The Geography of Cooking

How come the instant ramen noodles in Costa Rica are so much better than in Canada? Have they added some Latin spice to the old Chinese stand-by? Or maybe it’s the corn.

Of course, as a rule, Costa Rica is not the place to go if I you want to get good Chinese, Moroccan, or Ukrainian food. Certainly there should be some excellent Costa Rican food, perhaps some decent Cuban, Mexican, or Brazilian, if we do some digging. We’ve done most of our own cooking and not checked out many restaurants so far, but I’ll bet there are some regional gems — if not in our small town, then a bus ride away in San Jose. But we shouldn’t expect much beyond that.

It’s the mixed blessing of coming from a very multi-cultural country to a fairly mono-cultural one. If you were to map culinary traditions on a map of the world, you’d see most countries have one dominant flavour, with perhaps a few odd pockets of nearby traditions (Chinese restaurants in Japan, Chilean in Panama), and then you’d see a place like Winnipeg or New York and virtually every flavour in the world would meet there. So to leave a city like that for a place with few immigrants is to find authenticity, but lose variety.

Even after returning from Asia, I found I could still get good Thai, good (authentic, not Americanized) Chinese, good Korean, and good Japanese food. And of course I’ve enjoyed Salvadorean cooking since before I left. But since we’re not living in a country of immigrants anymore, we’re limited to what we can cook ourselves, and the local cuisine.

That’s not a complaint. When I was in China I embraced Chinese cooking (plus a favourite Korean restaurant, and I occasionally made the trip downtown for Japanese). Here we are trying to embrace Costa Rican cooking. It’s not that we’ll be sick of it after six months. Every culinary tradition includes a fair bit of variety within it. But I’m sure we’ll grow to miss certain things before we get back.

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