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I have been traveling in the beautiful island of St. Lucia. The volcanic soil and tropical climate of St. Lucia produce bountiful harvests year round. With plenty of fruits and vegetables to choose from, some that I had never even tried, I arrived
ready to experiment and taste.
The first stop was Castries Market where farmers' wives sell their harvests. The market is lined with tables of fruits and vegetables as well as local spices including bay leaves, ginger, clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg and herbs, like parsley, thyme, and basil.
Almost every table has a jar of hot pepper sauce and banana ketchup, which is a blend of bananas, herbs, and spices. Also inside the market are meat and fresh local fish sections as well as restaurants serving local dishes. Of course I wanted to cook and taste what the locals eat so I decided to enlist some help. At one of the restaurant stalls, I met Sylvia, a local woman who invited me into her back kitchen for a lesson in St. Lucian cooking.
The local stew, green figs and saltfish, which is boiled green bananas and salted cod, is definitely an acquired taste. Many dishes include one of two sauces. Although every person has their own version of the sauces, they typically follow the same basic recipes. The green sauce is a blend of green onions, celery, garlic, parsley, and seasoning peppers, which are small colorful peppers that look like hot Scotch Bonnet peppers without the heat. The other is Creole sauce, which was my favorite, and is a sauté of diced onion, garlic, seasoning and/or chili peppers, tomato, turmeric (called chi chi ma in St. Lucian), cinnamon, and spice seasoning, which is then simmered in fish stock or water. Turmeric, grown locally and sold at most tables in Castries Market, is a root with anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties as well as a multitude of other health benefits. St. Lucian stews typically contain fish or meat and starchy fruits and vegetables, like yams, pumpkin, dasheen (taro), carrots, breadfruit, green bananas, and/or plantains all cooked in one pot with sauce. Staples in St. Lucian cooking, breadfruit and dasheen, both acquired tastes, reminded me of dry starchy potato when boiled in the stew. The entire meal, from start to finish,
is made using fresh, local ingredients.
I returned from Castries Market with my haul of fruits and vegetables to practice what Sylvia had taught me. In addition to the one pot meal, I added sides of fresh local callaloo, eggplant, cabbage, and green beans that I just couldn't resist. Callaloo is a spinach-like green with slightly larger, thicker leaves that have a faintly bitter flavor resembling chard when cooked.
My breakfast each morning was full of local St. Lucian fruits with Greek yogurt. I tried as many as I could, some I liked better than others. We'll start with my least favorite, soursop. The outside is green and spiky and inside is a white almost gelatinous pulp with black seeds. Although some locals eat right from the fruit, most remove the seeds and skin, blend the pulp with milk, and strain it through cheesecloth to make juice. The passion fruit was delicious, seeds and all, sprinkled with a little stevia (or sugar). Bananas, papayas, and different varieties of mangoes were plentiful and delicious. My favorite was the St. Lucian apricot. It is surrounded by a hard brown outer shell and has two seeds. It takes a little work to get into but it pays off in flavor. The taste is a unique experience, what I would describe as a combination of dried and fresh ripe apricot with a slight tartness. Coconuts are used for everything from oil to soap, but most people open the green coconuts, drink the water inside, and then scoop out the creamy flesh as a snack.
Some also dry it out over a fire to snack on.
Although they are not my favorite fruits, grapefruits, tangerines, and melons are also abundant on St. Lucia.
To learn more about one of the local fruit exports, I visited a banana plantation. Since there is no market for an imperfect banana, each bunch that hangs from the tree is wrapped in blue plastic for protection from birds and insects. From each blue plastic pouch hangs a different colored string representing the degree of ripeness. A banana plant takes approximately 9 months to grow and produce ripe fruit. After producing ripe fruit, the mother plant dies but is replaced by suckers, baby plants that spring up around its base. It was interesting to see the purple banana flower, which hangs from the tree and opens one leaf at a time to reveal the baby bananas that grow into ripe fruit.
The final delicious ingredient to my St. Lucian food experience was cassava root, which is ground down into flour and used in breads (cassava flour) or stews (coarse ground cassava root called farine). I didn't add it to my stew, but I did find a bakery called Plas Kassav (www.plaskassav.com) that makes delicious gluten free breads using cassava flour and flavorings, like cinnamon (a local spice), raisin, coconut, and cocoa (also grown and harvested locally). Believe me, this was a delicious high fiber addition to my morning meal.
There were even more, like gooseberry, many apple varieties, guava, christophene (also called chayote), okra, and the St. Lucian avocado (which unfortunately isn't in season now) that I didn't get to try so I'll have to return. Another popular snack food that I didn't have a chance to taste is roti, a flour pancake that originated in India and is filled with curried potatoes and a choice of meat, fish, or vegetarian products. If you ever travel to this lush tropical island, I hope that you have as delicious and nutritious an experience as I did.
Pura Vida is a Costa Rican term that literally means “pure life,” but for the people of Costa Rica, it means so much more. It is used constantly in conversation both as a greeting and a synonym for “excellent.” The phrase is thought to have originated in the 1950s as communication between surfers and local Costa Ricans (Ticos). For ticos, pura vida is a lifestyle and once I visited Costa Rica, I understood why. There is an attention to clean, fresh, and local food. I traveled around sampling the local produce and cuisine. Overall, ticos diet is healthy minus a couple of staples that are fried. Since much of the culture also leads an active lifestyle, they set a great example for the rest of us. The typical meal, or casado, consists of beans and rice (gallo pinto), meat, fish, or at breakfast egg, carrot, tomato, and cabbage salad, and often fried or baked plantains. Fruits and/or vegetables are served with every meal in good portions making their diet high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber. This is the basic profile of every meal of the day, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The casado is similar to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are designed to help people over 2 years of age eat a healthy diet. The message focuses on building a healthy plate at mealtimes. This visual cue makes it easy to portion foods without specific measurements. The plate should be comprised of ¼ grains, ¼ protein, and ½ fruits and vegetables with dairy on the side. Other factors that make ticos healthy are their eating habits. Eating smaller portions at meals allows them to avoid overeating and since lunch is the main meal of the day, they have energy throughout the day when it is needed most.
According to the Today Show, Costa Ricans are not only healthy but also happy, which goes to show that people do “Eat Healthy, Live Happy.” When researchers analyzed nations based on five elements of well-being, purpose, social, financial, community, and physical, Panama and Costa Rica scored the highest but the United States did not make the top 10 in any category. In the new series, “Living to 100” on the Today show, they reveal cultures of longevity based on the research of Dan Buettner, author of “The Blue Zone Solution: Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People.” According to Buettner, 80 % of chronic diseases, like cancer, dementia, heart disease, and diabetes can be avoided, and only 20% of how long a person lives is genetic. Blue Zones include Sardinia and parts of Japan, Greece, Costa Rica and California. These zones are places where people live up to 10 years longer than the rest of us with a high quality of life. People in the blue zones are able to avoid the diseases that shorten lives. Diet and physical activity both play a role in the health and longevity of people in blue zones. The cornerstone of every blue zone diet is that they are plant based and include beans, 1 cup per day. Incorporating some of the healthy habits of these cultures can help improve our overall wellness and aid in the prevention of chronic disease. Below is a summary of common Costa Rican foods.
Restaurants serving “casado or comida tipical” (the traditional or typical Costa Rican meal or food) and snacks are called sodas.
Plantain (plantano) is a member of the banana family that is starchy and low in sugar. Plaintains must be cooked before serving and cannot be eaten raw. Plantains typically resemble a large green banana and turn yellow and black as they ripen and the taste differs at all stages of ripening. Since plantains have about 65% moisture content as opposed to about 83% in bananas and moisture is required to convert starch to sugar, bananas convert starch to sugar faster than plaintains. For this reason, people looking for a sweeter dish have to wait until the skin of the plaintain is almost black.
Ticos love their snacks. Bocas (or appetizers) and snacks include one of my personal favorites, ceviche (seafood marinated in acid, like lime juice), gallos (tortillas filled with meat, cheese, or beans), tamales (stuffed cornmeal patties that are wrapped and steamed in banana leaves), arreglados and tortas (meat filled sandwiches), empanandas (turnovers), fried yucca, and patacones (fried green plantain chips).
The vegetables typical of Costa Rican cuisine are carrots (zanahoria), cabbage, tomatoes (tomate), hearts of palm (palmito), red bell peppers, onions (cebolla), cilantro, turmeric (curcuma), mint and starchy vegetables, corn (maiz), potato (patata), yuca (yucca, manioc root, or cassava), and chayote (pear squash or vegetable pear). In many of the restaurants that I visited, the food also had some Spanish and Caribbean influence and eggplant (berenjena) was commonly used as a vegetable.
Fruits common in Costa Rica are aguacates (avocados, another one of my favorites), banano (banana), carambola (star fruit), guayaba (guava), granadilla or maracuya (passion fruit), limon (lime), mango, moras (blackberries), papaya, pina (pineapple), sandia (watermelon), tamarindo (tamarind), rambutan (sometimes called hairy lychee), and guanabanans (soursop), which is a large green fruit with white flesh and black seed that is typically squeezed into a juice or combined with milk. Fruits are either served plain or blended with ice or milk into a smoothie or refresco (also called batido or natural), some of which also include vegetables and are the perfect treat on a hot day.
Maranon (cashew fruit or cashew apple) is the fruit of the cashew tree. This fruit varies in color from bright yellow to deep red and is distinguished by the kidney bean shaped nut (or seed) hanging from its base. I did not try this fruit, but did feed it to the parrots that used their beaks to peel and eat the yellow, soft flesh inside. The cashew cannot be consumed raw and must be roasted before eating.
Fresh green coconuts, or pipas, are refreshing (especially after a day in the sun) and sold at the beaches and roadside stands everywhere in Costa Rica. They have small amounts of meat but are filled with a slightly sweet, clear liquid, called agua de pipa, loaded with potassium.
My cocktail of choice on vacation in Costa Rica and subsequently my favorite cocktail overall is the traditionally Brazilian caipirinha (sometimes also referred to as the guaro sour), which is made by muddling lime with sugar, adding ice, and pouring in the national sugar cane liquor, which in Costa Rica is called guaro (Cacique) and in Brazil cachaca. Be careful, they are strong and delicious.
Fresh fish! What else can I say. There was a fish market where I stayed called Product C that only sold fish caught that morning. I had to get there early or they were sold out. They had multiple types of grouper that were delicious raw and cooked. Octopus was on most menus, and Product C offered a smoked version that took 72 hours to prepare. Corvina (sea bass) is common and used in ceviches. Dorado (mahi mahi), atun (tuna), and pargo (red snapper) frequently appear on menus, especially along the coast.