When I was in Costa Rica this past summer my friend and host, Jose, showed me around San Jose. With two big cathedrals, an old, colonial opera house, and a bunch of museums, the town was full of great stuff to do and see. But nothing sticks in my memory like the virtual catacombs of the marketplace.
Jose reluctantly led me into the market after I had insisted on eating there for lunch. We ducked under hanging lottery tickets and clothing for sale into the thick, dark air. The smell changed from every shop to the next–perfumed and warm next to a spice stand to damp and bloody by the butchers, where the air pulled slow through my nose.
Near the food vendors were little restaurants and cafes–full of regulars, it appeared.
“This one’s got good ceviche,” Jose said to me, pointing at a walled-off dining area within the labyrinth. “I used to eat there with dad when we came here to sell honey.” (Jose’s dad is a beekeeper.) “Alright,” I would say, still looking for something better. “Well what do you think?”
“I don’t know, man. It just depends on what you want.”
We kept looking.
It took us a long time to choose the cramped counter where we would have lunch. It was tiled white with blackened grout. The counter was the only barrier between the eaters and the kitchen. There was a fryer and an old stove with a griddle on top, keeping hot, rippling the air above it all day. There were sausages hanging on the wall by the fryer, and somewhere under the counter, where I couldn’t see, were the empanadas. Stored in a rectangular tupperware, I guessed.
I ordered two–stuffed with crunch-skinned, fried pork, called Chicharrón. One of the ladies, dressed in a stained white apron, dunked them in the yellow-brown oil to reheat. She set them before me in a plastic basket on the thinnest of napkins. The hot oil soaked the napkin and burned my fingertips and tongue on my first bite. For the second bite, Jose recommended I add the homemade chilero, which was on the counter in a repurposed plastic mayonnaise jar–a little deformed, like when you put plastic in a microwave.
This chilero was a vinegar-based sauce with minced vegetables–carrots and cauliflower and chilies and onions
and garlic. I stirred it up with my spoon and put some on the crescent left by my teeth in the corner of the empanada. The minced vegetables settled on the empanada when the vinegar ran into the meat and into the oily crust and down the side, down my thumb, off my wrist, and onto the grubby tile.
I didn’t have the guts to ask for the recipe–or rather, to ask Jose to ask for the recipe–but I so wish I had. The first bite with the chilero–and the second, and the third–filled my awareness.
The fatty, spiced baritone of the Chicharrón came together with a trumpet from the chilero, each balancing the other into a full-flavored harmony. The vinegar cut the fat and the chewy pork lent itself to be a canvas for the sour spicy zap from the vinegar salsa. All this with the music of the marketplace around us: the clang of spatulas on hot iron griddles, a slamming cleaver severing sinewy pork joints, the whispers of the ladies cooking before us, the spewing faucet over the wet sink, the chirping of the salespeople pushing lottery tickets, and outside in the free air and bus smoke, the muffled sound of a passing parade.