Creole cuisine is known throughout the Americas, from Louisiana to Bahía, for its imaginative use of African spices and vegetables, succulent fish and chicken dishes and fantastic sweet desserts. Sample Limón’s version at any of the locally run restaurants dotted along the coast. These are often family affairs, usually presided over by respected older Afro-Caribbean women. Sitting down to dinner at a red gingham tablecloth, with a cold bottle of Imperial beer, reggae on the boombox and a plate heaped with coconut-scented rice-and-beans is one of the real pleasures of visiting this part of Costa Rica. Note that many restaurants, in keeping with age-old local tradition, feature Creole dishes at weekends only, serving simpler dishes or the usual Highland rice concoctions during the week.
Everyone outside Limón will tell you that the local speciality, rice-and-beans (in the lilting local accent it sounds like “rizanbin”), is “comida muy pesada” (very heavy food). However, this truly wonderful mixture of red or black beans and rice cooked in coconut milk is no more pesada – and miles tastier – than traditional Highland dishes like arroz con camarones, where everything is fried; it’s the coconut milk that gives this dish its surprising lift. Another local speciality is pan bon, sweet bread glazed and laced with cheese and fruit which is often eaten for dessert, as are ginger biscuits and plantain tarts. Pan bon doesn’t translate as “good bread”, as is commonly thought; “bon” actually derives from “bun”, brought by English-speaking settlers. Rundown (said “rondon” – to “rundown” is to cook) is a vegetable and meat or fish stew in which the plantains and breadfruit cook for many hours, very slowly, in spiced coconut milk. It may be hard to find, mainly because it takes a long time, at least an afternoon, to prepare. Though some restaurants – Springfield in Limón, Miss Junie’s in Tortuguero and Miss Edith’s in Cahuita – have it on their menus as a matter of course, it’s usually best to stop by on the morning of the day you wish to dine and request it for that evening.
Favoured spices in Limonese Creole cooking include cumin, coriander, peppers, chillies, paprika, cloves and groundspice, while the most common vegetables are those you might find in a street market in West Africa, Brazil or Jamaica. Native to Africa, ackee (in Spanish seso vegetal) was brought to the New World by British colonists, and has to be prepared by knowledgeable cooks because its sponge-cake-like yellow fruit, enclosed in three-inch pods, is poisonous until the pods open. Served boiled, ackee resembles scrambled eggs and goes well with fish. Yucca, also known as manioc, is a long pinkish tuber, similar to the yam, and usually boiled or fried. Local yams can grow as big as 25kg, and are used much like potato in soups and stews. Another native African crop, the huge melon-like breadfruit (fruta de pan), is more a starch substitute than a fruit, with white flesh that has to be boiled, baked or grated. Pejiballes (pejibaye in Spanish – English-speaking people in Limón pronounce it “picky-BAY-ah”) are small green or orange fruits that look a little like limes. They’re boiled in hot water and skinned – and are definitely an acquired taste, being both salty and bitter. You’ll find them sold on the street in San José, but they’re most popular in Limón. Better known as heart-of-palm, palmito is served in restaurants around the world as part of a tropical salad. Plantains (plátanos in Spanish), the staple of many Highland dishes, figure particularly heavily in Creole cuisine, and are deliciously sweet when baked or fried in fritters. Right at the other end of the health scale are herbal teas, a speciality of the province and available in many restaurants: try wild peppermint, wild basil, soursop, lime, lemon grass or ginger.