Adventures of the Heart
Mary Zalmanek
Costa Rica - Tico Cooking Lessons

Sunday, October 14, 2001

Hola Amigos y Familia,

Shortly after we took over as innkeepers, Mainor did some grocery shopping for us.  In addition to the items I asked him to get, he brought home two big brown hunks of what appeared to be cane sugar.  I asked him what they were used for and I THOUGHT he said, "Dulce, para platanos." (Sweet, for plantains.)  That sounded good to me -- some kind of sweet sauce on plantains, those things that look like green bananas.  Both Jim and I were looking forward to this.

Weeks went by and the dulce just sat in the pantry.  I had some plantains and decided to try them out for dinner.  There was no one around to show me how to cook it, but I figured "How hard could it be, right?"  I whacked off a chunk of dulce and put it in a pan with some butter.  It made a thick caramel-like sauce I served over baked plantains.  The combination was more like dessert than a vegetable side dish, but we didn't complain.  I was fairly certain, however, that I had not stumbled on to the Tico way to use dulce.   

I asked Nuria to give me some lessons in Tico cooking.  We had several things in the kitchen at that point that still mystified me, including the dulce, plantains, and breadfruit.  Our cooking lessons are sort of quiet.  Nuria speak absolutely no English, and you know how well I speak Spanish.  She teaches through demonstration.  When she says a word, there's only a fifty-fifty chance that I will know it.  If I don't, I'll go to the dictionary.  Sometimes I wonder if she says a word that she knows I won't know just to keep me occupied.

Nuria sliced the plantains, salted them lightly and fried them in oil.  She served them with natilla, a dairy product that is heavier than whipping cream and lighter than sour cream.  This was not exactly a low-calorie health food, but it was very tasty. 

I was really curious how she was going to use the dulce.  I got it out of the pantry and handed it to her.  She had a puzzled look on her face, but put the dulce in a pan of water and dissolved it.  Imagine my surprise when she mixed the dulce liquid with milk, poured it into a teacup and handed it to me.  Dulce is a hot drink, served as an alternative to coffee or hot chocolate.  I looked up the word for "thought" and I told her I thought the dulce was used in the preparation of plantains. She gave Manual a "silly gringo" look and they both laughed.  I was glad my Spanish wasn't any better or I would have felt compelled to confess how I had prepared the dulce and plantains only days ago.

Elkin had picked a breadfruit for us and I wanted to try that too.  Just like plantains, the breadfruit was cut into thin slices, lightly salted and fried in oil.  They tasted a lot like potato chips.  Breadfruit is a large round fruit, and Nuria barely made a dent in it by frying a few chips.  More breadfruit adventures are to come.

John and Sandra were here for two days with their two-year-old son Nicholas.  Before they arrived I worried about all the scary bugs or snakes a toddler might find. They live in Miami and Sandra is from Columbia; they are probably more aware of the dangers than I am.  Nicholas was seldom more than a few feet away from his parents, Jim or me. I probably had no reason to worry, but I learned to worry from a professional -- my mother.  (Jim calls that the Doris Factor.) In any case, natural curiosity would occasionally cause Nicholas to stop to examine something on the floor or ground.  I was relieved that Nicholas showed more interest in flowers than insects. 

Mainor, Manuel and Jose play soccer.  On Friday they had a big game in their hometown, about an hour's drive from here, and invited Jim to watch the game.  While Jim was impressed with Mainor's ball handling abilities and Manuel's speed, he was more impressed with what happened after the game.  The two teams were genuine in extending their congratulations to each other.  Players expressed enthusiasm about good plays on both teams, not just by the team who made the play.  Players from opposing teams walked off the field with their arms slung over each other's shoulders.  The smiles on their faces came from the love of the game, not the thrill of victory.

On Saturday night we had a real rainstorm, the first one we've had during Casita Zombiawaking hours since we've been here.  It had been a hot and humid day with the temperature hitting the high eighties.  I went to Casita Zombia to watch the howler monkeys eat the leaves of the papaya trees just fifteen feet from the deck.  I watched the storm move across the lake.  The temperature plummeted six degrees.  There was still no reason to change into a shirt with sleeves.  Lightening was flashing and crashing all around us.  It felt like rainy season in a rainforest.  In just over 90 minutes, the rain gauge measured four inches of rain. 

I'm reading Natalie Goldberg's book "Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within."  She says, "A writer's job is to make the ordinary come alive, to awaken ourselves to the specialness of simply being.  When we live in a place for too long, we grow dull.  We don't notice what is around us.  That is why a trip is so exciting.  We are in a new place and see everything in a fresh way."

Not only am I seeing things in a fresh way, but I can slow down enough to notice and appreciate them.  What a gift Jim and I have been given –- a gift of paradise and time enough to breathe it all in!  My challenge when I return home is to continue to appreciate the ordinary beauty of life.  I want to see bears and blue jays that frequent my back yard with the same sense of wonder that I have for the monkeys and toucans.  I want to greet people of different races and customs with the same respect and lack of fear that I have for the Ticos who gather their food with machetes and spear guns.  I want to try new things and laugh at my mistakes with the same good humor that I can here.

Thanks for your notes.  We really like staying connected and finding out what is going on in your lives and the world.

Un abrazo (With kind regards),
Mary & Jim

Next entry     Previous entry     Costa Rica menu     Home