“My friend is coming to meet us at 7:30.”
I am slightly hungry/also thinking it is a result of being awake and moving since 4AM. I take an extra few seconds to pause, then have one of those moments where you think you should say something and then you top and you come back later to realize you should have done the opposite. Anyways, I decide an interview in a second language I would not consider myself fluent in to be a bad idea and hold back a question to be revealed later. I respond:
“We should just grab something really quick and be bad before he gets here.”
Really quick turns into a dinner of fish/shrimp ceviche followed by ice cream because the sweet tooth is strong with me this particular evening.
The friend shows up and we invite him inside for an interview.
“No, we go to my father’s restaurant.”
Now the backstory (or if this were a film manifestation, the title and opening credits). I must get all of this out in the span of minutes because we all know as audience members we stop watching those credits as soon as we don’t recognize names anymore. I am a teacher’s assistant for a field course in Costa Rica. The field course is in primatology and I am no primatologist of non-humans. “Then why are you there?” you are asking, it is because I had collected data for my own study on diet and culture during the previous year and this year there happened to also be some students interested in the human promote side of things so my knowledge would be useful. My ticket was paid for so I could assist and travel around and drink wine and watch monkeys and do all of the things but also help out students with the cultural side. This took me and one student from Primavera (a very small town that no one has heard of and can only be located by exact latitude and longitude) to the capital San José. This trip involved a 4 AM wake up call and a little over 3 hours on a bus.
Skip ahead just a tad.
We have been waiting for this student’s friend for half of the day to get an interview and some inside information on the city that will be useful for the student’s and my research. He is useful because he speaks a little English and grew up here and will probably know some people.
Note: we are all caught up now.
Alan comes to the door and introduces himself, a large set latino man with the skin tone of a man who works in software (which he does), close-set brown eyes, and thin dark hair slicked back into a low ponytail. He is relieved I can speak (some) Spanish and we follow him to some midsize black car that is very nice looking and get in.
“You ever had chifrijo?”
“No, but i was wondering what it was when I passed by and saw that Burger King had it.”
He seems to get a little more excited.
We drive in enough directions that I am turned around. A task that is actually….quite easy to do. Many a turn later, we arrive at Rafa’s.
Rafa’s almost looks like a tourist bar, it is covered with mahogany tinted wood panels both outside and in, but inside there is the classic long bar situated on the right, stocked with about 1/3 of the amount of booze you would see at a US bar and a drink fridge with enough bottled beer for a busy night. No, beer on tap is not a thing here, but beer as the primary drink is. You still might be surprised to know that beer choice is limited to a handful of things, with Imperial and Pilsen being the most popular.
Back to the food though.
We pull up and are greeted by Alan’s father, Rafa (short for Rafael), and his two friends Daniel (pronounced Danielle), and Sherman (pronounced very convincingly as chairman). After sitting at a table in the back Morris and I are asked if we would like beers.
“Well obviously, how could I not have an Imperial.”
Note: that last part is not a direct translation.
We sit and chat about the city of San José, where Alan has lived his whole life minus the year he just spent traveling Europe for a study abroad program in English and Business. He really loves it here because the for is great, the people tranquilo (chill), and the beautiful scenery (he keeps trying to take us to this volcano but we have to tell him no because we need interviews for our research).
And then comes the chifrijo. At this moment I also realize that chifrijo emerges from the combination of chi-charron and frij-oles. Just wonderful.
It is served in a small bowl that might otherwise be used for a little side of beans. It already look magical and then we are told that inside this tiny vessel of tastebud glory are whole red beans, chicharron(in this case grilled pieces of what looked to me like pork loin, and topped with what Alan called chimichurri but what appeared to be pico de gallo. The dish is usually served with tortilla chips which were brought out on a small plate along with some homemade chile sauce in a repurposed water bottle.
At first bite, I was in the throes of red beans complimented by diced tomato and onion. At second bite I had found a hunk of the grilled pork which tasted like it was marinated in spices that I wouldn’t mind eating for the rest of my life and had just come off the grill because I even got a tiny bit of char at the end, which I, unlike people who’s taste preferences I won’t comment about, very much enjoy. I continue to take bites and then realize that I also need to keep up in the conversation. I turn away from this tiny bowl and talk with Alan some more while sipping my Imperial to draw out the bites.
Rafa himself comes out and I quickly tell him how much I loved it, all of it, everything, and don’t offer me more because I will eat it all. He smiles gratefully, whole heartedly even, and I can tell we understand each other. I love these moments, and here is why:
Food is culture, it is a manifestation of the history, the people, and the agricultural resources of a nation. It tells a wild story of conquerors and diseases, of revolutions and the strength of people, of someone’s wild idea to just “throw something together” with a creativity that can only be inspired by knowing one’s nation. When I cook, I love, and I like to believe that those truly passionate about sharing food feel the same. Food is how I connect with people, it is something I can talk about for hours (as my close friends have noticed), and it is offers me the opportunity to learn and teach. Food became a passion of mine, the source of giddy excitement and wonder, and identifying it in myself has allowed me to see it in other people. Do you know how great it is to help someone else find what they are passionate about? Let me tell you that excitement is equal to the excitement of totally nailing a new recipe and people liking it. I’m almost too excited to continue now to tell you the truth, my heart is racing and I can barely form words because how can words describe that? Ok, I’ll calm down (takes one deep breath), we continue.
So Rafa and I share this great moment and then Chairman (yeah, I know Sherman is his real name but I just love this name so much) comes over and tells us he makes patty, a typical Caribbean baked empanada. So of course I have to try one those and talk with him about the Caribbean culture in Costa Rica that is a result of immigrant Jamaican workers back in the 19th century. The patty is a small baked empanada, Chairman tells me he has made beef and chile or plantain. He then says
“My policy is, you try it first, then you pay, if you don’t like it you don’t pay.”
I like this man and his Caribbean ways.
First, beef and chile. Tasty. Ground beef plus green chiles encased in a thin dough. Second, plantain, I take a bite, it’s red! Why is this red? There are no such thing’s as red plantains, are there? Have I been missing out on this crazy fruit/vegetable? It is plantain, cinnamon, and some beet juice for color. Well no wonder I love it, cinnamon is my jam. So I paid for them.
At this point we are full. We have chatted, learned, shared, laughed, and just spent the last 5 minutes trying to get someone to take a picture of us and figure out how to turn the flash on Alan’s camera phone. He drives us back, points out a popular expensive hotel and tells us many prostitutes hang around because of the travelling business men inside, tells us areas to stay away from at night, and we part ways at our front gate.
That question I was going ask earlier before we ate ceviche/before we met with Alan?
“If his Dad owns a restaurant do you think he’ll take us there to eat?”
Lesson: Second dinner and dessert should always be welcome.