Refried Beans are Not Actually Fried Twice, So Why are They Called Refried?
I love refried beans. I do not like the day-old glop they throw on every plate at assembly-line Mexican restaurants. I especially do not appreciate it when my tacos are plunked on top of this glop. But a good refried bean, as a side dish or part of a burrito, taco, or what have you, to me, that is pure comfort food. But I love beans in general. I will eat a big plate of southern-style pinto beans for supper. Since I’ve made my own refried beans plenty of times, I often wondered about the name.
You see, many people assume that refried beans are twice-fried beans. Beans that are fried, and then fried again. This is understandably confusing. Why would you need to fry anything twice, let alone beans? Well, when you make the dish, you don’t actually fry the beans twice. You fry them once. So, how did they get their name?
The name is not as confusing as it seems. It actually makes perfect sense in Spanish. The reason we English speakers are confused is that we are used to the prefix re- meaning “again.” So, when we hear refried we translate it to “fried again” or “fried twice.”
The Prefix Re- In Spanish
In Spanish, the prefix re- can have the same meaning, such as in reanudar (to renew), reaparacer(reappear), and rehacer (remake). It can also denote a sense of place, meaning back or behind. It even sometimes has to do with time.
But, most often, the prefix re- in Spanish is an emphasizer or reinforcer. It can mean over, thoroughly, completely, or just “very well.” For example, if you combine the prefix with the word cocido, meaning “cooked” you get overcooked or thoroughly cooked. For completeness sake, the root word is actually cocinand the suffix -ido means the same as -ed in English, denoting past tense.
Recalanter means to overheat. Remoler means to grind up very small or thoroughly. Now that you’re catching on, you know that moler must mean “to grind up.” Sound familiar? I once thought moler must be the origin of the name of Mexico’s national dish, the mole. Turns out I was wrong.
Therefore, frijoles refritos means “well-fried beans.” It is fair to say, however, that although they are not fried twice, they are cooked twice. To make refried beans you soak beans for around 8 hours and cook them in water, usually with onion, until soft. This is the first cooking. Then they are mashed and fried with lard until almost dry.
Since it is quite possible that leftover beans would be used to make frijoles refritos, we could imagine that the re- is used to mean “repurposed” or that it even means “recooked” but understanding how the prefix is normally used provides a more accurate translation. By the way, the pink pinto, which I mentioned above, is the bean most often used to make refried beans in Mexican restaurants in the U.S. This is the bean preferred in the Northern part of Mexico. The black bean is preferred in the Southern part. I go through a huge quantity of black beans at home and they make a great frijoles refrito.
1. Penny, Ralph. A History of the Spanish Language. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009.
2. “What Are ‘Refried Beans’?” Snopes.com, 11 Apr. 2017, www.snopes.com/food/prepare/refriedbeans.asp