One Fish Two Fish – A Guide to Fish in Costa Rica
Today guest blogger Steve Friedman writes a comprehensive guide to eating fish in Costa Rica. Steve blogs on his satirical site My Satirical Side. As always, thanks for providing your perspective.
With two Oceans and lots of fresh water, fish is a regular staple in Costa Rica. You don’t have to be a great sport fisherman to get great fresh fish either. I usually find that a 10,000 colones note on the end of a line will net me probably more fish than I can catch being the poor fisherman I am. However, like most Gringos, I am unfamiliar with what types of fish are good to eat for my tastes, and how to prepare them. So with the help of friends, here is a little epicurean guide to the local edible fish.
Pargo Rojo – This is probably the most common ocean fish found in fish markets and restaurants. It is their local “Red Snapper”. Most of the time it is prepared whole either frito (fried), or a “la parrilla” (on the grill). I prefer it fileted on the grill rather than deal with the head and bones. It is relatively mild fish that does requires some seasoning beforehand, but properly seasoned it is wonderful.
Dorado – Dorado is their name for Mahi Mahi. You will find it available fileted usually in 1 kilo vacuum packages. The very red parts or bloodlines tend to be fishy and there is sometimes a tough outer membrane that needs to be trimmed, but once cleaned it is one of the best tasting fish in this country. On the grill, fried, or baked. It’s terrific.
Corvina – Is the local Sea Bass. It is the number one fish used to make Ceviche, which is practically their national dish. It is also wonder cut into fillets or finger and then breaded and fried. It is a mostly mild fish.
Talapia – is raised extensively throughout the Central Valley in Costa Rica. You can purchase it whole or fileted, and there is no end to how you can prepare it. My personal favorite is panko-breaded and fried.
Atun – Tuna is caught local in Costa Rican waters. Yellow Tail is the best, but even other varieties are very good. At the local fish markets you can purchase a filet block of about 2-3 kilos which can then be cut into 1 inch steaks. By all means do not overcook this. It is best minimally seared and served with sesame ginger teriyaki sauce and or wasabi.
Jack – Also known as Amber jack. This is a fish in the tuna family that is a favorite among sports fishermen. The flesh tends to be a deeper maroon, and the darker areas can be quite fishy tasting. Most people prefer this grilled or “a la parilla” but often used in soups as well. Fisherman will often sell them to upi right from their boats when they come in at the end of the day, and you will find these large fish sold whole at local markets.
Marlin – While there is a movement underway to catch and release these, they are by no means endangered. This fish is in the sword fish family so it is a much meatier fish with bands running through its muscle. Darker Marlin tends to be a bit more fishy tasting, but excellent cut into very small pieces for ceviche. White Marlin comes from the top parts of the fish. Cut into cubes and marinated, it is excellent on the grill. Larger filets or large cubes do need to be marinated in lime, limon or orange juices and olive oil for a least an hour to cut down any toughness. Don’t overcook it or it will dry out.
Congiro and Angilla – These are Spanish terms foe locally caught Eel. The fillets are long and mostly boneless and very mild tasting. They make great fried fish fingers or grilled fillets.
Needle fish – These long boney fish are caught locally here, but not sold much commercially. They are difficult to bone, but once properly cleaned taste delicious. You can sometimes get them directly from the local fisherman when they come in with their catch.
Wahoo and Parrot fish – Both excellent eating fish, although wahoo is more prized and a bit harder to find.
Tiburon – is Spanish for Shark. It is also sold in many fish markets although there is some controversy over hunting of sharks simply for their fins. Shark meat is best cut into cubes and there is a tough membrane on the inner parts that needs to be cut off. It is best to marinate these in limon and olive oil, and then cook them on Skewers on the grill.
Chattarra – which translate to “rough fish”. These are small to medium sized fish, Ticos will grill these whole on their small charcoal burners, or fry them, or make a rough ceviche out of them. They are abundantly caught off the rocks or boats.
Maricscos – Shell Fish
There are many types of shellfish found and eaten in costa rica. Together they are called “Maricscos’. They include a variety of clams, scallops, conch, and sea urchins as well as camarones (shrimp), crabs (cangrejos), longostinos (lobsters), and Squid (Calamari) and Octopus (Pulpo). Mussels are also available fresh and frozen in markets, but suspect these are all imported from outside Costa Rica. The most popular way these are prepared are either Sopa de Mariscos or Arroz can Mariscos. These are the Costa Rican version of Spanish Paella and French Boullabaise.
Clams, “Oysters”, and Scallops
Clams tend to be small cockle sized clams sold frozen in the shell. Since they do not store or ship well fresh, you will rarely find them sold this way. I have asked many people about food safety eating shellfish here, and most report it is OK. All the same, buy from a reputable source, and “when it doubt, throw it out”. There are other types of sea clams and hard shelled mollusks that are pulled out of their shell and sold in bags for soups and rice dishes.
Crabs – These are small sea crabs about 3-4 inches in length. There really isn’t much meat on them, but they are used to flavors soups.
Scallops and Oysters – Yes, there are large sea scallops found here in Costa Rica. They rarely make it to the markets, but local fisherman will dive for these and sell them on the beach. Make sure they open them for you because they are very difficult to open. Scallops are typically cooked in their half shell on the grill with butter and garlic. There is also a type of shell fish that resembles an oyster that grows on submerge rocks that are sometimes eaten – usually right on the boat or beach.
Octopus – Pulpo is the Spanish term of Octopus. This is very popular with ticos and used to make cevishe del Pulpo, or prepared whole on the grill, or cut up into soups or rice. Larger one It may need to be pounded to tenderize it, but smaller ones are simply cut up ad marinated in lime and salt for ceviche.
Calamari – Squid is found throughout Costa Rica although some of it is imported. Typically it is sold in markets cut into rings and frozen. It tends to be a thicker ring and you will find it sold either marinated ceviche style, or more commonly “calamari frito”. Unfortunately I have rarely had the same delicate fired calamari here that I would find in Mediterranean restaurants in the USA or Europe. They all have a tougher outer membrane that tends to make them a bit tougher when fried. Larger calamari closer to cuttlefish are also sold in cubes or sheets. These can be an inch or more thick and are generally too tough for frying, but are used in rice and soup dishes.
Camarones – Spanish for Shrimp. These are two varieties of shrimp sold. White or Orange, shrimp and pink. The pink shrimp “Pinques” look more like cooked shrimp when raw since they have a very pink or orange coloring . They use this variety mostly for ceviche, soups and in Arroz con Camarones. I found them generally a bit tougher and smaller than the other varieties. White shrimp are sold by the kilo depending on size. They look either white to dark gray or Orange in their shell when raw, but cook to a classic orange pink. The most prized are the “jumbos” which are large meaty, and 3 inches or more in size. They are usually sold with their shell on and need to be deveined before eating. Expect to pay a premium for these as they are in high demand with restaurants.
Langostinos – Pacific Lobsters. These are usually only available from local beach vendors. They are the clawless Pacific variety and are sold either whole, or just the tails. Most restaurants split them and stuff the thorax with a mixture of fish or shellfish since there is not usually a whole lot of meat in the tails. The best way to cook them is to split them whole and grill them smeared with butter and garlic. Expect to pay a premium for these as they are very popular with restaurants and tourists.
Where To Buy Locally Caught Fish
While you can buy single fillets or smaller quantities of camarones and calamari in super markets, they are often frozen or of lesser quality and higher price than getting it from your local fish guy. Many Ferias or Farmer’s market will often have one or two Vendors who sell fresh fish. I have found the fish from these vendors to be fresh and safe to eat, and they may offer advice (mostly in Spanish) how to prepare them. Larger beach towns such as Playas del Coco and Tamarindo and Jaco will have at least one fish vendor who will regularly stock fresh and frozen fish. Most Ticos purchase their fish whole, but Vendors will also sell you fillets, but only in 1-2 kilo vacuum packed bags. These will stay fresh for about a week, but you can also freeze them in smaller quantities and they taste every bit as good when thawed. Occasionally a shrimp boat will dock nearby the beach and you might be able to buy them right offthe boat. The very best places to buy fish though are the large port towns where the commercial fishing boats dock. Putarenas is one of the best.
Homemade ceviche is very easy, and there are as many recipes for this as there are for Chili in Texas. The secret to good ceviche is freshness, and using the right type of fish. For grilling fish, a basket or wire clamshell device works best since it allows you to easily turn the fish without them sticking to the grill.
Some Favorite Dishes
Thanks for making me hungry Steve, I must go eat now.
Until next time,
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In addition to writing on this blog, Greg has written for other online publications and has written two popular books about living in Costa Rica:
Greg Seymour Amazon Author Page