As Costa Ricans observe the Catholic period of Lent, the diet turns to something other than red meat.
Lent, called Cuaresma in Spanish, is supposed to be a period of penance, fasting, abstinence and reflection. The period also is a time to take full advantage of seafoods and some of the derivatives of the chiverre squash.
This is why the stores are full of displays promoting various types of canned fish products. Cod has become synonymous with Lent, and there are a number of soups and casseroles that use this fish product.
The traditions in Costa Rica have changed over the years. Now many families head to the beach for Semana Santa instead of sitting home to pray on Good Friday with the stove, radio and other distractions turned off.
Although there are many other religious faiths in Costa Rica, the culinary traditions of Lent seem to be nearly universal. Costa Rican Jews, of course, are preparing for Passover, and that is a time rich in tradition with some shared food specialties. After all, those at the Last Supper were Jews.
An observant Catholic is supposed to forsake red meat on Ash Wednesday and Fridays during Lent. That’s where the seafoods enter the picture. Theologians have wracked their brains considering the gray areas of abstinence, but no one can go wrong with sardines, tuna, ceviche or shrimp and rice.
The Museo Nacional reports that at one time Costa Ricans abstained from cooking during the entire Semana Santa, the days leading up to Holy Thursday and Good Friday. That was the time before microwaves. But the culinary tradition lingers on with non-perishable foods like palmito, encurtidos and pastries prepared the previous weekend.
The 40-plus days of Lent also call for alms-giving, fasting on certain days and prayer. Self-denial and good works do not exclude a rich soup of cod, called bacalao in Spanish.
Some markets have specials at this time of year to cater to the religious customers. Others jack up the prices. Many types of fish are pricey all the time. A can of cod that drains to about three ounces sells for about 2,700 colons, more than $5. Jumbo shrimp require a second mortgage.
In San José perhaps the best shopping is at the Mercado Central or at small markets south of Avenida 6. There also are the weekend agricultural ferias. The chiverre squash,Cucurbita ficifolia, found only in Central and South America, requires ample preparation and can be found all over the Central Valley. They are brought from farms by the truckload.
There are three different ways to serve it: chiverre with pink sugar, with black sugar cane or con tapa de dulce de caña and finally by using atrapiche or small mill to create a conserve. Recipes are HERE! Tapas de dulce are those circular blocks of brown sugar made from cane.
During this season, Ticos think automatically of miel de chiverre, coco ayote and arroz con leche.
These family recipes have been transmitted across time. To be faithful to Grandma’s recipe a certain tapa de azucar or a certain bean must be used or the taste will not be the same.
The freshness of the ingredients is really important, and this is why a feria del agricultor is a place to find the basics to prepare the food. The fairs themselves are full of wonderful colors, beautiful products and low prices. Ceviche is chopped, marinated raw fish credited to the ancient Peruvians. It can be seasoned with peppers and herbs from the feria. Encurtidos are pickled pieces of vegetable that are best purchased in a jar at the market.
The Lenten season leads up to Easter Sunday when self-denial is not required and the table can groan under the beef, pork and lamb dishes that make waiting more than 40 days worthwhile.
Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, was Feb. 22, Palm Sunday, which marks the beginning of Semana Santa, is April 1 this year. Good Friday is April 6, and Easter is April 8.