Olla de carne, Costa Rica

Day 13: Comfort by the bowlful

Do you have a love for a certain dish that is driven more by nostalgia, or by what the dish represents, than the food itself? Costa Rica’s olla de carne is that dish for me, without question. I wouldn’t order it as my final meal on death row, nor would I tell a tourist that they must not leave the country without sampling it. And yet, on a rainy October day like this one, coming home to a pot full of the hearty soup brings me a full-body shiver of delight. There’s just nothing cozier – and I’m from New England, people. I know from cozy.

The love of this dish is contagious, you see. I’ve absorbed many Costa Ricans’ passion for this simple recipe over the years. I’ve known vegetarians who make this their one exception, digging into a diabolically tender morsel of fatty short rib with glee (“because you just can’t not eat olla de carne!”) . I have a husband who will fast in order to be able to eat as much olla de carne as possible from the vat that passes as a soup tureen at El Rancho del Sapito in Coliblanco de Cartago – highly recommended. Put this dish on the menu and eyes will light right up.

There are surely as many recipes as there are Costa Rican home cooks, but the procedure is fairly simple – though I can feel the spirits of great-great-grandmothers scowling down on me in preparation for the the travesties I am surely about to commit. You just cook all of the ingredients in water, starting with a mix of lean beef and short ribs to make a hearty stock, then adding the vegetables, starting with the ones that need the most cooking time. The vegetables and their order of essential-ness are worth a good long conversation, but will include some combination of carrots, yuca, potatoes, green plantain, corn on the cob, tiquisque, onions… (Pause for lightning to strike.) Here’s a recipe in Spanish that I’m fond of because it instructs the reader that this dish is to be eaten “at least once a week,” and one in English from My Tan Feet.

Speaking of lightning, you really, really want to eat this one in the rain. With white rice. And a good chilera. And the spirits of all those great-great-grandmothers. Because with every slurp of olla de carne – “‘coma, coma!” – you can feel them wishing you well.

How do you make olla de carne? What’s your favorite Costa Rican soup? Let me know, quick, before the rainy season ends!

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or Facebook!

5 comments

  1. My grandmother made this every Saturday when I was a child. It was my least favorite meal of the week. Who in their right mind eats soup (especially with so many vegetables) on a hot Costa Rican night!? They served olla de carne at the shelter atop Chirripó, and it was wonderful there — and gave my fond memories of my childhood.

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  2. I love this!! I remember my host mom for Peace Corps fixing this dish. We all sat around the table and chatted over bowls of olla de carne….such a lovely memory. Thank you for reminding me of it.

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