Purple Corn, Coyol Sap & Legume Pods of Guanacaste & Nicoya
Wild foods and ancestral agriculture in northwestern Costa Rica.
This region of northwestern Costa Rica, an area of rare tropical dry forest, is home to dozens of exceptional ingredients, many of them endemic to the region or this particular kind of ecosystem. As most tourists gravitate primarily to coastal areas where much of the food is imported, little of these foods are seen. However, the region is large and spread out, and throughout the interior, the rural villages far from Margaritaville, these foods are still abundant.
One of the last remaining strongholds of this variety of purple corn is found in the area around Nicoya. Once grown throughout Mesoamerica, maíz pujagua is now predominantly used by the Chorotega communities that live in this area. While it was quietly fading, there has been a resurgence of its use with the help of initiatives like Proyecto Curubanda. Generally, maíz pujagua is processed into a flour, which can be used to make tamales and pancake-like chorreadas, as well as a number of traditional drinks like pinolillo (toasted corn flour with toasted cacao), chicheme (corn flour), or pinol (toasted corn flour). If you are looking to purchase maíz pujagua in its raw form, or taste drinks like chicheme or other typical foods, go to the Mercado El Guayabo, in the very center of Nicoya. You can also taste tamales made from maíz pujagua and other recipes with it at Sikwa in San José.
Cracked corn. This is dried yellow corn kernels that have been crushed (cracked) into smaller pieces. It’s a common ingredient in chicken feed and used for , though it’s also the central ingredient of one of the region’s most emblematic recipes: Arroz de Maíz.
Guapinol, sometimes written copinol, is a hard pod-like fruit (Hymenaea courbaril) from the West Indian Locust a tree that is endemic to dry forests in Central and South America and the Caribbean. In northwestern Guanacaste, at The Road Less Traveled Cuisine, Gilberto Briceño opens the pods to get to the chalky pulp, which he uses as a flour and makes desserts with.
“We have been grating the fruit to make flour and with that flour we are making desserts,” he says. “Crème brulees, tartas, and even rompope. Rompope is my favorite.” In El Salvador, this flour is also used to make a sweet drink, atoll de guapinol.
Native to tropical regions of the Americas, from Mexico down to Paraguay, coyol palms (Acrocomia aculeata) are used here for their sap to make a product called coyol wine. Also, called chicha de coyol, this fermented beverage has been drank in Guanacaste and other parts of Central America for thousands of years. To extract the sap, the trees are cut down and the the liquid is drained from the trunk and then fermented in the sun for up to a week. The more it ferments, the thicker the coyol wine becomes. It’s generally light and with a cloudy, milky appearance and is best served chilled. Along the road near Nambí de Nicoya, several small producers sell different variations of coyol, sich as Coyolera Chepelito y Doña Ana and Coyolera Tony.
Called conchas negras in Peru or patas de mula in Mexico, piangua (Andara tuberculosa or Andara similis), or mangrove cockles as the generic English term, are found in the mangrove forests in the Gulf of Nicoya. The se black mollusks are generally boiled and served with rice or added to seafood soups, though the majority of what is harvested is used for ceviche, made just a little bit of lime and onions (RECIPE).
Related to cilantro, culantro coyote (Eryngium foetidum), often called just culantro , recao or shadow beni in other parts of the region, is a sawtoothed herb that grows wild in Guanacaste. It’s often added to soups and stews, like the traditional beef stew Olla de Carne, as well as beans. It doesn’t have the soapy taste that some find in cilantro, though it is more potent.
Also called annatto, the bright red seeds of the Bixa orellana shrub are used as a dye, as well as a flavoring for many dishes in Costa Rica, not to mention elsewhere in Latin America. It’s best used by grinding the seeds with a mortar into a fine powder, inparting a mildly peppery flavor into stews, rice dishes, sand sausages. though achiote paste is a common supermarket product in the country and is widely used. In Guanacaste, it’s used in traditional recipes of the region like Pollo Achiotada and Ayaco.
Historically used by indigenous communities in Guanacaste and in Nicaragua, Ojoche (Brosimum alicastrum) was once a staple food prior to colonization. When boiled the seeds inside the fruit, sometimes called Maya nuts or breadnuts, have a taste and texture similar to potatoes. When roasted, the flavor is richer, closer to coffee or chocolate. While the nuts can eaten raw, they’re often dried and processed into a flour to be used for drinks, porridges, and baked goods. Once more widespread, the trees, which take on average 25 years to produce fruit, have been gradually cut down for grazing land for cattle.
The seed pods of the Guanacaste (Enterolobium cyclocarpum), the tree the region is named for, are mostly used for animal fodder, though they have a history of culinary use in the region. Highly nutritious and often compared to beans, the seeds can be added to sauces and soups or toasted and ground to make flour. They can even be roasted and used as a coffee alternative.
The tree (Byrsonima crassifolia) that produces this small yellow berry is found in the dry forests of Guanacaste, as well as neighboring provinces. The white pulp is high in Vitamin C and has a sweet flavor with hints of bitterness. It’s eaten fresh, used for juices, fermented, or used for ice creams and desserts.
Widely known as Costa Rican dragon fruit, the fruit of the Costa Rican Night Blooming Cactus (Hylocereus costaricensis) is found throughout Guanacaste and lowland areas of the Puntarenas province. The magenta-fleshed fruit is sweeter than other varieties of dragon fruit, which tend to be mildly sour. The texture is similar to watermelon, though held together with hard yet edible small black seeds. It can be eaten fresh, or prepared in desserts and ice creams.
Costa Rican rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum), sometimes called mamoncillo, is most often seen being sold from roadside stands from July to October. The bright red fruit has a “hairy” exterior and covers a gummy white pulp that surrounds a hard pit. The pulp is sweet and tangy and is usually eaten fresh. Native to Asia, they have been growing in Costa Rica for more than a century and are widely planted.
A potato-like tuber (Xanthosoma sagittifolium), similar the ñampi. Sometimes called malanga or yautia in other parts of the Americas. It is elongated in shape with a dark skin and bright white to yellow interior. It’s usually eaten boiled and pureed or added to stews.
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