“Gallo Pinto” is easily identified as one of the most traditional dishes of both Costa Rica and Nicaragua, but is found throughout the Latin American countries. This economic dish consisting of a mix of rice and beans with a variety of other condiments that help make it unique to each country in which it is being prepared, has even become popular in most every Latin American Fast food restaurant. During the cooking process, the rice takes on the color of the beans, giving the dish a speckled appearance, hence the name, “Gallo Pinto”, or “Speckled Rooster” in English. This wildly popular dish has a long history and has been an important part of popular culture of numerous Latin American countries, although its actual origin remains a bit uncertain. In Costa Rica and Nicaragua, ask anyone and the debate begins as to who “invented” the ubiquitous Gallo Pinto!
Found in every Costa Rica Hotel restaurant, local “sodas”, or on just about and breakfast table in both Costa Rica and Nicaragua, this standard breakfast staple has a variety of other latin names and ingredients that help differenciate it around the World. Here are a few examples:
• Costa Rica: “Gallo Pinto”. Using spices such as sweet chile, garlic, culantro and onion.
• Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica: Commonly referred to as “Rice and Beans” it is prepared with the milk of coconut and often times spiced with Panamanican Hot Chilis.
• Nicaragua: Prepared similar to Costa Rica, but almost always with red beans.
• Colombia: “Calentado” (heated)
• Cuba: “Moros & Cristianos”, which refers to the “bean & rice” and often contains cumin, laurel and other spices.
• El Salvador: “Casamiento”, which basically means a marriage of the rice & beans.
• Guatemala: Also known as the Basic “Arroz & Frijoles, on the Caribbean coast they also add the coconut milk and call it “Izabal”.
• Honduras: “Casamiento” like El Salvador or along the Northern Coast just “Rice & Beans”.
• México: “Pispiote”.
• Panamá: “Gallopinto” (one Word) anda long the Caribbean coast “Rice & Beans” with Coconut milk.
• Puerto Rico & Dominican Republic: “Frijol gandul or frijol de palo”.
• Perú: “Calentado” or another variance known as “Tacu-tacu”.
• Puerto Rico: “Arroz con habichuelas” (another way to say Rice & Beans!). República Dominicana.
The origin of this plate has never been completely verified or proven, so although the Nicaraguans insist it was their creation, the true origin is thought to have come from Costa Rica during either the times when the Atlantic Banana Companies were a prominent force in this country or it may have originally been brought with the slaves from Africa to the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica during the construction of the railroad along that coast. Mentioned in literary works in history books, the origins of Gallo Pinto were thoroughly investigated by Patricia Vega of the National University of Costa Rica, and original writings of Gallo Pinto date back to the late to early 18th & 19th centuries.
Another traditional legend from the 1930’s, claims the name of this dish had it’s origin in San Sebastián, one of the older rural suburbs South of San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica. According to this well told legend, a rich landowner invited many people to celebrate San Sebastián day at his “Quinta”, where it was announced that they would kill the “painted rooster” (ie; Gallo Pinto), which they had been fattening up for months for this happy occasion. So many people showed up for the celebration, that the rooster was going to be insufficient to give each guest a piece of it’s fine meat. Scrambling for a solution, the cooks made an emergency mixture of rice and beans meant to mask that there was really not enough meat to go around.
Of course, people noticed that they did not get any of the coveted “fattened” rooster meat and felt deceived, and from that day forward took to ridiculing the host family asking “Have you tried the Gallo Pinto of Don Bernabé?, It is made of only Rice & Beans”. The name “Gallo Pinto” caught on and has stuck over the centuries and now is even common place at fast food joints!
There are many ways to prepare Gallo Pinto, much depends on what country you find yourself in, or perhaps what ingredients you might have available at the moment. The original recipe generally contains more rice than beans.
Ingredients for Beans
2 Cups of Black or Red Beans (small)
1 Tablespoon of oil
Salt to taste
1 Stalk of Celery
3 or 4 Sticks of Thyme
3 Cloves of Garlic
Preparation of Beans
Soak the beans in water for 6-8 hours or overnight. The following day, change the water and begin to lightly boil them in a large pot or use a pressure cooker. Heat the oil and fry the chopped onion, garlic and celery, and add them to the beans. Make sure to have a sufficient amount of water covering the beans, usually at least double the height of the quantity of beans. Add the salt and thyme to taste toward the end of the 2 to 4 hours of low boil when the beans are becoming softer. (Salt can make the beans take longer to soften, so add near the end.). If prepared in a pressure cooker, allow around 45 minutes for the beans to completely cook. Drain the beans, keeping some of the cooking liquid for later.
Ingredients for Rice
2 Cups of uncooked Rice (better cold)
3 Tablespoons of Vegetable Oil
3 Cups Water
1 Large Onion Chopped
½ Cup Chopped Onion (keep separate)
1 Chopped Sweet Chili (split in two parts)
4 Cloves of Garlic
Salt to taste.
Preparation of the Rice
Fry the ½ cup chopped onion and garlic cloves in the oil. When the onion crystalizes, add half of the chopped chili. Add the rice and fry everything for around 2 minutes stirring well. Add water to about one finger digit above the level of the rice, bring to boil and then reduce to a low flame for approximately 20 minutos or until the rice is the texture you prefer. When done, turn off heat and leave covered for 10 minutes without removing the lid to allow the rice to finish cooking. Rice is BEST if cooled and left in the refrigerator overnight.
Heat a small amount of oil in a large fry pan. Add the remaining chopped vegetables and fry for around 2 minutes until onion crystalizes. Add the cooked (drained) beans and other spices to taste and allow to cook until somewhat dry and most of the liquid has evaporated. Add the cooked (cold) rice and mix well, heating as you go. If you like your Gallo Pinto a little more moist, add some of the liquid from the beans and continue cooking to add moisture and a little more color. At the last minute add finely chopped cilantro to taste and cook slightly until sostened, then serve.
Most Costa Ricans serve this with a small dollop of sour cream (natilla) and of course, you must serve it with the famous Salsa Lizano or it just won’t be the same!!
The rivalry between Costa Rica and Nicaragua has not died down over the years. In 2003, when the Costa Ricans, under close watch by representatives of the Guinness Book of World Records and a handful of notaries and lawyers made approximately 965 pounds of rice, beans, sweet chile, garlic, salt and pepper in their attempt to make a new world record. Annoyed by the feat and that Costa Rica then claimed that gallo pinto was their national dish and creation, the Pharaoh’s Casino in Nicaragua announced that they will outdo the Costa Ricans. As stated by Pharaoh’s representative Javier Lopez, "We are going to prepare the biggest gallo pinto in the world because it is 100-percent Nica!" Two weeks later, 15 chefs from Managua’s hotels and restaurants prepared 1,200 pounds of rice and beans, which fed 9,000 people.
But year after year the neighboring countries battle raged on, each one making a larger batch of Gallo Pinto then the next. Although the Guinness Book of World Records officially states that Nicaragua holds the world record for making the
largest pot of gallo pinto, this remains in question. The World Record recorded on September 15, 2007 (proclaimed "Gallo Pinto Day" in Nicaragua) when a steaming vat fed 22,200 people in a widely publicized event again held at the Pharaoh’s Casino in Managua. To answer that achievement, Costa Rica blew away the competition in 2009 by feeding 50,000 people after cooking 3,300 pounds of rice and 2,640 pounds of beans. It was prepared by several dozen chefs at the Hotel Ramada Plaza Herradura, located west of San José. This was considered such a huge feat that the Pharaoh’s Casino in Nicaragua currently has no plans to try to best it, or to even continue its "Gallo Pinto Day."
Argue if you may…..it’s Costa Rican! No, it’s Nicaraguan! But honestly…..Gallo Pinto is simply one of the culinary gems of Latin America and should be enjoyed by all wherever the heck it came from! Don’t forget the Lizano Salsa!!
Here is an easy to follow video on how to make Gallo Pinto. Note that it is the “National Nicaraguan Dish”, though they show the many countries that consume this delicious Latin Breakfast staple! Buen provecho!!
Kimberly Barron, originally from Malibu, California has lived in Parismina and Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica for 20 years. Starting as a certified tour guide, she spent 15 years managing fishing lodges on the Caribbean Coast and later 4* & 5* Hotels on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. Currently semi-retired, Kimberly still works as the Marketing Director for Byblos Resort & Casino and Hotel Makanda by the Sea.