Gallo pinto is a satisfying, savoury campesino (rural farmer) comfort dish of rice and beans, with a spicy kick from Salsa Lizano (a sauce similar to Worcestershire) and a side of eggs. The name, translated to “spotted rooster”, refers to the speckled look of the rice and beans after they’ve mixed together and is a staple of Central American cuisine, specifically in Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
For Mónica Quesada, a photojournalist from Costa Rica’s central valley, it was an after-school dinner. “I remember always enjoying gallo pinto with a big tortilla for dinner – and a piece of fresh, squeaky cheese called Turrialba cheese, which is weird,” Quesada said.
It’s “weird” because gallo pinto is typically considered a breakfast food, usually served with natilla (a kind 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 her formative years living in Heredia, one of the three cities surrounding the capital of San José in Costa Rica’s urban central valley. Now she and her husband, New York-born Thomas Enderlin, are based in Sabanilla, a residential neighbourhood in north-eastern San José. It’s also the same place where 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 which came out in November, 2022 from Zona Tropical Press.
The project was serendipitous. As Enderlin tells it, Quesada was speaking with the publisher years ago about another project. The publisher followed up, asking if she knew anyone who could do a cookbook. The publisher was specifically interested in a mixed-nationality couple – and the rest is history.
Costa Riquísima was several years in the making, starting from early conversations back in 2015. A familial mishap and the pandemic extended its timeline, but Quesada said they had to spend a significant amount of time researching the recipes and distilling the variations they found into one recipe for their cookbook. “Everybody has a recipe,” she said, “but then we have to make one that several people approve [of].”
To test recipes, Quesada and Enderlin turned to their Costa Rican family. “We had a lot of events with Monica’s family where we brought in all the Ticos [Costa Ricans],” said Enderlin. “Luckily, everyone liked [what we made] and said it was very authentic, very traditional.”
Ederlin describes Costa Rican food as very natural, light on spice, 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 sustain their physical activities.”
As for gallo pinto, Enderlin and Quesada say that although it’s a simple dish, there are a number of variations on the preparation and ingredients that will differ from family to family. “One of the most profound differences is that in certain parts of the country they use red beans,” said Ederlin. “And in other parts of the country, they use black beans.”
Some other variations include using coriander and chopped up pieces of red or green bell pepper. “[The changes] are very subtle,” said Ederlin. “But at the same time, it’s such a basic dish that it does affect the flavour.”
Quesada and Ederlin use Salsa Lizano, a kind of spicy yet sweet Costa Rican Worcestershire sauce developed in 1920. “You can cook everything with Salsa Lizano,” said Quesada. She admitted that because it’s salty, it isn’t the healthiest condiment and even said that newer generations have tried to stay away from it, particularly in her own family. But by and large, Salsa Lizano remains a Tico favourite. And at the end of the day, they included it in their recipe for gallo pinto.
“It definitely has to be included,” said Quesada. “It adds a lot more flavour, it makes [the gallo pinto] saltier, a little bit spicy, and there’s a little bit of a kick in there.”
Gallo pinto is a comfort dish of mixed rice and beans with a spicy kick (Credit: Monica Quesada Cordero)
2 cups dry black beans, soaked overnight and drained
1 medium-sized white onion, finely chopped
2 scallions, finely chopped
1 medium red bell pepper, finely chopped
1 tbsp Salsa Lizano or Worcestershire sauce
5 cups water
2 cups white rice, washed
2 cups cilantro, finely chopped
salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste
eggs, for serving (prepared any way you like)
Add the beans, onion, scallion, red bell pepper, Salsa Lizano and 5 cups of water to a large pot and bring to a boil. Once boiling reduce heat and let simmer for roughly 1 hour, stirring periodically
Add washed rice and again bring to a boil on medium heat until the liquid is burned off and the dish has a nice, moist consistency. Season with salt and pepper. Be careful not to burn by stirring periodically.
Add cilantro just prior to serving. Stir to mix well. Serve with eggs prepared to your preference.