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Chinese Food in Costa Rica

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Food in Central and South America

Spring Volume: 2000 Issue: 7(1) page(s): 15 and 16

When visiting a foreign country, my family groans hearing: Let's check out a Chinese restaurant. In Costa Rica, the groans came with: They probably don't have a Chinese population here. But they do, as close to ten percent of the people in Costa Rica are Chinese, married to a Chinese, or of mixed Chinese descent. Ten percent of three and a half million is a sizable number. They live in San Jose--the capital city, San Jose--the province, and all over the country.

With seven hundred fifty-five miles of coastline on two oceans, Costa Rica is visited by more than a million people each year. They must want Chinese restaurants and Chinese food. There have to be more than a handful of Chinese restaurants for the locals, the visitors, and for the many North Americans and Europeans who retire to this almost twenty thousand square mile country.

Why so many Chinese settle here is of interest. We learn that the first big wave was when many came to work for a Texan, Minor Keith was his name, to build the Carribean to Pacific railway. He hired a thousand Chinese men for that task in the 1870's. Mr Keith finished this cross-country railway, married the daughter of the country's president, and lived there until he died.

Many of those early Chinese workers did not work for Mr. Keith for long. They came down with malaria and other tropical diseases, or they could not work in the local climate. Not able to do the work nor able to afford passage home, of those that survived, many left and supported themselves running grocery stores and restaurants. Soon, they married Tican women (Ticans are native Costa Ricans), and after they did, settled permanently in the country and maintained a strong Chinese identity.

In San Jose, there are more than three hundred Chinese restaurants listed in the local telephone directory. We were told that about the same number of Chinese own other kinds of businesses in this city and still others of Chinese descent own shops and restaurants in other parts of the country.

Visitors go to Costa Rica to see some of the more than nine thousand flowering plants, more than two thousand types of butterflies, and the nearly nine hundred species of birds who make their homes in this country. They also visit rain forests and cloud forests and enjoy beaches and water sports; and they partake of some of the best white water rafting in the world. We did most of these things, too. We tried Tican food and we visited half dozen of the best Chinese restaurants and a few ordinary ones, too.

Every Chinese restaurant we tried served bananas and coffee, the two main crops of the country. They incorporated and served yucca (also known as manioc or cassava), and served plantains, chayote, and palm hearts along with rice and beans, star fruit, turtle and turtle eggs, cooked fish and ceviche, papaya, coconut milk, guava, and sugary drinks made of fruit or quaro that used distilled liquid sugar cane. The many beef dishes on their menus is probably meat from the Brahman cows we see all over the country.

Some of the Chinese restaurants we go to are individually owned, others owned and run by a Chinese/Tican couple. We note and they agree that all of them do lots of take-out business. Doing even more take-out are the China Express and other fast food chain outlets we see.

Ave Fenix and two others are good places in walking distance from downtown hotels; others in suburban areas. In the San Pedro district of the city one block from the Planet Mall on Central Avenue, it is in the able hands of a Chinese-born certificated master chef. This fellow, Man Hong Kou, earned his credentials from the Ontario Chinese Restaurant Association in Toronto, Canada in 1993. In this country he is known as Jose Kou, and Mr. Kou is in total command in the kitchen at this Fenix, a ten-year old Chinese eatery. We really mean in total command, because the Chinese owner lives in Puerto Rico, only visits periodically, and knows there is no need to worry because this chef does one fine job.

Actually, we are excited to be there because after seeing his certificate, we recall that in 1993 he cooked a terrific dinner in Toronto for us and others at an international conference we attended there. With memories of the fine sharks fin soup we had then, the delicious dim sum, and the wonderful jelly fish, we knew, as does this owner, that all are really are in good hands.

Ave Fenix's menu is almost all in Spanish and English except for the cocktails, liquors, and other beverages; they are only in Spanish. Prices are printed in local currency not once but two times; the second time shows them with a ten percent service charge and the thirteen percent tax. These additions took some getting used to as did the custom of adding an additional tip at the table.

Chef Kou's dishes are almost all classic Chinese. There are a few such as Chicken, Vegetables, Hearts of Palm, Shrimp, and Mixed Salads that are not. Nor are some listed under International Dishes such as: Steak with Fried Onion, Fried Pork Chop or Fried Chicken, Batter-fried Shrimps or Fried Fish Filet. Both local, Chinese and international dishes are on most other Chinese restaurant menus, as well.

This restaurant's dessert menu says: Three Milks Cake, Cheese Cake, Coconut Custard, and Tiramizu, Lay Chee in Syrup and Peaches. No one there spoke English and we do not speak Spanish, so a Chinese waiter told us about this typical menu melange using French, our only common language. He also shared more about the chef, Chinese food in his country, and the restaurant.

Prices in this phoenix are high considering average local salaries. They are also high if yours is a mind-set of inexpensive American eateries. But this is not a typical mom and pop restaurant. Here, the food is of the highest quality, prepared by a master, and delicious.

The Steamed Whole Fish in Bean Cream is cooked to a turn in a lovely fermented tofu sauce. Jumbo Shrimps are available 'Si-Chuen Style or with White Sauce,' the former are very spicy and savory, the latter--a bit sweet but succulent. Ants up the Tree are a wonderful combination of pork, bamboo shoots, and Chinese mushrooms in a special hot sauce. They are beautifully served over bean thread noodles, their taste up anyone's alley.

Tau Fu is Ma-Po and as good as we ever had, though quite a bit more piquant. Ticans love all food, especially hot food. The Squid in Si-Chiu sauce is loaded with fresh flavorful calamares cooked to a turn; they are hot, too. Best of all is a Chicken with Cashew Nuts in Birds Nest. The nest is of yucca, crispy and crunchy, and so very good. Even the Beef and Broccoli and the Steamed Dumplings are tasty and terrific.

Fu Lu Su is another restaurant located centrally in the downtown area. It is in the Del Hotel Balmoral. At this restaurant we are treated by a local Chinese gentleman. The chef here serves many fine Chinese dishes, almost all timid in taste. That is a surprise because their business card says "our specialities Szechuan and Mandarine food." Perhaps the tastes are mild because Mr. and Mrs. Chang, the owners, are Taiwanese as is our host, Mr Lu. He and his two Chinese guests go there to eat and discuss strategy of how to gain the business of fixing the local highways.

Our host deems Fu Lu Su the best Chinese restaurant in town. We think some of the dishes deserve that title. Almost all are typically Chinese, some Cantonese, others Taiwanese or from Hong Kong. The seven desserts could have been from any Chinese restaurant in town. What we are not sure of is where the potato and salad that accompany a dozen of the main dishes come from.

The Tofu and Chinese Vegetable Soup we have is great. The Green Beans in Garlic Sauce with Pork are also very tasty as are the Shrimps with Vegetable in Oyster sauce. The Fish Steak with Corn Cream Style is good but somehow tastes less Chinese than the other items. One of the best dishes we get sounds prosaic but is anything but. It is Fried Noodle Taiwan Style and comes loaded with taste and broccoli, carrots, red peppers, celery, onions, celery cabbage and more.

Don Wang is that other restaurant in the San Jose district near many other Chinese restaurants and Chinese supermarkets. Mr. Yuan, chef and co-owner, studied international relations in Taiwan, started cooking in Panama and married Denia Arguello, a local Tican. Together they run this restaurant.

Don Wang has the most extensive menu of any we visit. It also features many vegetarian and dim sum dishes and is perhaps the smallest restaurant of the group, seating only about sixty people. Mr. Yuan is Cantonese and his menu has eighty-eight beverage choices, including five different kinds of tea plus the ordinary black variety.

There are one hundred thirty-seven dishes, a dozen are appetizers, eleven soups, and sixteen vegetarian specialities. Among the seafoods there is only one western dish, a Sea Bass Fillet with Butter and Garlic; we did not try it. One young woman at a nearby table did and told her lady friends that it was better than any she had at any Italian restaurant. The Chinese dish on her table, Crispy Nest with Sweet and Sour Shrimps, drew rave reviews from all of her table companions.

Quails in Satay Sauce, an order of Roast Duck, and Dried Guangdong Style Spare Ribs with Garlic are delicious as is the Eggplant in Plum Sauce. Don Wang's Style Fried Noodles with shrimp are delicious, too. The fifteen desserts, most Chinese or typical Chinese restaurant style such as Ice Cream or Longan in Syrup, did include Three Milk Cake and Coconut Custard. Did not try either of them or any of the eight family dinners on their menu but two dishes we did devour deserve special mention. They are the Fresh Beef in Plum Sauce Casserole and the Fresh Squids with Bamboo and Vegetables.

Eating Chinese food competes well with restaurant choices in other countries, large and small. Should you decide to retire there and want to cook your own Chinese food, as many others have, there are two Chinese supermarkets. Though small, they sell almost every Chinese ingredient you might want; and the foods they stock and the Chinese restaurants are plentiful here. Like the plants, birds, and butterflies, do visit them when you go there.

At either of the stores and at the restaurants, your fortune will be different because individually wrapped White Rabbit brand salt water taffy from Shanghai will come with the check. You are fortunate to get these paper-wrapped items as they are Costa Rica's answer to fortune cookies at the end of your Chinese meal. They are also a fortune-ate thank you when leaving their supermarkets.

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