Puerto Rico Feature

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Flavors of Puerto Rico

Puerto Rican cuisine has been experiencing a boom of sorts, with innovative, gourmet restaurants opening around the island. Today more chefs and restaurateurs are developing menus in the line of a Nuevo Latino cuisine. Joyfully departing from traditional continental and Puerto Rican recipes, these chefs nevertheless include traditional ingredients and update old favorites. Standard meats like chicken, pork, and lamb are given an added zest by sauces made from such tropical fruits as tamarind, mango, or guava. Take your palate out for a few adventures. Puerto Rican cuisine may surprise and delight you with both new and old tastes.

Cocina Criolla

The origins of contemporary Puerto Rican cuisine can be traced to the Taíno people, who inhabited the island in the 15th century. Taíno staples still used today include yucca, peppers, and corn. The Taíno also are believed to have grown guava, pineapple, and soursop.

Cocina criolla—literally, creole cooking—is an aggregate of Caribbean cuisines, sharing basic ingredients common to Cuban, Dominican, and to some extent even Brazilian culinary traditions. Still, it has its own distinct flavorings.

When the Spaniards arrived on the island, they brought olives, eggplant, onion, garlic, rice, and cilantro. Wheat would not grow on the island, so yucca remained a staple, as did rice. Regional culinary specialties from Spain, such as paellas, came out of the Spanish-influenced kitchen. These specialties played an important role in the development of Puerto Rican recipes, recognizable today in such dishes as arroz con pollo. Lacking olive oil, early Puerto Ricans often used lard as a fat. African slaves brought by the Spanish from Guinea and the Gold Coast of Africa during the 16th century to toil in the sugar fields also left their mark on the Puerto Rican table. The slaves brought plantains, bananas, pigeon peas, okra, and yams. The Taíno used corn husks to wrap foods, but the Africans replaced them with plantain leaves. The African population developed a variety of coconut-based dishes and preferred frying foods to stewing them.

Local Seafood

Puerto Rico is home to an abundance of freshwater and saltwater fish, both native and introduced, and the island is readily associated with big-game fishing. Off the coast of Culebra, fishermen catch bonefish, tuna, blue and white marlin, and dolphin fish, otherwise known as mahi-mahi. Surprisingly, however, the commercial fishing industry is small and the catch is unpredictable. San Juan restaurant owners will apologetically explain that it's often difficult for them to find fresh local fish. For that, head to the informal restaurants on the coast, where you can often sit on the waterfront, local beer in hand, and feast inexpensively on octopus-stuffed mofongo or fried snapper served with mojo isleño, a sauce made with olive oil, onions, pimientos, capers, tomato sauce, and vinegar. The seafood shacks of Joyuda are so well regarded that patrons travel from as far away as Ponce and San Juan. In Boquerón customers line up at pushcarts to sample oysters on the half shell. (Hot sauce is optional.)

Indigenous Fruits and Vegetables

Tropical fruits often wind up at the table in the form of delicious juices or shakes called batidas. A local favorite is pineapple juice from crops grown in the north of the island. Coconut, mango, papaya, lime, and tamarind are also popular. Puerto Rico is home to lesser-known fruits that are worth trying if you find them; these include the caimito (which is also called a star apple and has a mild, grapelike flavor), quenepa (also called a Spanish lime, with a yellow sweet-tart pulp surrounded by a tight, thin skin), and zapote (a plum-size fruit that tastes like a combination of peach, avocado, and vanilla). The Plaza del Mercado in the Santurce sector of San Juan is a good place to look for the unusual.

Spices

Puerto Rican dishes often feature pepper, lime rind, cinnamon, cloves, fresh ginger, garlic, and the juice of the sour orange. Three popular herb seasonings are oregano, cilantro, and culantro (known locally as recao). These ingredients, along with small sweet peppers, called ajíes dulces, are commonly used to flavor soups, beans, and meats. The conventional wisdom says that the real secret of the cocina criolla depends on the use of sofrito (a sauce that may include tomatoes, onion, garlic, peppers, cumin, and cilantro), achiote (the inedible fruit of a small Caribbean shrub whose seeds are sometimes ground as a spice), lard, and the caldero (cooking pot).

Plantains and Mofongo

Plátanos, or plantains, are related to bananas but are larger and starchier. They are served mostly as side dishes and may be eaten green (as tostones, which are salty) or ripe (as amarillos, which are sweet). They can be fried, baked, boiled, or roasted, and served either whole or in slices. Sometimes whole amarillos are served with cinnamon as a dessert. Pasteles, similar to tamales, are wrapped in plantain leaves and boiled. Traditionally a Christmas specialty, they can be eaten anytime.

Of all the delicious plantain preparations, one of the tastiest is also the simplest: mofongo. Green plantains are mashed with a wooden pilón (mortar and pestle), mixed with garlic and other flavorings and fried in a pan. Served plain, it's often a side dish. But when it's stuffed with chicken, beef, or some other meat, mofongo becomes one of Puerto Rico's signature entrées.

In the center of the island it's often made with pork. On the coast, however, mofongo is almost always stuffed with fresh fish or shellfish. Some restaurants are even known for what they put in their plantains. A neon sign outside Tino's, one of a long line of seafood restaurants in Joyuda, touts its signature dish: an earthenware goblet overflowing with plantains and seafood.

Rice

Rice is omnipresent on the Puerto Rican plate. It can be served "white" with kidney beans, or prepared with gandules (pigeon peas) or garbanzos (chickpeas); most often rice is simply served with habichuelas rosadas or blancas (pink or white beans). Whatever the case, the accompaniment for rice is almost always some kind of bean, always richly seasoned. Crispy rice stuck to the pot, known as pegao, is the most highly prized, full of all the ingredients that have sunk to the bottom.

Rum

As you enjoy your piña colada—a cocktail served in nearly every bar on the island—lift your glass to Christopher Columbus. Although the explorer didn't invent the fruity cocktail, he did bring sugarcane to the Caribbean on his second voyage in 1493. Sugarcane is native to Southeast Asia, but it was cultivated in Spain at the time, and Columbus thought it would do well in the tropical "New World." Juan Ponce de Léon, the island's first governor, planted vast fields of the stuff. The first sugar mill was opened in 1524, leading to the distillation of what was then called brebaje. Although rum was first exported in 1897, it took a bit longer for it to become the massive industry it is today. The Bacardí family, after fleeing Cuba, set up shop near San Juan in 1959. Their company's product, lighter-bodied than those produced by most other distilleries, gained favor around the world. Today Puerto Rico produces more than 35 million gallons of rum a year. You might say it's the national drink.

On the Menu

Adobo: a seasoning made of salt, oregano, onion powder, garlic powder, and ground black pepper.

Ájili-mójili: a dressing combining garlic and sweet, seeded chili peppers, flavored with vinegar, lime juice, salt, and olive oil.

Alcapurrias: yucca croquettes stuffed with beef or pork.

Amarillos: fried ripe, yellow plantain slices.

Arepas: fried corn or bread cakes.

Batida: a tropical fruit-and-milk shake.

Bacalaítos: deep-fried salt cod fritters.

Chimichurri: an herb sauce of finely chopped cilantro or parsley with garlic, oil, and lemon juice or vinegar.

Empanadillas: turnovers, bigger than pastelillos, filled with beef, crabmeat, conch, or lobster.

Lechón: seasoned, spit-roasted whole pig.

Mofongo: a deep-fried mix of plantains mashed with garlic, olive oil, and salt in a pilón, the traditional Puerto Rican mortar and pestle.

Mojo or Mojito Isleño: a sauce made of olives and olive oil, onions, pimientos, capers, tomato sauce, vinegar, garlic, and bay leaves.

Pasteles: yucca or other mashed root vegetable stuffed with various fillings and wrapped in a plantain leaf.

Pastelillos: deep-fried cheese and meat turnovers; a popular fast-food snack.

Picadillo: spicy ground meat used for stuffing or eaten with rice.

Pique: a condiment consisting of hot peppers soaked in vinegar, sometimes with garlic or other spices added.

Tembleque: a coconut custard, usually sprinkled with cinnamon or nutmeg.

Tostones: sliced and crushed fried green plantains.

Updated: 10-2013

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