Accompanying all this are rich Jamaican-inspired dishes that stick to the palate to create an unforgettable gastronomic experience.
“When people think of a typical Costa Rican dish they think of picadillo or tamales but forget Caribbean food. It’s also a typical food because it is a part of us,” said Vanessa Martín Fernández, sister to the owner of Whapin Restaurant, Rodrigro Martín Fernández.
The Martín siblings spent their childhood in Limón, walking the streets and enjoying the kindness of the people in a time Ms. Martin described as less dangerous.
Rodrigo always enjoyed cooking and started a restaurant in the town. Twelve years ago he opened the Caribbean restaurant in San José cooking from his own personal recipes, said his sister.
It is the classic flavors of uniquely spiced coconut milk-based dishes such as rice and beans and rondon soup that Martín tries to recreate in hopes of sharing his love for the coast on which he grew up, she said.
Rice and beans is a widely renowned Caribbean dish. It should not be confused with gallo pinto, a mixed rice and beans dish usually served for breakfast in Costa Rica. Although the two have the same main ingredients, the process of cooking is different.
The Caribbean rice and beans dish is cooked together in coconut milk with Panamanian peppers and thyme, while gallo pinto takes leftover rice and previously cooked beans and reheats them together with cilantro, onions, oil and peppers.
The Caribbean dish is usually served with a black chicken. Black chicken is first browned in a skillet with oil then marinated in a sauce of chili peppers, tomato, coconut milk and curry over heat to give its dark color. The chef may also place the sauce atop the rice.
Once tasted, the difference between Tico frijoles y arroz and Limón rice and beans is immediately noticed by a flavor explosion in the mouth. It’s one that Vanesa Mártin Fernández refers to as exotic. That is because the spices used are foreign to normal Costa Rican food, she said.
As the spices take over the mouth, its a good idea to have a smooth drink to cool it down. Hiel or agua de sapo, translated as “frog water,” is a popular choice in Caribbean restaurants. Fortunately, the beverage is a misnomer and does not contain frogs or water surrounding a lily pad. It is, instead, a lemonade sweetened with unrefined sugar and flavored with ginger. The name likely comes from the way the drink resembles dirty pond water, said Carmen Lewis Garbey, chef at The Grandma.
Although ginger is not popular in other Costa Rican providences, the spice has a rich history in the Caribbean and is used in Jamaica to make different teas, beers and cakes. The result of adding ginger to this lemonade is a refreshing thirst quencher that slightly kicks you in the back of the throat as the ginger spice seeps through the liquid.
Ms. Mártin admitted that her favorite Caribbean dish is rondon, a seafood soup made from literally whatever can be found in the sea mixed with roots such as yucca and potatoes plus plantain. The name is a creole take on the phrase “run down,” because to be successful in making this soup, the chef would need to first find or run down the ingredients.
Rondon broth is made from the cumulation of coconut milk, fish heads, and spice. The final product has a slight fishy taste with a delicate balance of sweet and salty. Because of the hearty ingredients, a bowl of this soup is enough to fill one up, said Ms. Mártin.
One Costa Rican resident commented that any trip to Limón is not complete without a pati. Street vendors walk yelling “Pati,” as they offer the empanada-filled ground beef dish. The meat has a spicy flavor that starts off slow and builds until it fills the whole mouth.
A slight change to these dishes are plantain empanadas that have a fruity, red tinted center and also black fruitcake called pan bon.
There are several restaurants in San José that serve Caribbean dishes including The Grandma downtown and Whapin in Barrio Escalante. The latter restaurant is creole and named for a phrase that means “what’s happening.”
However, to truly experience food at its best locals and tourists both agree there is no better place than the Limón providence.