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The history of Lizano sauce: A century of tradition in Costa Rican kitchens

The history of Lizano sauce: A century of tradition in Costa Rican kitchens

My grandfather knew the masterminds behind Ticos’ favorite sauce. I sat down with him to find out how it all began.

On a chilly December afternoon, I decided to pay my grandfather Guillermo a visit with a hot plate of tamales in tow.

For those unfamiliar with them, tamales are a traditional Costa Rican dish typically made of dough stuffed with a medley of veggies, a hard-boiled egg, and pork, wrapped in palm banana leaves. They are a staple in our cuisine, especially during the colder months.

But as I presented the tamales to my grandfather, who is approaching his 100th birthday, he immediately rejected them, and quipped: "Mija, a tamal without Lizano sauce is not a tamal."

I couldn't help but chuckle as I got up to fetch a bottle of the beloved sauce for him.

You see, Lizano sauce has been an essential ingredient in Costa Rican kitchens for nearly a century.

This heavenly salsa is made from a secret recipe of vegetables, spices, and a touch of heat, and adds a unique and delicious flavor to any dish it's paired with, from tamales to gallo pinto.

Versatile and affordable, it is little surprise that it has long been a staple in every household and restaurant across the country.

But where did it come from? I recently had the opportunity to sit down with my grandfather, who was friends with the sauce's creators, to learn more about its fascinating history.

The birth of a Costa Rican classic

The story begins in 1920 in an old bar (or "cantina", as they were called back then) in Barrio El Carmen, Alajuela.

The bar's owner, Don Próspero Jiménez, was experimenting with a new type of encurtido (pickled vegetable mixture) that would set his establishment apart from the rest. He had recently tried Lea & Perrins sauce and, having seen its popularity, realized he could do better.

He mixed together a variety of common vegetables with different spices and a touch of chili pepper. The result was a sauce that quickly gained a following.

"People liked it so much they brought the pots and containers from their own houses to the canteen to be filled with this sauce," my grandfather tells me. "Later, they would use it in their own preparations at home. There were long lines outside the cantina and it began to gain huge popularity."

It wasn't long before Don Jiménez realized he needed to find a way to bottle and sell the sauce on a larger scale. He teamed up with a man named Don Próspero Lizano (yes, they both had the same name!) who had the resources and financial means to make it happen.

The only catch: Lizano insisted that the sauce bear his last name. Jiménez agreed, on the condition that he would receive a share of the profits.

"They put a very striking green label on the bottles and wrapped them in a cardboard package," my grandfather says. "And, a short time later, it became so famous that people from all over the country came to buy it."

As the popularity of Lizano sauce snowballed, production was moved to a factory in downtown Alajuela to accommodate the growing demand.

"I doubt there is a home in Costa Rica that is unaware of its flavor," my grandfather adds.

Lizano sauce is an essential ingredient in Costa Rican kitchens.

The Lizano sauce legacy lives on

Although the recipe for Lizano sauce remains a closely-guarded secret, its distinctive color and flavor come from a blend that includes water, sugar, salt, carrots, chili peppers, cucumbers, cauliflower, dry mustard, celery spice, turmeric, and molasses.

Today, Lizano sauce is used as a marinade for meats and as a dipping sauce for snacks and appetizers. Depending on how much you use, it can add a bit of spice to your dish (it isn’t too hot, though).

And it's also an essential part of Costa Rica's traditional breakfast dish, gallo pinto. In fact, most Ticos will tell you that the black bean and white rice combo just isn't complete without a helping of Lizano. (Just like my grandfather can't stomach a tamal without it!)

Many have even been known to bring bottles of Lizano sauce with them when they travel abroad, as a way to recreate the flavors of home. This has helped it gain popularity in the United States and as far afield as Europe, where specialist ecommerce stores ensure they can get their hands on a supply.

Sadly, the original creators of Lizano sauce, Don Próspero Jiménez and Don Próspero Lizano, have since passed away.

But their legacy lives on, as the sauce is still being produced today, now by a major food brand in the province of Heredia. And wherever Costa Ricans go, you can bet that a bottle of Salsa Lizano will follow. After all, Donde hay salsa Lizano, hay un Tico.

Sara Jiménez Molina

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