose, I believe that all chefs could stand to adopt some pura vida in their kitchens, and let unusual, diverse ingredients that contribute to creating a sustainable future take center stage.

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