Doña María Elena Espinosa Grijalba’s Arroz de Maíz
A guardian of Chorotega recipes in Guanacaste, Costa Rica.
You should know her name. Everyone else should know it too. It’s Doña María Elena Espinosa Grijalba. She’s a Costa Rican national treasure. In her mid-60s, she’s one of the greatest cooks in all of Central America and a guardian of Chorotega recipes that are disappearing as fast as the Planet Hollywood and Margaritaville resorts were built not that far away. Yet, despite being about an hour from some of Costa Rica’s most frequented beaches in Guanacaste, a major international tourism hotspot, few know she exists.
Her house is down the street from the very center of Guaitil, a Chorotega community best known for their earth toned, hand-painted ceramics. A handful of small artisan shops are scattered within a couple of kilometers in every direction from the center, including at Doña Maria Elena’s house, where she uses the wood fired oven for both pottery and cooking. Her primary business is her Molino. She mills corn from local farmers to nixtamalize and make tortillas. Large ones, the kind that are common in this corner of Guanacaste, the size of medium pizzas, and quite thick. She sells these to neighbors mostly, a few of which come and go while I’m there. There is also the sweet corn drink called chicheme, as well as tamales and rosquillas, the sweetened corn cookie rings that are famous here.
I’m here for the Arroz de Maiz though. It’s a recipe that isn’t limited to Guanacaste, or Costa Rica for that matter. You’ll find it in Panama, Colombia, Honduras and elsewhere. Every region has their own variations, though the signature ingredient is maíz casacada, or cracked corn, which looks a little bit like rice when submerged in a stew. It is smaller and easier to digest than whole shelled corn. It’s called maíz caquiao or Chacá in the Dominican Republic. Morocho in in Ecuador, maíz peto in Colombia and maíz trillado in Venezuela are similar, but made of dried, cracked hominy.
Doña Maria Elena’s arroz de maíz is the stuff of legends. I watch as she heats some up in an iron pan over an open flame. There’s a little bit of chile, achiote, garlic and culantro, plus pork fat, from the pigs she raises in the back. When I taste it, it’s rich and velvety. I feel my body embrace its warmth as it moves down from my mouth. There’s a touch of spice. Just enough. Her arroz guacho, a chicken and rice stew, something I wasn’t expecting, was just as wonderful.
Her entire set up is the kind of thing I always hope to find driving along the back roads of Costa Rica, though after many trips I hardly ever do. The sourcing of the ingredients, the making everything by hand, the recipes passed down from one generation to the next, the smoke and fire and everything else…seems idyllic. It has little to do with the rusticity of the kitchen or the dreamy atmosphere down the lonely dirt road, as much as I sometimes think that is a part of it. It’s just someone that wants to cook, that loves to cook and has the tools to do it in a way that expresses a recipe’s maximum flavor potential, wherever that may be.
I only know about Doña María Elena because my friend, Pablo Bonilla, the chef of Sikwa in San José, and his business partner Michael Katz, recommended her to me. They invited her to cook at Ocaso, a music festival earlier in the year, and she’s been mentioned in a few local news articles, but otherwise she’s unknown by everyone except her neighbors.
After the arroz de maíz and guacho, we chat as she makes cuajada, fresh cheese made from milk curd. She tells me about her love of cooking. How she has taught her daughters and granddaughters all of her recipes and they make them just as good as she does. She squeezes the cuajada again and again until the excess water drips out. She saves that for the pigs, then places some of the cheese on a tortilla.
“My dream before I die is to have a restaurant,” she tells me. “I don’t want fame. People looking for typical cuisine, I’ll serve them.”
She wants to formalize her space and hire someone to help her with the Molino, but first people have to come. That’s why I’m telling you right now.
Here are the exact coordinates to her house on Google Maps. It’s the last house on the street on the left. You will see a sign that says Molinos Doña Elena. If you are driving from Liberia airport or from the beaches of Nicoya to the beaches of Guanacaste, Guaitil is an easy stop. On most days she is there and will serve you what she is making, though it’s best to call a few days in advance and set something up. Here is her number: (+506) 6448-4225.