Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Costa Rica Blog - Day 10


A typical Costa Rican dish served in pretty much all sodas (mom & pop cafes) and is usually what's for lunch. The dish supposedly earned its moniker "Casado," meaning "marriage," because it was what wives used to pack for their husbands to go to work. A typical Casado includes: rice, beans, cabbage salad, fried plantain, meat (chicken, steak or fish), picadillo (diced cooked veggies) and maybe an egg. Sounds hearty? It is.

Check out this monster custom-made order. My family here owns a soda that's attached to our house and the smells from its kitchen usually find their way to the room in which I sleep upstairs. Where the soda is now used to be a beautiful backyard with fruit trees, a fish pond and a pool which was much more beautiful and entertaining but definitely not as profitable. Anyway, apparently this customer asks for a mega casado that includes rice, beans, picadillo, salad, lomito (steak), fried cheese, and TWO large eggs. I feel my cholesterol levels spiking by just thinking about it.

Today Johnny Alberto drove me to downtown San Jose to visit Doña Marielos, an old family friend. And while her health is great and she's her usual chatty and cheery self, I do notice that she's getting older and settling into her life as a senior citizen. She took us out to eat at a "healthy" soda, which like most sodas is family run, and acquainted us with the owner. She doesn't like having her picture taken, so I took pictures of the food instead...naturally. I had an arroz con pollo, but it came with yummy refried beans, maduros (ripened plantains) and ensalada de repollo (cole slaw).

Johnny Alberto had the Casado with slow cooked beef which included my side dishes plus a picadillo. Jealous.

While we were out, grandma was preparing some favorite dishes of mine: kok chai & lo bat ko. I've had them elsewhere but NO ONE MAKES THEM LIKE GRANDMA. She grinds the rice into a fine powder herself and adds water to make it a dough. She then cooks it to the right consistency and rolls them into little logs. She dices the logs and takes each circle and flattens them with a tortilla maker. The flattening part is the hardest and I've broken my share of tortilla makers doing this. The rice has a very rubbery and elastic quality to it, so you have to press down hard and several times to flatten it out well.

I know I started off explaining the process but I actually wasn't home this time to help and document the whole thing. I came just in time to eat it. That wasn't our intention, but we took longer than expected at the local mall looking for cell phones and well...I ended up feeling like a bad granddaughter. I praised her cooking as best as I could but it didn't seem to quite do the trick. *sigh. Anyway, it tasted gooood...

Costa Rica Blog - Day 9


For having bummed about the beach the entire weekend, I sure was tired today. I blame it all on the sun--it absorbed all of my energy. Today was spent mostly recovering from the weekend and nosing about the kitchen. I didn't wake up early enough to capture my grandmother preparing these dishes so I'll just show the end products:

Sticky rice & red beans. This is what my grandmother was referring to in the Spanglese chatter from Day 2's video. She saved the extra shavings of plantain leaves to make this tasty little treat. First, you mix powdered sticky rice with water to create the dough. Then boil red beans until soft, drain, and mash. Add sugar & mix. Roll up the red bean paste into little balls. Oil down your plantain leaves. Then grab a wad of sticky rice dough, flatten in your hands, and add red bean ball. Wrap the sticky rice dough around the red bean and form a larger ball. Place ball onto oiled leaf and roll. Fold down bottom of one side, place on dish. Steam until rice dough is soft and sticky.

Tong Sui (sweet water). This is a dessert that is a sweet soup made of red bean, coconut, taro, tapioca, coconut milk and evaporated milk.

Here are a few snapshots of things around the house:

Homemade salted gai lan (choy). My grandmother claims that this pickled vegetable would be ready in 15 days and is delicious...

banana criollo--a local variety of banana that isn't exported but eaten by many locally. The flesh is a more saturated yellow color than what we eat in the States and has a richer, earthier and sweeter taste.

Mandarinas - tangerines. I LOVE THESE!! The skin peels off easily, revealing plump sections of sweet sweet goodness. They are like no other tangerine I've tasted.


I made the sofa cover for this armchair the last time I was here. My mom, aunt, grandmother and myself were all involved in this large-scale project of covering all the sofas in the house.

My grandmother is an avid orchid grower and fills the backyard with them. Once they bloom, she brings them in the house so we can enjoy their beauty.

I liked these purple ones.

Tonight I went shopping for things to bring back and to no one's surprise all I bought were a ton of snacks. Hey, I figure I'm shopping for a 1-2 year supply here!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Costa Rica Blog - Day 7 & 8

Punta Leona

The lack of internet and lack of urgency to use any technology this past weekend is my reason for posting only until now. Two days of clear blue water, soft white sandy beaches, dense vegetation and intense sunshine can do that to you.

introducing: Punta Leona

My only non-food request in Costa Rica was to be taken to the beach since my trip to Hawaii in December didn't really meet my sun & beach expectations. We were too busy trotting around in overcast weather looking for malasadas and Zippys. In anycase, my family spoiled me by meeting my request and planned a trip to Punta Leona, where my great-aunt "Gu Po" or simply "Tia Rosa," owns a beach house and is a shareholder/country club member.

Gu Po's beach house

Punta Leona is part gated community, part resort, part time-share. Those who own property in Punta Leona have unrestricted access to the hotel entertainment, pool and beach. While we cannot afford such luxuries on our own, it's nice that Gu Po is eager to share them with us. The following is a picturebook of my weekend at the beach:

In order to get to Punta Leona, we had to cross a bridge with these guys underneath. Some were pretty massive...

At "La Playa Blanca" or "Punta Leona Beach," we settled down under some shady palms to digest our lunch. I was amused by these two boys who seemed to play endlessly by the tide.

I also liked this family portrait.

On this trip, my cousin Nancy (left) brought along her friend Paola (right) which made for an interesting test of willpower against obnoxious teenage gigglefest. Wendy and I endured an entire cartrip of that and realized that we were indeed growing old since we couldn't stand those kind of shenannegans anymore.

My uncle, Tio Johnny, to the left and my great-aunt, Tia Rosa to the right.

The girls walking into the sunset: cousins Nancy, Patricia, Wendy, Tia Seon & Paola.

Obligatory Chan girl cousin picture. The only one missing here is Melissa.

Back in Tia Rosa's beach house, we enjoyed the pool which came with a wide variety of float toys. Here Wendy is preparing to race the girls on top of a floater while they swim free-style. The pool was a great change of pace from the salty waters that stung my eyes, nose and armpits (from shaving cuts). TMI, sorry.

I also had the honor of sharing a room with bugs like these. This one is the largest fly I've seen to date.

Tia's house had 3 hammocks (modeled by cousin Johnny Alberto) to lounge in while enjoying this view:

La Selva.

After a long morning in the beach, we all sat down for a late lunch of steak, paella, choy, boiled carrots, and avocado.

Uncle Johnny's specialty...the Paella.

This is a view of the neighbor's house...I call it House en Jungla.

My ride home: a basket weaved Vespa.

DAY: 7 & 8
WILDLIFE VIEWED: Lapas (parrots), mapaches (long nosed raccoons), bugs...
SUN: endless

Friday, February 20, 2009

Costa Rica Blog - Day 6

The Opera

My cousins Johnny Alberto and Wendy took me to the opera tonight to see "Turandot," by Giacomo Puccini. According to my cousins, musicals and plays are not common in Costa Rica but people do go out to see operas or symphonies. I thought it was a rather interesting cultural note, especially when one considers the audience that filled up the theater. They were mostly foreigners, well off ticos or middle class ticos that can afford a splurge here and there. But what made me feel a bit uncomfortable was being a Chinese person watching an Italian opera, co-produced locally with Ticos about some made up Chinese characters (whose names don't even sound REMOTELY Chinese, note title).

As you can imagine, yellowface was abundant. Several actors donned heavy mascara to create an artificial, if not exaggerated "chink-eye." Maybe Miley Cyrus and friends should have starred in this production, seems right up their alley. The music played had its moments of "ching-chongery" especially when the comic trio Ping, Pang and Pong (I kid you not) shuffled about with their hands inside their oversized sleeves. And can we go back to the names of the characters? First of all, the protagonists' names are Turandot and Calaf. Does this sound like any Chinese name you know? Then there's the exiled king Timur and the emperor of China, Altoum. I don't know, maybe this is supposed to take place in an alternate universe. Then there's Ping, Pang and Pong, the royal ministers whose names seems like they were bestowed upon then by throwing a pan down the stairs. That was of course in reference to a popular racist joke about Chinese names, in case you missed that.

Well, upon further research it turns out that Turandot is an Opera based on adaptions of a story found in One Thousand and One Days, a Persian collection of stories. The story supposedly is about a Chinese princess who refuses to marry the many suitors that come after her. Okay well this explains the Persian sounding names, since this was a Persian tale afterall... The opera was originally written in the 1920s, which also explains the extreme amount of Chinese stereotypes. But despite all this, I am disappointed that a modern rendition of the Opera contains so much yellowface and outdated stereotypes.

Another dimension of the story that bothered me was its portrayal of women. This was a tale of a beautiful Chinese princess who refused to marry anyone who could not solve 3 riddles. If they failed, they were sentenced to death. She is portrayed as cruel and ruthless by the village but I thought she played the role of a strong woman of power--some sort of ancient feminist. Turandot had a grandmother whom she praised for her purity, until she was ruined by a foreign prince who took her by force. After this unfortunate event she died (I forget the specifics) but was forever tainted. Turandot had vowed to honor her grandmother by never submitting to a foreign man or any man, and to remain a pure divinity. Despite the clear connection to a woman's worth with her purity and beauty, I kind of liked that Turandot was tough on the guys. Well, the prince eventually wins her over by coercing a kiss causing the Princess' will to weaken. Then there's Liu, the slave girl who has a secret love for her master and kills herself in his name. She is honored by all for this tragic but ultimate act of love. So basically, women are only valued for physical beauty, their purity and complete devotion and submission to man. Even the iciest, strongest willed woman can be broken down by force.

Even though it's an ancient story, adapted to opera in the 1920s, I would think a modern rendition would at least take it a bit further. Don't get me wrong--I'm very grateful that I was taken to the Opera or "una obra de espectaculo!" It was definitely entertaining since it held my attention from beginning to end, and for an opera in Italian with faulty Spanish super titles, I'd have to call that an automatic win. Second, there were some talented folks up there, especially Ana Isabel Lazo who played Liu, who deserve to be recognized for having a great voice. I also have to note here that Ana didn't have any crazy make up and is a local artist.

All in all, it was an interesting experience. To overcome my feeling of slight discomfort, we went to Sodia Tapia for a late night dinner of pressed beef & refried blackbean sandwiches and arreglados. I checked off my antojo for an arreglado--a sandwich of croissant pastry, deli meats, tomato, lettuce, refried black beans, and pink sauce. The ends justify the means, right?

DAY: 6

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Costa Rica Blog - Day 5

Tamal Chino (zongzi)

Today I thought I would be helping my grandma make tamales chinos (jung, or zongzi or chinese tamales) but it turns out I didn't do any of that. While I was fixing the Tamal Tico entry, she was prepping all of the ingredients and I barely was able to take snapshots. Then she took a nap and the real work didn't start until 6pm when my aunt, uncle and cousins came over. Both aunties and my grandma were in the kitchen and she kicked Wendy and myself out because she had too much help. So like good paparazzi, I took pictures from afar.

Here's the roll call of ingredients:
- 2 packets of sticky rice
- 1 packet of mung beans
- 1 packet of red beans
- 1 packet of small dried shrimp (ham ha)
- 1 packet of shelled peanuts
- roasted pork with skin intact
- chinese mushroom
- chinese sausage
- 20 or so salted duck or chicken eggs
- two packets of dried bamboo leaves
- string

Step 1: Soak your dry ingredients, including sticky rice:

Mung bean:

In this bowl, my grandmother is soaking red beans, peanuts and dried shrimp (ham ha) all at once. We're putting all of these together because my great aunt who is taking us to the beach on Saturday prefers to eat her jung this way.

Step 2: Separate the egg yolks from the salted eggs. My grandmother bought a few salted ducks eggs from a small Chinese grocery store in San Jose centro that were imported from China. As she cracks the eggs, she excitedly remarks, "Now they sell everything here! Even these salted duck eggs! Before you wouldn't find anything here but not anymore." But as she freed these glistening murky yellow-orange globules from their shells, her excitement subsided. It didn't look like there would be enough for the massive amount of jung we'd be making, so she took out her own homemade stash of salted eggs from a corner cupboard.

I don't have the right program to alter the photo so it's going to be sideways for now. These chicken eggs have been sitting in their jar of salt water for a month in complete darkness. After cracking just one my grandmother's tone changes again, "See! Aren't these beautiful! The color on these is much better...of course I did it myself." That's okay, she's my grandma, she gets all the bragging rights in the world.

Step 4: Boil the bamboo leaves in a pot of water to disinfect and to soften the leaves. Then take them out and rinse in cold water. Wipe off the water from each leaf.

Step 5: Drain all of the ingredients and lay them out on the table. Slice the Chinese sausages and cut each egg yolk into 3 pieces. Also chop up the roasted pork (skin and all) into 1"x1" pieces. Here's the team of tamal makers assembled around the table. Wendy squeezed in there to request a custom-made tamal with no salted egg.

Step 6: Fold a bamboo leaf into a v-shape so that the ends point away from you and cup the bottom with your hand so you can start filling it up with the ingredients. First goes a scoop of rice, then a smaller scoop of mung beans. Then top it with 1 or 2 pieces of pork, 1 slice of sausage, egg yolk, and mushroom. Of course you can include or exclude any ingredient. After that, top it off with a small scoop of rice.

Step 7: Add another leaf to the bottom of the folded V to reinforce and to lengthen the total width. See below:

Add another leaf a little above it and fold over as shown:

The goal is to create some sort of triangular shape, so while the bottom is pointy, the part that you are folding over now should be flat:

Tie it off

...And this is how they should look like. Actually these are the end product after they've been boiled in a large cauldron for 5 hours. They fatten up a bit because of the rice.

Step 8: So after they've been boiled for 5 hours, take them out and enjoy! These don't need time to set into their shape like the tamal tico because the sticky rice already takes care of itself.

Let them cool before you put them in the refrigerator or freezer so you can enjoy them anytime you wish!

We actually didn't cook the tamales until the next day because it would have taken too long. All that was done was the preparation and assemblage of the tamales. That night since we were kicked out of the kitchen and it didn't look like they were going to make dinner, Tia Fui Seon suggested to Wendy that she take me out to eat. Wendy, Johnny Alberto and I then went to Sash, a Lebanese restaurant close by the house. Since I was busy playing paparazzi, I forgot the camera at home and have nothing to show for here. I definitely see that Ticos are beginning to accept different types of cuisine because never had I imagined that there would be a Lebanese place around here! I had couscous for the first time with some grilled veggies and a skimpy swab of hummus. The couscous as a grain had great texture and I'm definitely going to eat it more often as a substitute to pasta. However, this place made it a bit saltier than what I would have expected it to be. The pita bread served was a flat bread that almost looked and tasted like a flour tortilla. It was good, and definitely something different -- I'm glad we went! Tomorrow: to the Opera!

DAY: 5
ANTOJOS: 0 (Nancy ate my olla de carne on accident...)
SKILLS GAINED: .5? Does watching them make jung count?
COCKROACHES KILLED: 1 by Johnny Alberto
GOOD MEMORY: Bonding over dinner & watching mama play Wii Music.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Costa Rica Blog - Day 4

Andar De Vaga

Isn't that what vacation is all about? Relaxing and doing nothing? That's what I did today. I woke up, had breakfast at 11 and by 1pm I was taking a nap. Pretty gross huh? Lunch was a delicious colorful and healthy meal created by grandma. One of my favorite foods of all time is choy--green leafy vegetables. My parents shouldn't even bother asking me what I want to eat for dinner because my answer is always the same: choy. Now of course there are all kinds of choy and some I like more than others. Today was all about fan shui yeep, aka: ojas de camote, aka: yam leaves. Freshly cut this morning, my grandmother prepared it with fermented tofu so it tastes kind of like oong choy (straw vegetable or watercress leaves) or cooked spinach. Yam leaves can be found in Chinese supermarkets in LA but they're not the same as the ones grown in our backyard. The yam leaves I had today was tender, yet earthy and full of flavor. This is how they look before they're picked:

I failed to take a picture of the cooked version...I think I was too busy trying to eat it.

Grandma also prepared ayote, an orange squash/pumpkin with ground beef. I had told her about the japanese pumpkin (I think it's lam qua in cantonese) with black beans, brown sugar and ground meat that Aunt Helen makes so I guess she tried to replicate it. It's different but still yummy. The ayote is probably similar to lam qua or just not as ripe so it tasted more like squash than pumpkin. It's bright orange so it must be full of beta carotine, fiber and good things. Lastly, she prepared a delicious steamed fish of which grandma did not know the name in Spanish but apparently isn't common around these parts nor in the states. The flesh is white, sweet, and not fishy smelling. The little bones that it does have are large so you don't have to worry about getting any stuck down your throat. I was stuffed!

We then went to see Coraline in 3d, which I had already seen two weeks ago but went along for the ride because of a big antojo: CARAMEL POPCORN! The one thing I LOVE about Costa Rican theaters besides the price of movies is the fact that they make freshly popped caramel popcorn. Love it. Love it. Love it. They aren't too sweet and are crunchy with every bite. And well, movies here cost about $5 for general admission so I can splurge on $2 popcorn. I know, you're laughing right now, psh and we just pay $20 for the same thing in the States. The tub they gave me was a "medium" but it looked more like jumbo sized. 20 minutes into the movie I K.O.'ed -- POPCORN WIN!

DAY: 4
ANTOJOS FULFILLED: 3 (ayote, yam leaves, caramel popcorn)
COCKROACHES KILLED: 0 (but I spotted 1 on the street and 1 as large as my thumb in the kitchen)
WEIGHT: +1.3 lbs (not surprising)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Costa Rica Blog - Day 3

Tia Ines

Today is the day of the bottomless stomach. I woke up late, for starters, and ate a tamal tico with coffee for breakfast. Knowing that we were about to visit Tia Ines' soda in Cartago, I didn't want to gobble up 2 or 3 tamales or else I think I very well could have. Not that I'm a hungry hippo or anything...we made the tamales really small this time around. Believe me...small. Shortly after breakfast, my cousin, aunt and uncle arrived to take me to the old capital and I felt very bad that I had to miss grandma's lunch. She seemed a little disappointed that we weren't going to eat at home today. Well, lesson learned. Don't mess with grandma's chow schedule...eat out only when it's not her turn to cook, which is dinnertime.

My family lives in what I would consider the equivalent to the "county" of San Jose, Costa Rica's current capital city. Cartago is a 45 minute drive to what used to be the old capital before it was relocated. In Cartago is the heart of Costa Rica's official religion, Catholicism. The city features old ruins from the last civil war and a Basilica that is the center of an old tradition. Who cares about some junky old ruins right? Yeah, Costa Rica is known for its resolution of peace after the civil war and its dedication to those principles by not having a national army. Yada Yada. I'm here to see Tia Ines, a woman with a heart of gold and one of several great cooks in the family. She's a distant relative from my mom's side that can whip up a mean gallo pinto and enyucado.

Gallo pinto is Costa Rican rice and beans. It's what's for breakfast. Different from other Latin American countries' rice and beans for its use of Salsa Lizano, an all purpose sauce should be the official sauce of Costa Rica. C'mon, we're the only place that makes it. It's salty and tangy, great for marinating meat, pouring over tamales, and most importantly it's what makes gallo pinto gallo pinto and not just plain rice and beans. And the queen of good pinto is Tia Ines.

When you ask Tia Ines for gallo pinto, be weary that you won't just get pinto. It comes with a side of bistec con cebollas, enyucados, pollo con salsa, carne con salsa... Everything from her modest little corner soda, 200m from the Basilica, was on our table.

For those unaware, enyucados will change your life. These flattened balls of deep fried mashed yucca stuffed with ground meat will make you salivate more than Pavlov's dogs at the sound of a bell. After chatting about the changing economic, political and social climate of Costa Rica, Tia Ines made me promise to come back before I go with some notice so she can cook up a large batch of enyucados. I can't refuse...

After our massive meal, we took a turn around the Basilica and headed back to San Jose. Once there my aunt took me to Pops, a Central American ice cream chain, to fulfill yet another antojo. LA has an Helados Pops somewhere in downtown but unbeknownst to Yelpers, it's not the same--you have to get ingredients from the source in order to get it right. This Pops got it right, of course. And as if I didn't have my fill of antojos already...my aunt popped into the market and bought me some lemon and salt plantain chips. I really should keep my mouth shut or I'll gain an extra 15lbs.

In sum, I ate a helluva lot of food, fulfilled cravings like a pregnant woman's dream, and talked world events like a real grown up. Later I'll go into how much the United States' economy is on the minds of everyone here and is a reflection of its global impact. But not now...I have major food coma.

DAY: 3
WEIGHT: ?? (didn't use Wii today. I'm guessing +15 lbs)
GOOD MEMORY: Chatting in el Soda Mercadito for 2 hours