Gallo Pinto Recipe – The Unofficial Dish of Costa Rica

I know we're in Mexico now, but I wanted to share with you one of the best known dishes from Costa Rica:  Gallo Pinto!

Translated, the name means "painted chicken", like the Plymouth Rock Chicken…which we saw quite a few of while living in Atenas.

BUT…the dish doesn't HAVE chicken in it.  And our son liked to call it "Gato Pinto" or "painted cat", but we never harmed any cats while making this dish. :o)

I have to confess that I had never made gallo pinto before moving to Costa Rica.  I had only made beans from dried beans ONCE before moving and had pretty much stuck with minute or instant rice, too.  So while in Costa Rica, I decided it was my family duty/obligation to learn HOW to make this dish.

Now, whenever we bought it or I made it at home, we always had it with black beans.  However, my mom, the real Tica, uses pinto or red beans.  (Right, Mom?)   You can substitute one for the other, but I just like the look of the black beans better…and they're smaller when cooked.

So, how do you go about cooking this?  Let's get started.

gallo pinto recipeIngredients:

1 lb (450 gr.) dried black beans…sorted to remove any cracked or ugly ones and to get rid of any rocks that made it into the bag
10-15 sprigs fresh cilantro (coriander leaf)
1 large onion
6 garlic cloves, divided
½ small red or yellow sweet pepper (optional…my kids don't like it, so I don't really use it)
3 cups (700 ml) water
2 cups (350 ml) white rice
Salt to taste
4 Tablespoons of Salsa Lizano or Salsa Inglesa
3 strips of bacon OR 2 pieces of somewhat fatty chicharones (already cooked)
1 Tablespoon (15 ml) vegetable oil

Cover the dried beans completely with water plus some more for expansion and let them soak overnight.  In the morning, drain the beans and add clean water to about an inch (2.5-cm) above the top of the beans.  Add salt, half of the onion (chopped), 2 garlic cloves (minced), 5 springs of cilantro and 2 Tablespoons of Salsa Lizano.  Bring to a boil, then cover the pan, reduce the heat to low and then simmer until the beans are soft, but not splitting open, usually around 3 hours.  If your beans are still tough, sprinkle a little baking soda into the water while they cook (or do it while they soak overnight).  Another traveling mom gave me this tip to soften the skins and it works!

Now, to make the rice:

Add 1 Tablespoon of oil to a large pan and sauté 2 garlic cloves, 1/4 of the onion (chopped finely) and the bell pepper (finely chopped) until the onion is translucent.  Be careful not to burn the garlic!  Then add the dry rice and saute it with the veggies for 2 minutes over med-high heat, being sure to coat every grain of rice with the oil.  Add water and bring to a boil, then cover and reduce heat to simmer until rice is tender (20-35 minutes). 

Note: I personally have NOT had much luck at all with gas stoves and cooking rice.  Well, I can cook the rice, but not without the top layer being uncooked and the bottom burning.  So not a total failure, but nobody in my family likes the taste of burnt rice!

Once the beans and rice are done, cook the bacon (not to a crisp) to render the fat to use for cooking the Gallo Pinto.  Remove the bacon and add the remaining garlic (minced) and onion (finely chopped).  Saute until onion is translucent.  If you are in Costa Rica and can get some fresh chicharrones (NOT pork rinds, but the meaty chunks of deep fried pork), use that to render the fat to cook the onions and garlic in.

I like to then add in the rice and coat it completely with the pork fat.  (I know…this is not the healthiest of dishes, but it is SO good!)  Then, slowly add in the beans, trying not to break them apart.  Don't add in the broth from cooking the beans until the very end.  Gallo Pinto is NOT a soupy dish, so add sparingly.  Add the remaining 2 Tablespoons of Salsa Lizano, bacon (chopped) or chicharrones (chopped).  Right before serving, add finely chopped cilantro.  Depending on how heavily you salt your rice and your beans, you may need to add a bit more salt.  I tend to under salt our food, so use it to taste.

Serve warm.  Ticos will eat this dish mainly for breakfast with eggs and tortillas, but we like it more as a lunch or dinner side dish.  It goes great with fried chicken (if in Atenas, Costa Rica, be sure to get some from Don Lalo's, on the corner across from the volley ball courts.  His is THE BEST!), pork (of course) and just about anything.  It does refrigerate well, so make a double batch.

In my opinion, the 3 key ingredients are the cilantro, Salsa Lizano and pork fat.  You can absolutely make the dish with vegetable oil, if you want to have a vegetarian/vegan dish.  But the Salsa Lizano (available at most latin supermarkets or on Amazon) and cilantro really make the dish, especially when cooking the beans.  You CAN leave out the Salsa Lizano, but it doesn't have the same depth of flavor and, frankly, makes it less of a Costa Rican dish.  :o)   You may be able to substitute a combination of Worchestershire sauce and some Italian dressing and get close.

You can also substitute canned black beans (drained) for this recipe, but I would still saute some garlic and onion and warm the drained beans in a little water, adding Salsa Lizano and cilantro to add some flavor.  I suppose you can also use instant or quick cooking rice, too, but I've never tried it.  Just be sure the rice is nice and dry, not clumpy or sticky.

And there you go!  The dish that Ticos can't live without…Gallo Pinto.  If you give it a try, do let me know what you think of it.  And, seriously, I would not hesitate buying a bottle of Salsa Lizano if you can.  It makes a DELICIOUS marinade for meats (beef, pork and chicken).  It's something I can't find here in Mexico and really wish I had a bottle of!  Salsa Lizano is made in Costa Rica and, if you ever get to drive by the plant, you'll notice the heavenly aroma. *happy sigh*


Here are some other fun and foods to try from other traveling families around the world:

Finding My Way to Fabulous (and Freaky) Food by Keryn at Walkingon Travels (twitter @walkingontravel)

Persian Pomegranate Chicken and other Fantastic Foods of Iran.. by Susan V

Food from Guatemala – Marina K. Villatoro

Magical Easy-To-Make Israeli Madbukah

Traditional Dishes of Peru – Lainie Liberti of Raising Miro

Alloco (from West Africa) – Lauren Fisher

My crêpes recipe (from France) – Tiphanya

Starting our Days with Turkish Breakfast

Taking the Kids to Yakitori Alley in Tokyo Japan-by Kristy Harris of Vagabond Kids


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9 Responses to “Gallo Pinto Recipe – The Unofficial Dish of Costa Rica”

  1. Rebeca Says:

    Yummm, looks delicious! 
    That's funny about rice. My mom was so particular about how rice was cooked and I can't tell you how many times I heard "Don't lift the lid on the rice" when I was growing up! Then I went to India and had to cook rice on a little propane burner in a pot with an ill fitting lid, and without measuring anything. When I came back to the States, I couldn't cook rice the "right" way anymore! 
    I will have to try this recipe. Thanks! 

  2. Mom Says:

    I think I’m going to be in trouble in a few weeks when the family comes back to the house we’re housesitting. She’s got a rice cooker. Guess it will be back to the drawing board for rice cooking. :)

  3. Food from My Roots: Israeli Chef Makes Amazing Madbukah | The Nomadic Family Says:

    […] Gallo Pinto, Costa Rica’s Signature Dish – by Susan of Family Travel Bucket List […]

  4. Susan Verbeeck Says:

    ooh..thanks for sharing the recipe. We never get around to cooking beans..always rice, but beans are intimidating to me sometimes. It's great to have to learn how to cook with what you have on hand. "What's cookin in other countries" can help you stretch your recipe repitoire : )

  5. Mom Says:

    The good thing about cooking beans is that there’s not a huge investment if you mess them up! I tend to under-salt them because I am too afraid of making them salty! LOL!

  6. Yakitori Alley with the kids! | Vagabond Kids Says:

    […] Gallo Pinto, Costa Rica’s signature dish  […]

  7. 8 Traditional Dishes of Peru | Raising Miro on the Road of Life - Travel Podcast Says:

    […] Breakfast Taking the Kids to Yakitori Alley in Tokyo Japan Magical Easy-To-Make Israeli Madbukah Gallo Pinto, Costa Rica’s signature dish Persian Pomegranate Chicken and other Fantastic Foods of […]

  8. Persian Pomegranate Chicken and other Fantastic Foods of Iran « Grow In Grace Life Says:

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  9. Gramma Says:

    Recently returned from two weeks in Costa Rica where I fell in love with Salsa Lizano and Gallo Pinto. 
    I made Gallo Pinto a few times using Worcestershire Sauce.It was better than no Gallo Pinto, but am in the process of making it tonight and am very excited because my son is bringing me two bottles of Salsa Lizano he found in a store in Vancouver !!  

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