May 27th, 2011

A “Little” Country

Visitors to Costa Rica often wonder why the Costa Ricans are called “Ticos.” The name “Tico” comes from a charming peculiarity of Costa Rican speech–the frequent use of the diminutive. “Tico” is a word ending that suggests “littleness.”

Several suffixes indicate smallness when attached to the end of a Spanish word. These suffixes include “-ita,” “-ito.” For example, a dog (”perro”) that it small might be called a “perrito.” Or a girl (”niña) who is small might be called a “niñita.”

But Costa Ricans often take this notion of smallness one step further, doubling the suffix. When this doubling happens, a “t” often appears before the final suffix, rendering it “-tico,” the famous nickname for a Costa Rican. Interestingly, this phenomenon happens with the word “chico,” one of whose meanings is “small.” In the diminutive, the word is “chiquito.” To indicate something really small, someone might use the word “chiquitico,” with the “-tico” suffix.

“Poco” is the word for “a bit,” so “a little bit of water” would be “un poco de agua.” A Costa Rican would typically use “poco” in a diminutive form–”poquito”–”a little bit.” But most Costa Ricans would further miniaturize the concept to “poquitito” or “poquitico.” Thus, a Costa Rican who wants a drink would commonly ask for “un poquitico de agua,” using the “-tico” ending.

Costa Ricans all generally have very cheerful dispositions, and their use of the diminutive illustrates this national tendency to be cheerful and pleasant. Something small is generally considered something inoffensive or even attractive, and the smaller the better.

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May 14th, 2011

What are those things?

Sleep Inn guests might encounter some unusual fruits as they walk around San José. A few vendors near the hotel sell jocotes, manzanas de agua, and nísperos, tropical delicacies that a foreigner might not recognize. For the intrepid fruit-eater, here is an introduction to each.

A jocote looks like a smooth-skinned, miniature potato. It can vary in color from green to red, and it has a large seed. Jocotes grow on trees. The fruit is dryish, rather than juicy, and the eater mostly gnaws at its flesh. In Central America, people often salt their jocotes as they eat them. For some, jocotes are eaten more as a pastime than for their delicious flavor.

A manzana de agua–or “water apple,”–looks like a pale and slightly elongated apple or, perhaps, like a pale red pear. This fruit grows on trees as well. True to its name, the manzana de agua mostly tastes watery, although its flesh does have a slight sweetness. The fruit is so aromatic that some people describe its flavor as more of a perfumed fragrance than an actual taste.

The níspero is a fragrant yellow fruit that is small, like a grape, and slightly fuzzy. It, too, grows on trees and has a few shiny, brown seeds. The flesh of the níspero is sweet and fragrant, once again seeming almost like an aroma, as well as a flavor. In other countries, nísperos are known as “loquats.”

Of the three, we tend to recommend nísperos, as their flavor coyly suggests the tropics.

Read more about unusual Costa Rican fruits and an interesting Costa Rican vegetable.

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May 1st, 2011

Horchata

Besides cás, one of the best non-alcoholic drinks in Costa Rica is horchata. Visitors to the country might not see it on every menu, but we recommend that they order it when they do. Powdered horchata mix is also available at grocery stores or other food stores in downtown San José.

A popular drink in Latin America, where its main ingredients are plentiful, horchata is often available at Mexican restaurants, even in the United States. Latin Americans love it.

Horchata can be made from various seeds and grains–barley, sesame seeds or almonds, among others–but Costa Ricans make it from ground rice. Using a blender or food processor, horchata-makers grind uncooked rice with a bit of water to make a sort of a paste. They let this paste stand for a few hours or overnight. Once the rice has fully flavored the water, it is strained from the liquid. Horchata-makers stir milk into the rice-water, and the resulting cloudy white mixture is sweetened with sugar and seasoned with cinnamon or vanilla.

Horchata is served cold, in a tall glass with a straw and ice. Its reassuring hint of rice adds a pleasant depth and richness to the drink.

Some Costa Rican cooks use the strained rice to make arroz con leche, another Costa Rican rice-and-milk concoction.

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