This is not a good time to be a fish. Expats can see them in cans stacked 10 high in the nation’s supermarkets.
There is no law that says Catholics have to eat tuna or sardines during the religious period before Easter, Lent. But the culture says they do.
Consequently merchandisers of canned fish products consider this the high season. The demand is so good that the economics ministry has found in past years that store operators jack up the prices.
Even some city buses are promoting fish in the form of a tuna topping to pasta depicted on the back panel.
Alimentos por Salud S.A. in Robledal de Puntarenas cans a lot of fish products under the Sardimar label. Sardines in particular come in many forms: in tomato sauce, in spicy tomato sauce, in vegetable oil and in olive oil. The little 150-gram Sardimar cans show their content with different colors.
All is not well with the Pacific sardines. They have shown a dramatic decline, in part because of colder waters and perhaps due to overfishing. So a lot of the sardines on sale in Costa Rica come from Morocco. Prices range from about 800 colons for the local Sardimar can up to 1,300 colons or about $3.85 for an imported flat can that has a drained weight of 125 grams with a fish content of a little over three ounces.
In most parts of the world, Catholics over 14 and members of some other Christian religions practice fasting and abstinence from meat during some of the 44 days before Easter, which is commemorated as Resurrection Sunday.
Fish is the logical choice in place of meat, but sardines seem to have become synonymous with Lent. In Spain there are strange ceremonies with uncertain origins, such as the burial of the sardine at the beginning of Lent or the burning of the sardine. Even those who practice these rituals are uncertain of the origins. But they make great tourist attractions.
Good Catholics also are supposed to eat fewer meals at certain times during Lent as an expression of penance and reflection on sin. So the high-protein fish, hot or cold, is a logical choice.
The Internet is full of recipes for Lent and Holy Week, Semana Santa.
Costa Ricans, of course, are not restricted to canned fish. The supermarkets are full of the fresh variety, and a trip to San Jose’s Mercado Central is an education in the local species from shark to red snapper to octopus and squid.
Yet fresh fish is a little pricey. And the little cans are convenient.
To ask why Costa Ricans are so involved with sardines and tuna at this time of year really is a cultural question, like why turkey for Americans at Thanksgiving? The dish probably is what Grandma used to make.