5 Traditional Costa Rican Foods for Health and Longevity
By Lisa Monroe
In rural Costa Rica, as in many places where home-grown foods play a key role in the everyday diet, people are very knowledgeable about the plants they grow and how the leaves, nuts, fruits, and other parts of the plant can be used for medicinal purposes.
We’re especially interested in which foods Costa Ricans consume because it’s the home of Nicoya, one of the original blue zones and the longest living people in the Americas. Nicoya is an 80-mile peninsula just north of the Nicaraguan border. It’s not far from the U.S., but people there are twice as likely to live to reach 90 than Americans. So, it makes perfect sense to take a closer look at some of the foods that they use medicinally to learn more about the nutrients they contain and the potential benefits of adding them to your diet. Here are five medicinal foods that make it into the Costa Rican diet on a regular basis that you might want to try.
Chan seeds are triangular black seeds used widely throughout Costa Rica and other parts of Central and South America. They are similar to chia seeds but come from a different plant — the Hyptis suaveolens that’s native to Central America.
The seeds are often soaked and then served in beverages, like Lemonade with Chan Seeds, a recipe from Dan Buettner’s cookbook, The Blue Zones Kitchen. Due to its mucilage content, chan seeds are used for digestive health and for relieving issues like constipation and indigestion. Chan seeds are also high in magnesium, which has been associated with lowering blood pressure.
Chan seeds are excellent to use in herbal tea, like our Blue Zones Nicoya Chan and Lemongrass Tea. This delicate tea is inspired by the Nicoyan centenarians’ gardens and made with herbs native to the Nicoya Peninsula. It’s great for relieving stress and even headaches. In addition to the health benefits of the chan, lemongrass is another herb that Costa Ricans love for its lemony aroma, antioxidants, and antimicrobial properties.
Lemon verbena or lippia alba, known in Costa Rica as juanilama, has been used for thousands of years by indigenous people in both Central and South America as a medicinal herb. Like chan seeds, it’s also known for soothing the digestive tract. But it’s also used as a somatic, sedative, antidepressant, and for its analgesic properties. It’s thought to aid in promoting healthy muscle tissue, reducing inflammation, boosting the immune system, soothing nerves, and clearing up congestion.
The essential oil of lemon verbena contains antioxidant compounds, used in supplements in pill form in the U.S., or the leaves can be dried and steeped for use in herbal teas to control appetite to aid in weight loss. Our Blue Zones Nicoya Lippia Alba and Hibiscus Tea is an excellent natural diuretic that combines the expectorant and antimicrobial properties of lemon verbena with the high antioxidant content of hibiscus.
The worldwide medical community has begun to become more interested in researching the potential health benefits of lemon verbena in recent years. Among the findings in clinical studies, lemon verbena has been shown to reduce inflammation, hypertension, and muscle damage after exercise.
Culantro coyote, also known as fitweed and Mexican coriander, is an herb related to cilantro that’s used widely in the Nicoyan diet, as well as many other parts of the world, though little known in the U.S.
Although it’s related to cilantro, culantro looks very different. It has long, serrated leaves compared to the tiny delicate leaves of cilantro. It is also much more pungent than cilantro and unlike cilantro, which has a stronger flavor and smell when fresh, the flavor and aroma of culantro grows stronger when it’s cooked.
In Costa Rica, culantro is consumed often in soups, stews, and many other dishes. In the Blue Zones Kitchen, Dan features a number of Nicoyan recipes that use culantro coyote, including Yuca cakes, Black Bean and Potato Soup, Creamy Butternut Squash Soup, Veggie Hash with Corn and Onion, and others.
The leaves of the culantro plant are also chewed, much like parsley, to get rid of bad breath. Adding culantro to the diet is thought to have many health benefits, from lowering inflammation in brain cells to reduce neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, to reducing pain and relieving asthma symptoms. It contains Vitamin B2 that’s known to aid in liver function and lowering blood glucose levels.
Cassia Grandis Honey
Costa Ricans make a delicious natural syrup, without sugar, using the substance found in the pods of the Cassia grandis or Carao tree, which grows from southern Mexico to South America. The syrup is also known as Cassia grandis honey. It’s used as a natural sweetener and also mixed with milk for a refreshing beverage that’s easy on the stomach.
Cassia grandis honey helps to relieve anemic states due to iron deficiency and strengthens bones and teeth. Our Blue Zones Nicoya Nutricarao natural syrup (Cassia grandis honey) is a great source of energy for physical exercise and a nutritious complement for daily consumption. It provides all the benefits available from the exotic Cassia grandis honey and also contains aloe vera which helps aid digestion. It’s 100% natural, gluten-free, and GMO-free. It contains no added sugars, artificial flavors, or colors.
Our syrup is thick and a red-brownish color and is sweet and robust with notes of brown sugar and molasses. We recommend taking two tablespoons with each of your meals three times per day, or you can also add two tablespoons to smoothies, shakes, or oatmeal.
Our Blue Zones Nicoya products support the centenarian community of Nicoya, Costa Rica. We dedicate a percentage of all our sales directly to their families. At the same time, Blue Zones Nicoya has its production facilities in the area, which in turn provide direct and indirect jobs to the community. Blue Zones Nicoya also develops the Macaw Project, which helps reinsert Macaw populations to the Nicoya Peninsula.
Hearts of Palm
Nutrient-dense and low fat, hearts of palm come from the inner core and growing bud of certain types of palm trees, including coconut, palmetto, jucara, and others. Hearts of palm are crunchy like asparagus, look much like artichoke stalks without the tips, and have a flavor that’s similar to that of artichoke hearts.
Costa Ricans eat hearts of palm fresh in salads or cooked, and either way, they’re easy to prepare, according to Dan Buettner’s cookbook. It includes recipes for using hearts of palm both ways. It’s used raw in Hearts of Palm Ceviche, a fishless ceviche which is part of the traditional lunch of Costa Ricans and which Dan proclaimed in the book to be his favorite Costa Rican dish. In another recipe for Hearts of Palm Picadillo, the hearts of palm are sautéed along with onions, cilantro, and other ingredients.
Hearts of palm are rich in minerals including potassium which helps to regulate blood pressure, copper, and iron to promote healthy blood cells and regulate cholesterol, phosphorus for strong bones and teeth, and zinc to boost the immune system.
In addition, hearts of palm are an excellent source of polyphenol antioxidants, which neutralize free radicals which damage cells. Antioxidants not only reduce inflammation, but also can lower the risk of getting diseases like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. This dense stalk vegetable is also used to regulate weight because it’s low in fat and calories, yet high in fiber and water content. If you’d like to try hearts of palm and can’t find it fresh in your specialty foods market, it can be found jarred and canned in most grocery stores.
Lisa Oliver Monroe is a journalist and author of a travel book about America’s Historic Triangle (Williamsburg, Jameston, and Yorktown). Her writing has been published by Virginia Living, Boomer Magazine, Kirkus Media, Advance for Nurses, and Colonial Williamsburg, among many others.