A Pedacito of Gallo Pinto in Costa Rica
Updated: Jul 1, 2021
Gallo pinto is a Costa Rican dish of rice and beans typically served for breakfast. The name translates literally to “speckled rooster” because some think that the dish resembles the texture of a speckled rooster, where the beans are the speckles and the rice are the feathers.
Anyways, rice and beans for breakfast? In the United States, I never once craved cooking up some rice and opening a can of beans in the morning. Coming from California, I have a certain Tex Mex familiarity with rice & beans; and let me tell you, the Tico version is completely different. Whereas California beans tend to be refried and the rice tends to be salty, the Tico version tastes purer, or simple. The beans are black and salty, and the rice cooked to simple perfection. After all, pura vida is their motto. But besides the dish being pure and simple, it’s also incredibly flavorful.
For a deeper understanding of the flavor, check out this recipe I found online:
1 lb (450 gr.) Black beans. Fresh is best but most likely you’ll find them dried.
8-10 sprigs cilantro (coriander leaf) fresh or frozen, not dried!
1 small or medium onion
½ small red or yellow sweet pepper (optional)
3 cups (700 ml) chicken broth or water
2 cups (350 ml) white rice
½ teaspoon (2.5 ml) salt
1 Tablespoon (15 ml) vegetable oil
1-3 Tablespoon oil to fry the Gallo Pinto
Honestly, I’m a vegetarian and just now discovered that the dish is likely made of chicken broth. Whoops. You’d never know from the taste. Apparently, the recipes can vary from family to family; I swear I’ve had gallo pinto with tomato sauce, or heavier spices, or full of butter. I’m sure that each restaurant does it just a little bit differently. The taste is hard to describe, I believe, because most recipes add a secret ingredient unlike anything I’ve tasted before: Salsa Lizano.
Salsa Lizano is a thin, light brown sauce. It’s sweet and slightly spicy; made of sugar, salt, veggies, and spices like black pepper and cumin which really come through in the flavor. You’ll find this salsa in all of the authentic sodas (another word for Tico restaurants), but not usually in the touristy hotspots. Amazon just started selling it online.
Maybe you’re thinking that rice, beans, and salsa isn’t enough for breakfast; and you’re right. Especially if you’re living the Santa-Teresa-Tico lifestyle of surfing every day. Gallo pinto comes as part of a larger plate; it’s usually served with huevos (eggs), either frito (fried) or revueltos (scrambled). And cheese! Queso Fresco, or “squeaky cheese”, is the most common type I’ve been served; it comes fried and resembles halloumi.
Last and personally, my least favorite part of the plate, is fried plantains. I’m not a fan of super ripe bananas so although platanos maduros are not my favorite, many people love them. I pass mine to my boyfriend every morning and he eats a double serving almost daily. Plantains are similar to bananas; the riper, the sweeter. When unripe, a plantain holds the sweetness of a potato. When ripe, it becomes desert-like. Basically, the large ripe bananas are sliced and then fried into thick, gooey, banana-y strips. When you’ve finished your complete gallo pinto plate, you’ll be full for hours; and the best part: it’s one of the least expensive dishes available.
After living in Costa Rica for a couple of months, I learned to customize my pinto. I almost always add avocado. Also, I’m not sure if this is wrong, but I like to cut everything up and mix it all together; it reminds me of a big Chipotle burrito bowl, which is really comforting when far from home. Although it looks similar, it tastes very different; I’d say better. I like to end my gallo pinto experience with a plate of Costa Rican fruit: watermelon, banana, papaya, and pineapple. Yes, I eat a lot; and more than usual in Costa Rica.
Depending on where you go, your gallo pinto experience will be different. My favorite spot is a restaurant on the beach, called Restaurante Playa Carmen. It’s a favorite to locals and tourists alike. The rice & beans are garnished with fresh herbs, the eggs extra salty, and the fruit plate comes free of charge.
At the local soda, the experience is slightly different; for example, instead of plain eggs, I’d get a thin omelet stuffed with vegetables. The food at the sodas tend to be cheaper, but slathered in butter; I’m usually full for twice as long after eating at a soda. Some people love that, but I personally prefer the fresher, light version at the restaurant. You’ll have to try gallo pinto in a variety of places to discover what you like.
Although a good portion of the dish comes fried—cheese, plantains, and even rice & beans sometimes—I can’t say that it’s not healthy. Gallo pinto is a staple in the Nicoya Peninsula, and it’s one of the five blue zones in the world. Blue zones are researched places where people live the longest and are the healthiest. A traditional Nicoya diet consists of black beans, banana, plantains, papaya, homemade corn tortillas, squash, yams, and pejibaje. I’d love to believe that the fried cheese plays a role in longevity, but I’m sure that’s a stretch. The key to the Nicoya diet is that the staple foods are free of preservatives and processing; the basics are prepared local and fresh.
Although I’ve only had a glimpse into the beach towns of Malpais and Santa Teresa, these cities seem very fit and healthy. There are farms and fruit trees everywhere; and with a working wage of $2 USD per hour, perhaps eating simple and pure is out of necessity. I’m sure that if I asked one of the few locals I know here, he/she would say that they live this way out of preference; they seem genuinely happy and proud of their home and lifestyle.
Although rice and beans sounded utterly wrong for breakfast at first, I now crave it and eat it on a daily basis. I can’t imagine life without gallo pinto.
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