What Costa Rica taught me about budget eating

When my fridge and pocketbook are nearly empty, I turn to this cheap favorite

Published June 4, 2011 1:01PM (EDT)

Frank lived up by the golf course in a nice house with big plate glass windows and black leather couches. I was a transfer student at an affluent high school, and visiting my classmates always made me acutely aware of the contrast between their spacious homes and the one bedroom apartment my mother and I shared downtown. Everything was so different up in the hills: The kitchen at Frank's house was the size of our entire apartment and had skylights and marble counters. Only one incongruous element marred the room's posh appeal: The kitchen island was flanked by giant trash cans. Frank laughed when he saw me staring at the ugly plastic bins.

"My parents are crazy. My dad grew up during the Depression and he hoards food," Frank said as he lifted the lid from a bin, which was stuffed to the brim with dry pasta. "I guess he wants to be sure he never goes hungry again." At age 17, the incident struck me as strange: Frank's dad was a successful psychiatrist and the family never seemed to want for money. I walked away with an unsettling truth: No matter how far into the affluent hills you traveled, you might never escape the specter of wolves at your door.

These days when I look at my pantry, it seems evident that my own brushes with poverty have turned me into something of a hoarder. When I have the money, I buy cheap dry goods in bulk; nothing makes me feel safer than a pantry full of food. We now have the flour, beans and rice to weather a minor apocalypse. Crazy? Perhaps. But perhaps not. I haven't made it up to the golf course yet, and the wolves always seem to find me. On days when my bank account and fridge are depressingly empty, my supply of rice and beans is essential. The silver lining: I certainly can't feel sorry for myself when I'm eating gallo pinto.

Gallo pinto, which means "painted rooster," is a meatless dish that consists of beans, rice, spices and vegetables. Like most dishes beloved and ubiquitous, its exact origins are obscured by contentious debate. Costa Ricans say it's from Costa Rica. Nicaraguans say it's from Nicaragua. Both countries claim gallo pinto as their national dish, and the argument gets hot. Maybe it has Afro-Caribbean origins. Maybe not. One thing seems clear: Gallo pinto is more memorable and satisfying than the sum of its parts.

I first discovered gallo pinto many years ago, when I spent a few lazy months traveling Central America. With the arrogance of youth, my friends and I decided we were too cool for sightseeing. By default, we spent most of our time eating and drinking Flor de Caña. When we weren't gorging on rich food, we were casing out potential restaurants. Our decadence caught up with us in the form of hangovers and empty wallets. The saving grace of the trip was gallo pinto: When I ran low on cash, I had the consolation of a delicious budget dish that surpassed the fare we'd scarfed in fancy restaurants.

Gallo pinto is a staple in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and a good batch makes the humblest meal memorable. In one Costa Rican legend, gallo pinto is invented by a village man named Don Barnabe. Don Barnabe has been bragging that he will kill his speckled rooster, or gallo pinto, to serve on St. Sebastian's day. The rumor spreads and he is overwhelmed by guests. To placate the hungry masses, he serves rice and beans dressed up to look and taste as though they contain precious chicken. Gallo pinto doesn't taste meaty to me, but it does have the magical ability to stand alone as a meal.

Like many gifts from Third World cuisine, the dish is inexpensive and best when made with leftover ingredients. Today my fridge is empty of even humble leftovers, so I start from scratch and cook a simplified version of my favorite bean recipe. A few hours later, the bubbling broth fills my house with a piquant aroma. This is not the smell of an empty larder.

When the beans are tender, I boil two cups of rice, heat my favorite cast-iron pan, and dice my meager accoutrements. Most gallo pinto recipes call for onion or bell peppers, but three cloves of homegrown garlic and a dried Thai chile will have to suffice. I find a can of jalapeno escabeche, and hope that a spoonful of the tangy brine will distract from the missing onion.

When the coconut oil is sizzling in my pan, I add garlic, chile, beans and bean broth. Because I'm using hot beans, these ingredients need to cook for only a minute before I augment the mixture with rice, escabeche brine and a liberal quantity of salt. Three minutes later, I garnish with sour cream, cilantro and onion chives from my garden. Our meal is ready.

The cost (taking into account the coconut oil and sour cream) is $1.20 for two meal-sized helpings, or $.60 per person. The coconut oil ups the total a little, but its creamy sweetness adds another layer of flavor, nicely rounding out the tang of the escabeche and the smokiness of the beans. My version of gallo pinto is not as memorable as the bowl I enjoyed at a plastic table at a Nicaraguan street stand, but it serves the purpose for which it was invented: It silences, for a moment, the empty howl of the wolves at my door.

Gallo Pinto (serves 2 as a meal or 4 as a side dish)


  • 1 ½ tablespoons coconut or vegetable oil
  • 3 cloves garlic (diced)
  • 1 chile (diced)
  • 2 cups cooked beans (black or small red)
  • ½ cup bean broth
  • 2 cups cooked white rice
  • 2 teaspoons vinegar or escabeche brine
  • Salt to taste
  • Chopped chives or scallions, sour cream or crema fresca, and cilantro (optional -- for garnish)


  1. Heat pan to medium hot. Add oil.
  2. Add garlic, chile, beans and bean broth.
  3. When beans are bubbling hot, add rice and vinegar or escabeche brine.
  4. Add salt. (In my opinion, gallo pinto is best when it's fairly salty.)
  5. Cook at medium heat until liquid is absorbed.
  6. Cook a minute or two longer.
  7. Garnish with sour cream, chives or scallions, and cilantro.

By Felisa Rogers

Felisa Rogers studied history and nonfiction writing at the Evergreen State College and went on to teach writing to kids for five years. She lives in Oregon’s coast range, where she works as a freelance writer and editor.

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