It’s 6am and you begrudgingly roll out of bed. A rooster crows; the sun peeks up on the horizon. As you stumble out of your bedroom, there’s a sizzling noise and the smell of breakfast wafts through the air. You’re served a heaping platter of rice and beans, eggs, fried plantains, and if you’re lucky, avocado, tortillas, sour cream, or cheese too.
This ritual is played out in households and sodas across Costa Rica every morning. The dish is called gallo pinto (literally spotted rooster) and it’s considered the national dish. White rice and black beans are mixed with onion, red pepper, cilantro, and the tangy “special sauce” called Salsa Lizano, then served with fried eggs and plantains for a hearty morning meal.
When I first arrived in Costa Rica, I found it difficult to eat such a heavy breakfast – I’d often leave half my plate woefully uneaten, and the starchy rice & beans combo left me rarely hungry for lunch. And it was repetitive. Rice and beans every single day. But within a few months, Tico (Costa Rican) breakfast was firmly a part of my routine. I’d crave it in the morning. Away from home? I’d seek out a soda, or a small mom-and-pop eatery that serves traditional Tico food.
Since returning from my year in Costa Rica, I’ve often craved a good gallo pinto, but even in the multicultural New York City, it’s a rare find. I haven’t found a true Tico restaurant yet, though rumor has it that there are options across the river in NJ (to be determined). And this creates a challenge because without enough Ticos or restaurants in the area, I’m struggling to find Salsa Lizano.
The one standout ingredient in gallo pinto is the special sauce: Salsa Lizano, an acidic and tangy concoction of vegetables, spices, and sugar that is ubiquitous to the Tico table. You can’t make gallo pinto without it, and I’ve yet to find it in NYC. I went to a handful of Latino grocery stores where no one had even heard of it – they kept pointing me to the chips and salsa aisle as I shook my head in dismay. Finally, I gave up and ordered it online.
So if you want to make gallo pinto at home, you have four options for the Salsa Lizano, in order of convenience:
- Order it online.
- Substitute it (Worcestershire sauce is the most common sub I’ve seen, but I can’t vouch for it)
- Make your own (I’m going to be testing this in the future, stay tuned)
- Scour local grocery stores and hope you get lucky
This recipe is for gallo pinto as it is made in homes across Costa Rica. The ingredients are simple, but with Salsa Lizano and cilantro, the everyday rice and beans are elevated into a savory dish. In less than 15 minutes, you’ll have a tasty comfort food that’ll keep you full for hours. Great for athletes or anyone who might go a long time without eating. It’s naturally vegan, too!
First, chop the onions, pepper, garlic, and cilantro. You also want to cook the rice and beans ahead of time. In fact, gallo pinto is best when it’s made from rice that is a day old rather than fresh. This is a great recipe if you ever have extra rice lying around!
Sauté the onion, pepper, and garlic.
Add the rice and beans and mix.
Add the Salsa Lizano and cilantro.
Cook until ingredients are well-mixed and you reach the desired texture. This is a matter of preference. Some people like it softer, while others want it crispy. You’ll need to cook it for longer if you want it to crisp. I went with a wet texture.
Serve with your desired accompaniment. If you want to keep it traditional, eggs and fried plantains are the most common ones in Costa Rica, but any fat makes a good side to all those carbs (think cheese, avocado, eggs, bacon, sausage).
Tico Gallo Pinto
4 servings; 15 minutes including prep
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1/2 cup yellow onion, chopped
- 1/2 cup red pepper, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 3 cups white rice, cooked (best if you use day-old)
- 1 (15.5-ounce) can black beans (or ~2 cups cooked black beans)
- Water from can of beans (optional)
- 1/3 cup Salsa Lizano
- 1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
- Large frying pan
- Chop all ingredients before starting.
- Heat oil in frying pan. Add the onions, red pepper, and garlic. Sauté on medium heat until the onion begins to soften, about 3 minutes.
- Add the rice, beans, and water from the can of beans and mix well.*
- Add the Salsa Lizano and and cilantro**. Cook for another 4 minutes or until it reaches your desired texture. If you want it crispy like a fried rice, you will need to cook for longer.
- Serve with desired accompaniments. Recommended with eggs and fried plantains.
*If you want a crispier fried rice, omit the water from the can of beans. You will likely need to cook it for longer than the recipe recommends to get the crispy texture.
**Substitute Worcestershire sauce for Salsa Lizano.