“¿Puedo tener el casado?”
The waitress from Tierra Mia smiled at me. “I speak English, honey. You’d like la comida típica?”
I nodded my head up and down, careful not to further embarrass myself.
I spent seven days in Costa Rica; in terms of food, that’s about 21 meals, give or take a midnight snack. No matter the meal, breakfast, lunch, or dinner, I ate the same thing: el casado. As the “typical food” of the country of Costa Rica, naturally it represented the country’s agricultural strengths. The classic Casado can be broken down into six components: rice, beans, meat, vegetables, plantains, and yuca, a tuber-like vegetable that is widely considered the “Costa Rican potato.”
The kicker was that even though it was the same dish, everywhere I went, it was made differently. Maybe the yuca was fried more crisply in one place than another. Maybe one restaurant used beef, while another opted for chicken. It was always unique. So yes, maybe I was eating the same meal every day. But the devil is in the details. There were so many variations, so many different ways to make the same dish that I really was eating a different meal each time. At first, it seemed like every single one that I ate was better than the last. Maybe I had grown accustomed to the native food. Maybe I knew whether or not to ask for a tortilla and chips. Eventually I realized that the thing that truly made the casado better each time was an understanding of what the meal meant to the person who prepared it.
My week of Costa Rican exploration in the form of numerous casados gave me an epiphany. The entire nation loved this dish, but like the meal, each town was different. Some cities were based around a glorious estadio de futból (a soccer stadium, for the unindoctrinated), while others were built around a church. Every place had its own unique qualities and people. The reason I could notice was that I ordered the same meal every time, but every time I was brought something new. The dish was served with extra chicken because we were in Perez Zeledon, an agriculturally-based part of the country. The plantains would be served on a bed of cane sugar when we were in the region of Guanacaste because we were less than two miles from the largest sugar cane farm on the continent. The casado was a reflection of the people who made it and the place from where it came.
The casado, whose purpose was to be a tasty meal for travelers and locals, taught me one of the most valuable lessons I have ever learned while on vacation: culture may be embraced by an entire nation, but no matter where you go, there is something to learn because everyone and every place is different in their own special way.
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