Gallo Pinto: It’s more than rice and beans. It’s one of the best food memories of Costa Rica. Ticos–as Costa Rica citizens call themselves–have a saying: “Más tico que el gallo pinto,” which translates as “More Costa Rican than Gallo Pinto.” It refers to someone or something that is 100 percent Costa Rican.
Visitors may travel to Costa Rica for the beaches and biodiversity, but they will soon discover the national dish: Gallo Pinto. Ticos eat this delicious bean and rice dish every day for breakfast…and maybe again later.
Origin–and original recipe–of Gallo Pinto are mysteries
No one knows the exact origin of Gallo Pinto, but it likely came from Africa. Since beans and rice make a complete protein, it was a nutritious and economical way to feed slaves…and the poor. Likewise, the name is a mystery, translating as “spotted rooster.” Most folks think it’s because when the rice and beans are combined, the rice becomes speckled, like the feathers of a fighting cock.
Like Mom’s meatloaf or Grandma’s goulash, every family has its own version of the simple staple. Part of the fun of visiting Costa Rica is to try as many types as possible. Fortunately, Ticos make this an easy and enjoyable task by offering Gallo Pinto at the local restaurants throughout the country, called “sodas.” Just sit at a stool and the owner will serve you their family’s best, along with eggs, meat, fruit, and fresh tortillas. All for about $5.
Of course, there as many recipes for Gallo Pinto as there are cooks and kitchens. I asked everywhere, always getting a different answer. Cook the beans and rice separately. No, cook them together. No, sauté the dry rice first. Add salsa. No, skip the salsa. You must add a hot pepper. No, absolutely not.
You get the idea. The thing is: Each one is delicious!
When I got home, I started making Gallo Pinto. It’s a breakfast staple in Costa Rica, served with eggs and tortillas…and a wonderful version of sour cream, natilla. Plantains round off the meal. If you can find Salsa Lizano at your local supermarket or mercado, all the better.
- 2 tablespoons corn or vegetable oil
- 1 small onion, chopped (about 3/4 cup)
- 2 teaspoons minced garlic, as you like
- Green or red bell peppers, if you like–chop them up
- 2 cups drained and rinsed canned black beans, or soak and cook dry beans
- 1+ cup water or chicken broth
- 1½ cups long-grain white rice, cooked and drained (about 3 cups cooked rice)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons packed fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
- Up to 2 teaspoons seeded and minced jalapeño or habanero chili, optional
- Salsa, optional
1. Warm the oil in a large saucepan set over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1-2 minutes. If using bell peppers, add them now, too.
2. Pour in the beans and 1 cup water. Raise the heat to medium-high and bring to a full simmer, stirring gently to keep the beans intact. Gently stir in the rice, salt and pepper until combined and hot, about 2 minutes. Stir in the cilantro, chili, and salsa, if desired, before serving.
Costa Rica is one of the healthiest countries in the world. With a largely plant-based diet, thanks to a constant supply of fruits and vegetables, Ticos don’t eat many processed foods.
Updated June 26, 2021
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