Your guide to the food and culture of the tropics

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18 Things to Eat, Buy and Do in Costa Rica

Photograph: Kenneth Lu

So you’re planning a trip to Costa Rica. With the nationwide mantra of “pura vida,” or “pure life,” you’d have to be a fool to pass up visiting this sprawling paradise of natural life, lush greenery and delicious native food. But with such a massive amount of exploring to do in such a short time, it can be tough to narrow down the best parts of Costa Rica and ensure you get the best experience possible out of your stay. Fortunately, we know all the secrets to maximizing your trip, however long or short it may be. Check out our tips below for top recommendations to eat, buy and do while you’re living the pura vida.

If you’re going to live like the locals live, eat like the locals eat. For Costa Ricans, this means indulging in a few meals that make appearances every day around breakfast, lunch and dinner and peppering in some delicious specialty dishes to mix it up. Here are some of the favorites.

1. Gallo Pinto

It may not be customary to have rice and beans for breakfast in other countries, but in Costa Rica, gallo pinto graces the breakfast table across the country on a daily basis. If you’re looking to truly experience Costa Rica, don’t get on that return flight without at least one helping.

2. Casado

Another staple here, this “marriage” of many foods makes its first appearance around lunchtime and includes rice and beans, flank steak or chicken, salad and sometimes chilies or plantains. Aiming to eat like the locals? This is your best bet. Want to have a truly local expereince? Head over to La Posada de las Brujas in Escazú for a great casado and other Costa Rican favorites, such as Chicharrones, Chifrijo and Pozol. Don’t mind the appearance of this true hole-in-the-wall frequented by locals and some expats, this is the real thing.

18 Things to Eat, Buy and Do in Costa Rica
Photograph: Ted McGrath

3. Ceviche

Before you fill up on rice and beans, leave at least one meal during your visit for ceviche. A popular seafood dish in any Caribbean coastal area, ceviche is fish, or a selection of seafood ‘cooked’ in lime juice, and deliciously spiced with onion, bell peppers and cilantro. Seafood allergies are the only legit excuse for not giving this dish a try. For more on this light, healthy and delicious dish, including a quick recipe check out this post.

Ceviche: Quick, Simple and Healthy Taste of the Tropics

4. Seafood

While we’re on the topic, if your body allows, Costa Rica boasts some of the freshest, most delicious seafood on the planet. Make sure to try fresh Seabass, Mahi Mahi or Yellow Fin Tuna. Healthy, sustainable, delicious. Need we say more?

5. Fresh fruit

Costa Rica produces a massive amount of delectable, juicy fruit straight from the earth. While you’re in the area, branch away from normal fruit choices and opt for a ripe mango, papaya or fresh coconut. You won’t regret it.

6. Refrescos

Speaking of fresh fruit, don’t leave the country without trying Costa Rica’s favorite refreshing beverage. Also called “frescos” for short, Costa Ricans regularly indulge in refrescos, combinations of fresh fruit and either water and sugar or milk. Try any of the fruity flavors the country grows, or branch out and taste some horchata, a mixture including rice flour and extra cinnamon.

 

We’d like to do nothing but eat scrumptious local food, but with a wealth of exciting activities, it’s a difficult task in Costa Rica. From adventure junkies to nature lovers to water babies, Costa Rica has something for everyone. Our top picks?

7. Surf

Any visit to Costa Rica warrants a surf or two. Even if you’ve never hit the waves in your life, the country is brimming with opportunities to learn from the best how to catch a wave so you can sit on top of the world. There are plenty of legendary surf spots, such as Roca Bruja (Witches Rock) on the north pacific coast, all the way to Dominical on the south and Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean side, with both surf schools and rentals to meet every budget.

8. San Jose

Although not the best representation of the country, San José has some gems which should not be missed. The Gold Museum has one of the best collections of indigenous gould artifacts anywhere in Latin America, definately worth a visit downtown. While there, visit the newly built Jade Museum, the Contemporary Art Museum (located in what used to be the national liquor factory), and make sure you stop for coffee at the National Theater, inspired by the Paris Opera. All these will be within a 4 block radius. Spending a Saturday? If you are willing to get up early and be there by 8:00 (7:00 if you need to park), go for breakfast at the Otoya Organic Farmers Market and get a taste of interesting local fruit and produce, great handcrafted sauces and spices, and specialty street food.

9. Manuel Antonio National Park

If you’re in Costa Rica to answer the call of the wild, Manuel Antonio is an absolute must. From kayaking to rappelling waterfalls to catching the amazing wildlife on film, this national park is sure to keep you busy and feeling energized.

18 Things to Eat, Buy and Do in Costa Rica

10. Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve

Another option for natural explorations, Monteverde houses a rare cloud forest, allowing for luscious plant growth and wildlife that only accounts for 1% of global woodland. Talk about a once in a lifetime experience!

11. Visit Arenal Volcano

Until a few years ago, Arenal was an active volcano with plenty of lava and ash plumes to see. It’s sleeping now, but that doesn’t make the view any less magnificent, and if you’re somehow worried about boredom, try hiking, rafting or horseback riding while you peep the massive mountain.

12. Ziplining/Canopy Tours

In fact, consider checking Arenal out via zipline. Costa Rica is well known for these fun adventures, and while you’re flying high, you can see the over 70% of rainforest activity that goes on up in the canopies.

13. Coffee Tours

Costa Rican arabica roast, anyone? Chances are you don’t usually see where that pound of coffee at your local supermarket comes from, but in Costa Rica, there are few reasons not to. Take one of numerous coffee tours and see exactly what the country’s history is all about.

 

At some point you have to leave, and you’ll most likely be aching to take a piece of this paradise with you. So what are your best options?

14. Coffee

Did we mention Starbucks bought their first ever coffee farm in Costa Rica and established their Global Agronomy Research Center there? Need we say more about the quality of coffee in the country? Take the opportunity to get it straight from the source.

15. Lizano

Not an Italian lizard. Lizano is Costa Rica’s very own salsa, and although you can now purchase it online or in North American stores, we both know it’s better with the personal history. You’ll become addicted to this very Costa Rican uber-spice.

16. Handmade jewelry

What better souvenir from a vacation than something handmade by the very people who make the country what it is? From woven bracelets to shell and wooden jewelry, Costa Rican natives make beautiful pieces of wearable art.

17. Handmade wood crafts

Their skill with wood doesn’t stop at jewelry though. Visitors rave over the homemade rocking chairs Costa Rican companies will deliver worldwide, and if you’re really into the cultural aspect, look out for handmade wooden oxcarts.

18. Candies- Fruit candy and chocolate covered coffee beans

It’s difficult to bring fresh fruit across the border from Costa Rica, but the country does take pride in a variety of candied fruits and other sweets, including chocolate covered coffee beans. Regardless of what you choose, it’s bound to be better than airline peanuts.

 

No matter what you eat, buy or do in Costa Rica, you’re in for a treat when you cross into this lush tropical paradise. So even if you don’t take all of our advice here, enjoy your trip and get into the culture. Live la pura vida.

 

Food Truck Heaven in New York City: Taste of the Caribbean

Photograph: Clint McMahon

New York: America’s melting pot. With a name like that, it’s only fair to expect the city to offer a plethora of cuisine and experiences to its massive number of inhabitants, and New York delivers, spilling foreign and exotic tastings from traditional table settings to the streets of the bustling, well-lit city.

New York may well have been the origin of the American food truck, and it certainly ranks among the highest in current cities catering to the trend. This means that no matter what you’ve got a hankering for, chances are high you can find it on these city streets, even the wide variety of Caribbean food usually tucked in secret cafes in the likes of Crown Heights and Harlem.

New York is a big city, so we’ve done our research to make finding these delectable trucks and carts a bit easier on your poor feet. Take a peek below at what the streets of the Empire State’s main city have to offer those with taste buds for the Caribbean flavor.

New York City is home to about a dozen food trucks and carts with a flare for Puerto Rican, Dominican, Haitian food and the like, but among these “establishments,” including TMT Caribbean Delights, Trinidad and Tobago Cart, and Jamaican Dutchy, five vendors stand out above the rest, whether for their achievements in the yearly Vendy Awards competition or simply raving reviews no one can resist. In no particular order, jot down these names for Caribbean fare in the big city.

Yvonnes’s Jamaican Food Truck

Food Truck Heaven in New York City: Taste of the CaribbeanPhotograph: Phude-NYC

First up, Yvonne’s Jamaican Food Truck. Authentic Jamaican food isn’t terribly hard to find in New York, most especially Brooklyn, due to a large West Indian neighborhood well-versed in cooking up genuine roti, jerk chicken, curried goat and the like. Manhattan’s not so lucky, though, which may be one reason 61-year-old Yvonne has established quite a name for her fare on New York’s Upper East Side, where she can be found regularly at 71st and York.

Yvonne’s super hot sauce, plentiful portions and excellent prices have landed her a solid 4 star rating on Yelp.com, and a place on both CBS Local’s Top Street Meat list and NY Mag’s Cheap Eats: 25 Best Food Trucks. In other words, wherever you are, get to the Upper East Side between 11 and 2 and snag some of this famous Caribbean cuisine.

Trini-Paki Boys Cart

The quest for excellent West Indian fare continues further down the island, with the highly successful Trini-Paki Boys Cart, a creative fusion of Trinidadian fare with Pakistani cuisine, thanks to a literal marriage of the two cultures. Another of CBS Local’s Best NYC Food Trucks, Trini-Paki Boys is the brainchild of a multi-cultural husband and wife team, and boasts a Bake N Shark that features real shark. Trini-Paki Boys are usually situated in prime Midtown food truck feasting area, around 43rd Street and 6th Avenue, and the duo features three different sizes of their various Caribbean dishes, including notably juicy chicken and goat curry. With a raving, 4 star Yelp.com profile, it’s no surprise that Trini-Paki Boys landed the winning spot at the 2013 Street Meat Palooza.

Veronica’s Kitchen

Rest assured the bottom of Manhattan gets its fair share of West Indian grub too, thanks to Veronica Julien and her mobile kitchen. Veronica founded and still operates Veronica’s Kitchen, a Vendy Award Finalist whose authentic jerk chicken and oxtail provides weekday lunches to New York’s Financial District workforce. Another food cart Yelpers are fond of, Veronica’s Kitchen is known for huge portions of genuinely delicious Caribbean chow at low prices of $6-$8 and has been featured in TimeOut New York. Needless to say, if work finds you frequenting, or even visiting the lively FiDi neighborhood, it’s worth a few extra calories to stop in and see Veronica.

Lechonera La Piraña

Food Truck Heaven in New York City: Taste of the CaribbeanPhotograph: James Boo

The Caribbean as we know it isn’t limited to West Indian culture, though, and New York understands that. Enter the next two renowned food trucks with a talent for Caribbean taste. Lechonera La Piraña may well be one of the most popular Latin-based food trucks in the city, and is one of the few that operates solely in the Bronx, an admittedly neglected borough in the rolling food industry. Angel, also known as Piraña, the cart’s owner and chef, livens up an ordinary South Bronx corner with his ode to Puerto Rico and famously satisfying roasted pork. Though he only serves lunch and a late afternoon meal, Piraña is never short on customers, who cover the sidewalks to taste his locally sourced pork and handmade, authentic Puerto Rican empanadas. He’s somewhat of a neighborhood institution, and qualified as a finalist in two Vendy Awards categories this year, including People’s Choice. Need we say more?

Latin Kitchen NYC

Finally, for no reason other than chance, add New York’s newest Latin food truck, Latin Kitchen NYC to your list of Caribbean options in the city. Spawned from a son’s deep appreciation for his Puerto Rican mother’s down-home cooking, Latin Kitchen is the street extension of a 10-year old Bronx restaurant, featured on The Food Network’s Restaurant Stakeout. Not only is Latin Kitchen known for yummy Jibaritos, they bring a heartwarming story to the streets with their goods. Founding mother of Latin Kitchen, Mami, was in a terrible accident and pronounced dead; then she came out of her coma and immediately asked who was cooking in her kitchen. With dedication like that and the word of a huge city on their side, Latin Kitchen NYC is a necessary stop for Caribbean fare in New York City.

New York, no matter how glistening, tempting and shrouded in culture, will never be the real Caribbean. Only a fool would make the mistake of assuming it can even get close, but in a city home to numerous transplants from around the world, the food trucks of New York City are doing their best to get close.

10 Must-Have Ingredients for Last-Minute Thai Food at Home

Have a craving for some last minute Thai food? Don’t be caught unprepared. Try keeping your pantry stocked with these must-have ingredients and you’ll be able to whip up a delicious Thai meal in no time flat. Even if you don’t cook Thai food often, most of these ingredients will last a while before they’ll expire, so it only makes sense to keep them on hand in case of a Thai craving emergency.

1. Coconut Milk

No Thai kitchen is complete without coconut milk. It’s a staple in Thai cooking and is used in entrees, desserts, and even beverages. Thai chefs like to mix the smooth sweetness of coconut milk with spicy foods like chili paste to give foods a tropical twist with a subtle coconut flavor.  It’s also a great sweetening agent to add to Thai iced tea. Coconut milk is a go to ingredient when it comes to quick, flavorful Thai food.

2. Lemongrass

The distinct flavor of lemongrass is a favorite among us Thai food fans and can be used to make a number of tasty meals. Though cooking with fresh lemongrass is a preferred method, there are dried and freeze dried varieties available which will have a longer shelf life than the one week expiration of fresh lemongrass.

3. Chillies

Dried, fresh, chopped, powdered, there really isn’t a way you won’t find chilies used in Thai recipes and in copious amounts, too. Definitely another staple in Thai cooking, chilies are found in just about every Thai dish in some form or another. Even if you’re not a fan of spicy food, mild chilies can add a unique flavor to a dish, plus you can use as much or as little as your taste buds can handle.

10 Must-Have Ingredients for Last-Minute Thai Food at Home Photograph: Michal Sänger

4. Fish Sauce

Fish sauce is a common ingredient in many Thai recipes ranging from stir fry to dipping sauces. Made from fermented fish, salt, and water, the popular seasoning can be high in sodium so it’s a good idea to use it in moderation. It can also be overpowering when too much is used so just remember, a little bit of fish sauce goes a long way!

5. Garlic

Not many types of cuisine would leave garlic off the list as an essential ingredient and Thai food is no exception. Chop up some fresh garlic and saute for a quick flavor boost. Keeping garlic powder in your spice cabinet is a good way to make sure you never run out.

6. Ginger

You can find ginger adding it’s distinctive flavor in quite a few Thai recipes, including desserts. Fresh ginger root will last quite some time in dry storage, but it can also be used in dried powder or granule form. When using fresh ginger, you’ll want to peel it before chopping or grating it up.

10 Must-Have Ingredients for Last-Minute Thai Food at Home Photograph: Sriram Bala

7. Rice Noodles

Rice noodles are inexpensive, easy to store, and quick to prepare. These gluten free noodles are the base of many different Thai recipes like pad thai and pad see ew.

8. Curry Paste

Curry Paste comes in a variety of types such as green, red, yellow, and Panang. Made from a combination of chilies and aromatic spices, they are an irreplaceable ingredient in many traditional Thai recipes. When used in curry dishes, the paste adds depth and incredible flavor. It’s also commonly mixed with coconut milk as base ingredients to make broths.

9. Limes

Limes play a large part in Thai cooking as they give dishes notes of fresh citrus in  addition to making other flavors in the dish pop. Lime juice and lime leaves are often added as ingredients while preparing a dish, and lime wedges are often served on the side or as a garnish with the meal.

10. Herbs

Preferably the fresh variety, herbs such as cilantro, basil, and mint are great ways to add an aromatic element to your favorite Thai dish and amp up the flavor. Like lemongrass, fresh herbs are the way to go, but dried herbs will do in a pinch or when the weather is too cold for a herb garden.

Next time you’re at the grocery store, stock up on the essential Thai ingredients. If you have some last minute dinner guests, you’ll be prepared to whip up a gourmet Thai meal to impress!

8 Delectable Asian Desserts to Add to Your Recipe Repertoire

If the first thing you think of when trying to conjure up the perfect finish to a spectacular Asian feast is a mango ice cream, congratulations! You just won the boring dessert award. Well, we’re joking, but still – there are a gazillion different options for sticky, sweet, unctuous desserts using sugar, spice and all things nice. Add these delectable Asian desserts to your recipe repertoire and everyone will want an invite to your next dinner party.

Black Sesame Honey Custards

8 Delectable Asian Desserts to Add to Your Recipe Repertoire

Photo and recipe courtesy of Serious Eats

These jiggly, creamy and delightfully light custards are flavoured and sweetened with honey – and made with just five ingredients, they have a similar texture to a panna cotta but are much simpler to make than you might think. No worrying about putting ramekins into a water bath and making sure that the boiling hot water doesn’t slosh everywhere as you pull the dish out of the oven. Mix cream, milk, gelatin, honey and ground toasted sesame seed – pour into ramekins, chill and leave to set. Voila! Perfect dessert.

Mango Cobbler with Coconut Cream

8 Delectable Asian Desserts to Add to Your Recipe Repertoire

Photo and recipe courtesy of The Kitchn

Mango based desserts aren’t all bad. But there’s much, much more that you can do with them than blend with sugar and throw into an ice cream maker. In fact, mango is surprisingly versatile – and particularly yummy when cooked. A sweet, comforting dessert that is the perfect finish to your favourite Asian meal, the gloriously doughy coconut cobbler topping soaks up the warm, juicy mangoes brilliantly.

Vanilla Roasted Pears

8 Delectable Asian Desserts to Add to Your Recipe Repertoire

Photo and recipe courtesy of Smitten Kitchen

There’s something about whole roasted pears that just looks so fabulous – very much like you know exactly what you’re doing. They’re what I like to call the perfect show-off dessert – and luckily, they are super, super, SUPER easy to make. This recipe uses vanilla pods and butter for flavour, resulting in a divine pear caramel that’s just begging to be poured over vanilla ice cream – but it’s also really easily adaptable, too. Add a pinch of cardamom, a sprinkle of sesame seeds or just a handful of crushed blanched almonds – whatever you like, really, and serve with ice cream, or a pastry or cake of some sort to soak up all of that delicious caramel.

Vietnamese Coffee Tart with Fresh Pomegranate

8 Delectable Asian Desserts to Add to Your Recipe Repertoire

Photo and recipe courtesy of Luke Nyugen via Food Republic

Coffee? Check. Condensed milk? Check? Ever so crisp pastry shell that practically melts in the mouth? Check! Making things even more mouth-watering is the addition of sweet and slightly sour pomegranate. Now, you may think it has no place near coffee – but it helps to pep things up and cuts through all of that rich, super-sweet flavour from the coffee curd. If that really isn’t your cup of tea however, you could omit the pomegranate and add a light sprinkling of cocoa powder instead. And don’t, under any circumstances, leave the lemon juice out of the pastry. It’ll provide just the right amount of flakiness to the crust.

Green Tea Ice Cream

8 Delectable Asian Desserts to Add to Your Recipe Repertoire

Photo and recipe courtesy of Gourmet via Epicurious

When you just don’t have the energy to do lots of chopping, roasting, mixing and baking – in other words, when you just want to throw something into a blender or an ice cream machine, this green tea ice cream recipe will fast become your saviour. With a silky smooth mouth feel that’s not too greasy – heavy cream is cut with whole milk to create a lighter finish – it’s a make-ahead dessert that can eaten as-is or spooned atop of your fave chocolate cake. Don’t skimp on the eggs, either – they add richness and also create a delicious texture.

Pomegranate Fortune Cookies

8 Delectable Asian Desserts to Add to Your Recipe Repertoire

Photo and recipe courtesy of What Jew Wanna Eat (a Jewish cooking site, but it’s a Chinese recipe)

Fortune cookies have a bit of a bad rep – either they’re the bearer of bad news, ridiculously difficult to make, or they’re far too sweet. Well, if you follow a good recipe (or – and here’s our top tip – make a double batch so that you can get plenty of practice and get your technique bang on) they’re actually a lot easier to make than you might think. This recipe uses pomegranate juice, which gives the cookies a slightly sweet flavour and a gorgeous pinky purple hue.

Palitaw

8 Delectable Asian Desserts to Add to Your Recipe Repertoire

Photo and recipe courtesy of Pinch of Yum

These little soft, squishy, coconutty balls of loveliness remind me a little bit of chocolate truffles. Not in the way that they taste, mind – just in the way that you have to roll them between sugared hands before rolling in the topping/coating of your choice. They’re particularly yummy warm (and it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to keep your hands off them long enough for them to cool down – they are that good), although they’re also good cooled, wrapped in cellophane and tied with ribbon and given away as gifts. And if you have kids? Add a few drops of food coloring to the flour mix to make palitaw that are all sorts of pretty colors.

Mango Lassi Popsicles

8 Delectable Asian Desserts to Add to Your Recipe Repertoire

Photo and recipe courtesy of A Spicy Perspective

Finally, for something a little bit fun and frivolous – all of the fresh, lightly spiced flavor of a traditional mango lassi packed into our favorite transportable dessert, the popsicle! The bottom of the popsicles are covered in a thin layer of salty pistachios to add a little bit of crunch and contrast to the sweetness. If you like, add more or less cardamom, depending on your personal preferences.

So – whether you like your dessert cold and creamy, ooey and gooey (see what we did there?!) or prefer the sticky sweet goodness that is roasted fruit with sugar and spice and all things nice, these Asian desserts have got you more than covered. Feeling adventurous? Make ‘em all. Who needs main courses? Or appetizers? You’ve got homemade ice cream. Happy cooking!