Costa Rica: The National Dish & Meal Patterns

Gallo Pinto

If you’ve ever been to iconic Costa Rica and ordered food from one of their small restaurants, known as a “soda,” you have probably come across their national dish. It is served as an accompaniment to various meals, and consists of rice, black beans, onions, peppers, cilantro, garlic, and a special sauce, Salsa Lizano.  This traditional Costa Rican dish is known as “Gallo Pinto,” which translates to “Spotted Rooster” in English. Gallo Pinto is commonly served for breakfast, alongside plátanos (fried plantains), scrambled or fried eggs, and coffee.

I lived in Costa Rica for five months and became a pro at distinguishing the best from the mediocre when it came to Gallo Pinto and plátanos, so I figured it was only fair to provide tried-and-true recipes of both.  Above is a photo I took of my traditional Costa Rican breakfast. Yum!

Gallo Pinto Recipe

I was excited to find a Gallo Pinto recipe ( stripedspatula.comthat tasted so authentic! The recipe below should make about 8-10 small servings.

Tips before beginning: cook rice the day before and refrigerate (if possible); do not discard liquid in black bean can; and try to locate Salsa Lizano, as it is an essential part of making this dish authentic!


  • 2 tablespoons light-tasting oil (vegetable, mild olive, canola)
  • 1 red bell pepper , chopped
  • 1 small yellow or white onion , chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic , minced
  • 2 cups cooked black beans , in 3/4 cup reserved cooking liquid*
  • 1/4 cup Salsa Lizano(can be found at various international markets or online – I luckily found a bottle at Tienda Salvadorena in Denver)
  • 3 cups cooked rice , preferably, day-old and refrigerated
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro


  1. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until simmering. Sauté chopped bell pepper and onions until peppers are soft and onions are translucent, about 6-8 minutes. Add minced garlic and cook for 1 minute, until fragrant.
  2. Add black beans, reserved cooking liquid (from black beans), and Salsa Lizano, stirring to combine. Simmer for 5 minutes, until slightly thickened and little bit of the liquid is evaporated. Gently stir in cooked rice and cook until heated through and most of the liquid is absorbed, but not dry, about 3-5 minutes. Stir in chopped cilantro. Season to taste with additional Salsa Lizano!


Recipe for Plátanos (fried plantains)

For the plantains, I came up with my own recipe, which is easy to follow and requires minimal ingredients (plantains, oil, and salt). A ripeand ready-to-fry plantain will be yellow-brown, as shown in the photo below.

  1. Cut four slits down the peel of the plantains to make it easier to remove. Cut the plantain in long strips as shown in the photo below.
  2. Pour a decent amount of oil (vegetable, canola, olive) into the pain and wait for it to heat before placing the strips in the oil.
  3. Fry the plantains in the oil until each side is brown and partially translucent.
  4. Due to the excess amount of oil, place the fried plantain between two sheets of paper towel to drain before eating.
  5. Sprinkle salt on top prior to serving

How do plantains compare to bananas?  

Plantains are typically cooked before eaten, and can be baked, fried, boiled or grilled. Plantains are starchier and lower in sugar than bananas and are often seen as a substitute for a potato, with many added nutritional benefits. Plantains contain a high amount of potassium, magnesium, fiber, and antioxidants.  They are versatile in flavor and can be eaten as a savory or a sweet treat, depending on what is added while cooking. Example: baked plantains with cinnamon and honey would be sweet, while fried plantains with oil and salt would be savory.

Fiber is a nutritional strength in many Costa Rican meals, due to the utilization of numerous plant-based foods.

I hope you feel equipped to begin experimenting with the national (and scrumptious) dishes outlined above! We will now briefly discuss the meal patterns in Costa Rica, as they are strikingly different from the way most of us eat in the USA.

Meal Patterns: Compare and contrast.

Costa Rica  USA
Breakfast         Hearty, warm, substantial

(Gallo pinto, eggs, plantains, fruit, coffee)

 Quick convenience food  (granola bar, cereal,  oatmeal, yogurt, etc.)

 or…. nothing (coffee only)

Lunch Medium-sized meal, usually a hot meal or a salad. (many shops are closed for 2 hours for lunch so workers can go home, eat, and relax before returning to work)  Medium or large sized  (many Americans eat  lunch while working and  rarely take naps/time to  relax during the work day
Dinner Lightest meal – Soup or fish with rice  Heaviest/largest meal


The chart above illustrates how our meals in the USA are in almost direct contrast with the meal patterns in Costa Rica. Furthermore, countless articles hail the method of eating a large breakfast, medium lunch and small dinner as the key to maintaining a healthy BMI. Eating breakfast as the largest meal of the day helps keep you full and prevents excessive snacking. It also ignites the metabolism to start burning calories. The saying, “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper” really holds true in Costa Rica.

I can certainly attest to having more energy, improved digestion and better sleep while following this meal pattern. Try it out for a few days and see what you find!

Hope you enjoy the new recipes and food-for-thought about meal patterns, buen provecho!

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