It’s Saturday, my first day in Costa Rica. My niece takes us on a quiet little tour of Miramar, the small town she has called home for two months. We visit the ATM. It gives us a message: “You took too much time taking your money so the bank will keep it.” It’s just a joke; the machine spits out a bunch of colones as I requested. Costa Rica has a sense of humor.
We return to Megan’s host family, where Margarita has prepared a feast of a lunch. She does not eat with us, but host dad Jovel takes a seat. We’re served a pitcher of sweet horchata, milky white and fragrant with cinnamon. The table is lost beneath platters and bowlsâ€”rice and beans, warm tortillas, carrot-cabbage-corn slaw, and stewed beef shank. When I try to ask how the meat is cooked, Jovel shrugs and says, “I only eat.” When Margarita returns to the dining room, I try to discern through a mix of languages what is apparently the simplest of daily dishes in this household. The meat is first browned, then stewed in a light salsa of tomato, onion and spices. But I know there’s more to it than that. This dish has that certain secret magic, an element of any home-cooked meal given as a gift to guests.
Then Margarita brings a plate of higado with onion, pan-fried on an old cast-iron stove the family keeps in the backyard. On this one, I can’t decipher a recipe. But it’s very garlicky and equally delicious.
Jovel asks if anyone wants chile, and I answer with a loud “Yes!” He heads outside for a few moments, then returns with a small handful of reds and greens. I cut the little chiles, which resemble Thai bird’s eyes, and add them to my meal. Jovel is amazed. “I’ve never seen a North American eat like this,” he says. “My brother told me the Portuguese like this. But I’ve never seen a North American like this.”
When we finish, he takes me to the plants. “Es natural,” he says. “No es cultivado.” Jovel didn’t plant a single pepper in his yard—the birds did all the work for him.
One plant grows straight out of a concrete patio, while another has blossomed into a radiant shrub.
Given this pepper’s shape and intensity, it could be a Peruvian parringo. But I’m not sure, and neither is Jovel. He’s just happy to find food, magically appearing in his yard.
This reminds me of the little papaya tree, the random tomatoes and our own chile bush that grew courtesy of nature in Chiang Mai. Speaking of which, Nanette Maxim over at Gourmet.com addresses this matter today in a post on all the wonderful ways in which humanity loves its chiles. Check it out.