The following is the transcript with an interview with Kathleen Squires, for her article “Eco Dining in Costa Rica” for the Wall Street Journal.
Thanks so much for your quick response. The Anamaya is the perfect fit for my story. I especially love the “Wall of Salad!”
Here are the questions I have for you:
1. You mentioned that you are one of the only organic restaurants in Costa Rica—why, in a country so known for its eco-tourism, are green restaurants so hard to find?
Costa Rica is a small country, and many of the most popular areas are very remote from where the organic farms are in Costa Rica. Typically, tourists come to Costa Rica to experience remote rainforest beaches, and although there are many “farms” in such areas, these farms aren’t growing many vegetables. Usually they have bananas, mangoes, and cattle. The rainforests are just too hard on an organic grower, with the zillions of bugs, funguses, and ravenous 5-foot iguanas. Plus the heavy rains and harsh tropical sun create additional challenges. So, most organic food is grown on the higher slopes of mountains and volcanoes in the central valley. So the logistics of getting a good variety of organic food to the tourist areas is a serious hurdle. Then there are the more obvious answers too… such as that Costa Rica is a small and relatively poor country compared to someplace like the U.S. so there’s just not a lot of any type of business or production going on, plus there’s a small domestic market. With all these things considered, it’s truly phenomenal what we ARE able to get here. Most of our vegetables and spices we’re able to get organic, along with many other things, and the list is continually growing. Costa Rica is really supporting organics, because it does fit so well with the country’s image and direction.
2. In your opinion in general, are more restaurants in Costa Rica now implementing green initiatives in the kitchen?
Yes definitely. We were just visited by a woman who was offering phenomenal cleaning products made in Costa Rica and entirely out of vegetables. Among the dozens of products they made, she had a magic liquid that she demonstrated that took off four years of calcium deposits on the glass and faucets in one of our bathrooms. I didn’t even know that was possible. And all the products are biodegradable. She said she was visiting hotels and restaurants in the area and ALL of them ordered her products (including us, who switched our entire cleaning supply budget to her company) I was thrilled that such great things were being produced locally. As for the food in the kitchens, yes there are several other places that use organics. Two in our small town of Montezuma and one in Santa Teresa. From a business perspective, using organic produce in such a small market isn’t a profitable strategy. The general public of vacationers isn’t searching out organic food. So all of us who use organic produce do it because we believe in organics and are willing to make a lot less profit to support businesses that are making sustainability practical. As a business owner, I’m ecstatic about supporting organics also because it just feels great to own a business that’s doing the right thing. I want to be able to look back at my life and remember that I was part of the solution and not part of the problem. Anamaya also has become super successful in general, and we are seen as a leader in everything we’re doing. I hope to make “going green” seem as cool as possible, and I hope our competition all copy us. This is what the earth needs… people competing to out-green each other!
3. What are some of the best resources that Costa Rica has to offer your dining program?
The food at Anamaya is incredible… just check out our reviews on Trip Advisor, but it’s not just our chefs and great recipes. The food in general in Costa Rica just tastes great… perhaps it’s the amazing volcanic soil, clean air and water, or the fact that it isn’t all picked green so it can be shipped 2000 miles before reaching a store somewhere in the U.S. We’re a much more local economy, and we don’t have a lot of industrial farming. The system here just produces much better quality ingredients in general, whether organic or not.
4. What are some of the green initiatives in the kitchen at Anamaya?
I’m especially excited that I finally found a source of organic Kale. I think there must be only one farm in the country growing it. So now we’re able to offer this healthiest of vegetables with meals. Kale is such a healthy food that I’d like to offer it every day. Our yoga retreats have the meals included, so by serving Kale daily, we’re going to get a lot of nutrition into our guests. We also have a special focus on “super foods”, which are foods that are especially full of nutrition. Many nutritional experts have compiled their own lists of superfoods since the term was coined, so I compiled all the lists I could find to see which fruits and veggies seemed to get the most accolades, and I compiled it in an article on our website here: http://www.anamayaresort.com/superfoods/
5. What is your “greenest” dish and why?
I came up with a single dish that contains four superfoods, which is a mix of 2/3 spinach and 1/3 parsley, cooked on a low heat with garlic, in olive oil. If ever I feel like I’m getting a cold, I just start eating this for a super immune system boost. Tastes great too.
6. You mentioned growing some of your own herbs—can you tell me which kind?
Yes we have oregano, rosemary, thyme, lemongrass, and basil. We have tumeric and a type of broad-leafed cilantro that looks like dandelion leaves. We have a few cherry tomatoes as well. Tomatoes, as well as peppers, are native to Costa Rica. Did you know that Thai chilis are actually from here and were brought to Asia by the Portuguese? Cherry tomatoes grow very well here, and are much more closely related to the original wild tomato variety, so they have a lot of immunity to local bugs and fungus. Larger tomatoes and hybrids are basically inbred species that have lost a lot of their natural resistance to pests and pestilence. So they don’t grow very well here without fungicides and insecticides.
7. When you set up your organic farm, what are you hoping to grow?
Certain things grow very well in this particular climate organically. We should be able to have sweet potatoes, cherry tomatoes, mustard greens, cucumber, squash, and all types of peppers. Things like broccoli probably aren’t going to grow unless we can find an heirloom variety somewhere that takes to the heat and humidity. So much has to do with finding the right seeds, and they’re not going to be available in Costa Rica. We may grow a lot of things you haven’t heard about too… tropical nuts and edible leaves from Africa. There’s a type of spinach called “Malabar spinach” that grows on vines. I want to try making an edible shade structure with spinach and passion fruit vines. We’ll probably grow some chocolate and villa too. Why not, both are native to Central America. The Aztecs used to mix them to make drinks for the emperor and his court. And of course, we’ll have a variety of tropical fruits… mangos, papayas, bananas, plantains, limes, oranges, and grapefruit, plus things you’ve never heard of.
Could you also send along a copy of a current menu?
We don’t actually have a menu. We serve a meal that everyone shares, and the chefs have a lot of freedom to experiment. We do a lot of baked fish. We have great raw soups, although my favorite of our soups is a cooked black bean soup that’s a traditional Costa Rican favorite. For desert we’re doing a lot of dairy free, sugar free ice cream. We often use a base of avacado which gives it the fatty texture and flavor of ice cream, and it’s sweetened with stevia and “tapa dulce” which is raw organic sugar, sort of like a cruder form of brown sugar. Or we use organic honey. It’s amazing stuff. Most of our guests request a cookbook, so we’re working on that and will put all our recipes on the internet for free when we’re ready.