Costa Rica’s National Dish is Tico Comfort Food

One of the most common complaints I hear from foreigners about Costa Rican food is, “do they eat anything except rice and beans?!” or “gallo pinto for breakfast?” Yes, arroz y frijoles are everywhere.

I’m a decent whole foods chef and I love good food of every kind. Yet one of my favorite foods has always been rice with well seasoned black beans – made from scratch with love and time, of course. The truth is that those of us raised on rice and beans don’t get tired of them. The tica in me is quite content to have gallo pinto every morning, although my version is healthier than the traditional one since I make it with more beans than rice.

Before I continue, let me clarify that while rice and beans may be served at any time of day, gallo pinto, the “spotted rooster” is strictly a breakfast dish, traditionally prepared from the previous day’s leftover beans and rice, sautéed with onion, garlic, sweet red pepper, and chopped cilantro. Liberal dashes of cumin flavored Salsa Lizano add the characteristic tico touch to the speckled mound upon the plate.

When my world began imploding a few years ago, I spent about 6 months eating rice and beans or gallo pinto morning, noon, and night, because preparing a pot of beans and a pot of rice each week was manageable. I could add whatever I wanted on the side and have a decent meal—an egg, a salad, a piece of chicken—or sometimes nothing at all. It was nutritious, easy to reheat, and it didn’t involve planning or thinking. It was simply the ideal meal, and it was my comfort food.  I believe most Costa Ricans would agree.

If eating rice and beans three meals a day seems unimaginable to you, you should know that this is still not unusual for many of the humblest households in Costa Rica. When it looks like you’re going to have too much month left at the end of your salary here, you might say something like “a puro arroz y frijoles” indicating it’ll just be rice and beans until payday comes around. For many, this is a literal statement.

Costa Rica was built on rice and beans, as an 1896 letter from a great uncle who lived far from San José confirms. The translated excerpt reads :

“All we have left after dad’s death is $1.50. Also we have two bundles of dulce (cakes of dark cane sugar), some salt, cacao, and a little rice and flour, but with dad’s hens and my rice and beans, and whatever work I can do around here, we’re  managing.” 

Imagine living at a time when these simple foods were so very precious. This scenario was being played out in countless homesteads all over the country, when starting up a farm or surviving in a clearing hacked out of the jungle was not for the faint of spirit. They spent their days earning a living growing coffee and cacao for export, but it was rice and beans that filled their bellies and nourished the children.

There were often three vegetable dishes on my Abuela Mencha’s well-laid lunch table, but rice and beans were never absent. Although my mother was behind my first cooking lessons, I owe my initial knowledge of culinary techniques to my grandmother Mencha, and even her white rice was flavorful. She is the one who taught me how to make the most delicious versions of Costa Rica’s traditional foods.

Of course we Ticos eat other foods, but if you are eating where the locals eat, rice and beans are going to rule. They might have fresh fish and tasty chicken, but the sides are likely to be predictably “rice and beans” in nature. The typical “casado” is a plate consisting of meat, fish, or fried cheese accompanied by rice, beans, slaw, tortillas, and sweet plantains. Don’t forget that mashed potatoes, fries, or chips are on the vast majority of plates in the U.S. It’s a similar mindset.

If you visit the Costa Rican Caribbean coast, you’ll discover that “rice and beans” is nothing like what you find in the rest of the country. Here the Afro-Caribbean influence is strong so you’ll get a spicy hot, coconut milk infused dish made with red beans.  FYI: this dish is always called “rice ‘n beans,” never arroz y frijoles.

Putting rice and beans together to make a satisfying meal with a complete protein is a typical combination found all over Central and South America. Pigeon peas and rice are common in the Caribbean islands. If you are a vegetarian, it’s good to know that this staple meal is available practically everywhere, and today is rarely made with lard as was common in past generations.

The Basic Ingredients

Although red beans are often used in the northern Guanacaste and Caribbean regions, black beans, known also as turtle beans in the US, are the mainstay of Costa Rican recipes. Black beans are highly nutritious and even contain a unique substance that inhibits cancer cells. While all beans are healthy, the small black bean tops them all in most measures.

White rice is not very healthy and I finally learned that soaking brown rice overnight before cooking resulted in a tender grain that cooked up quickly and tasted even better than the white rice. Of course, white rice is still virtually the only one you’ll encounter.

Onion, garlic, and sweet red pepper are staples in any Costa Rican kitchen, but I feel it’s also important to mention two seasonings used abundantly in Costa Rica when making rice and beans.  One is cumin (comino), and the other is fresh cilantro (culantro).

Cumin is what you first notice in both chili powder and curry powder (both of these are blends of individual spices). It’s pungent and unmistakable, and brimming with health benefits. It’s naturally antimicrobial and significantly improves digestibility of beans, so use it generously. I use it in ground form in my frijoles molidos (mashed beans) and sometimes add the whole seeds to my rice. Know that once ground, it loses its flavor very quickly, so buying it in small quantities is best.

Cilantro is the bright green leafy herb found in everything: salsas, soups, beans, tacos, guacamole, etc. (My brother once asked if I even put it in coffee because I love it so much.)

A fascinating note about cilantro: if you absolutely hate it or it tastes like soap to you, know you are not imagining things and you will never learn to like it. This particular taste perception is actually genetic in origin. Avoiding it in Costa Rica will be an effort in futility if you eat out much, but you might manage to deal with it in small amounts.

I have been growing my own cilantro for decades because its fresh citrusy flavor really doesn’t last long once it’s been cut. What you buy in the market or the store tastes quite different from what you harvest minutes before eating. By the way, always add it at the very end for the strongest flavor, as its compounds don’t survive much heat. Also called Chinese parsley, it looks similar to flat leaf parsley. If in doubt, crush a leaf and sniff it–your nose will know!

It’s a valuable herb for the tropics as it inhibits salmonella strains that cause food poisoning. So the more of it you consume, the better off you will be. In addition, it acts as a natural chelator to help the body get rid of heavy metals like mercury, helps regulate blood sugar and cholesterol, and has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. It’s easy to grow but can be temperamental. Contact me for tips on growing cilantro if you’re interested.

Last, if you have learned to love your rice and beans like a good tico and would like to fix your own (or are interested in some information and tips) I used to give cooking classes and have handouts on cooking beans as well as Costa Rican bean recipes, which I will share upon request.

Pura Vida!