Gallo pinto: rice and beans from Costa Rica

Gallo Pinto is satiating, savory farmer (country farmer) comfort rice and bean dish, with a spicy kick from Salsa Lizano (a sauce similar to Worcestershire) and a side of eggs. The name, translated as “spotted rooster”, refers to the spotted appearance of the rice and beans after they are mixed together, and is a staple in Central American cuisine, particularly in Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

For Monica Quesada, a photojournalist in Costa Rica’s central valley, it was dinner after school. “I remember always enjoying a gallo pinto with a big tortilla for dinner — and a piece of fresh, shrill cheese called Turrialba cheese, which is weird,” Quesada said.

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This is “strange” because gallo pinto is usually considered a breakfast food, usually served with egg cream (a type of sour cream in Costa Rica). But for Quesada, it was the ultimate comfort food, no matter the time of day.

Quesada spent most of his formative years in Heredia, one of three cities surrounding the capital San Jose in Costa Rica’s urban central valley. Now she and her husband, New York native Thomas Enderlin, are based in Sabanilla, a residential neighborhood in northeast San Jose. It’s also the same place her father grew up. Among working on many different creative projects together, the couple co-authored Costa Riquísima: Costa Rican Traditional Dishes for You or Someone You Love, out in November 2022 from Zona Tropical Press.

The project was accidental. As Enderlin tells it, Quesada had spoken to the publisher years ago about another project. The publisher followed up by asking her if she knew anyone who could write a cookbook. The publisher was specifically interested in a couple of mixed nationality – and the rest is history.

Costa Riquísima was several years in the making, beginning with early talks in 2015. A family accident and the pandemic extended the timeline, but Quesada said they had to spend considerable time researching recipes and distilling the variations they found into a recipe for their cookbook. “Everyone has a recipe,” she said, “but then we have to make one that a few people approve of [of].”

To test recipes, Quesada and Enderlin turned to their family in Costa Rica. “We had a lot of events with Monica’s family where we introduced everyone Ticos [Costa Ricans]” said Enderlin. “Fortunately, everyone liked it [what we made] and said it’s very authentic, very traditional.”

Ederlin describes Costa Rican food as very natural, light on spices, fresh and satisfying. “It’s a very practical cuisine,” he said, adding, “because most of the food comes from when Costa Rica was less developed, more campesino, and people had to eat to maintain their physical activities.”

As for gallo pinto, Enderlin and Quesada say that even though it’s a simple dish, there are a number of variations on the preparation and ingredients that will vary from family to family. “One of the most profound differences is that in some parts of the country they use red beans,” Ederlin said. “And in other parts of the country they use black beans.”

Some other options include using cilantro and chopped pieces of red or green pepper. “[The changes] are very subtle,” Ederlin said. “But at the same time, it’s such a basic dish that it affects the flavor.”

Quesada and Ederlin use Salsa Lizano, a type of spicy but sweet Costa Rican Worcestershire sauce developed in 1920. “You can cook anything with Salsa Lizano,” Quesada said. She admitted that because it’s salty, it’s not the healthiest condiment and even said that newer generations have tried to stay away from it, especially in her own family. But overall, Salsa Lizano remains a Tico favorite. And at the end of the day, they incorporated it into their gallo pinto recipe.

“That should definitely be included,” Quesada said. “It adds a lot more flavor, it does [the gallo pinto] saltier, a bit spicy and has a bit of a kick to it.”

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