What Is Gallo Pinto?

Dan Harkins

Gallo pinto sounds exotic, meaning literally a "spotted rooster" in Spanish, but it's really a basic dish created in Central America. It is a common combination of protein and carbohydrates: red beans and white rice. The name derives from the coloring imbued on the rice from the beans, as well as any other ingredients that can be added to boost the color and diversity of the dish.

Sauteed onions and bell peppers are common ingredients found in gallo pinto.
Sauteed onions and bell peppers are common ingredients found in gallo pinto.

Though gallo pinto is what Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans call this traditional Latin American, Caribbean, and African dish, it goes by a variety of other names. Those names are often dependent on the most prevalent type of beans in a certain region. In the southern states of America, the dish uses black-eyed peas and is called Hoppin' John. In Cuba, it's black beans and rice called platillo Moros y Cristianos, a "dish" combining the beans, or "Moors," and rice, the "Christians."

Many cultures add fresh herbs to flavor gallo pinto.
Many cultures add fresh herbs to flavor gallo pinto.

All of these dishes are prepared in simple ways, with gallo pinto perhaps the easiest to master. The chef first sautes a finely chopped onion and bell pepper, with a few chopped cloves of garlic, in a skillet at medium-high heat. Then cooked and drained red beans are added, as well as some water or juices from canned beans. After the liquid comes to a boil, the heat is reduced to medium low. The finishing touch is the rice being added and occasionally stirred with additional liquid, until the rice is completely cooked through.

Many cultures stir in fresh herbs like chopped cilantro to add freshness and an acidic element. Cooks frequently put their take on this classic dish by combining other ingredients for a richer meal. Venezuelans call their rice and beans combination pabellon criollo, which adds shredded beef for a more savory and protein-packed meal. Instead of chopping the vegetables so finely, other chefs caramelize their onions and peppers in long slices for added interest and texture.

Another common tweak on dishes like gallo pinto is the addition of tomato paste and even chopped tomatoes. In Puerto Rico, chefs make their red beans and rice with spices like sazon, a distinctive blend of salt, garlic powder, cumin, coriander, annatto and, frequently, monosodium glutamate. Often, the goal is create a stand-alone dish that provides all the nutrients a person needs. Other times, it serves as a side dish to a main course of meat.

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