Puerto Rico is a storied island with a wealth of culture and history pumping through its cities’ streets and inhabitants’ veins. Nowhere is this more evident than in Puerto Rican cuisine. Crafted over time in island kitchens by Spanish colonists utilizing native Caribbean foods and cooking methods, Puerto Rican flavors reflect a history that is as much about the land as it is about the people.
Called “cocina criolla” by the locals, most savory Puerto Rican dishes start with sofrito — a puree of tomatoes, peppers, cilantro, garlic and onions — and ends in mouth-watering delight. No matter where you eat it, “cocina criolla” is a food lover’s dream. Whether you head to the finest resorts in Puerto Rico or you couch surf your way to a restaurant with a dirt floor, bring a hearty appetite because the fare in Puerto Rico is delicious.
The Puerto Rican tamale, pasteles translates to “pies,” and are usually a soft, doughy mass wrapped and boiled in a banana or plantain leaf. In the center of a pasteles, you will find just about anything: pork, crab, chicken, raisins, capers, sofrito, garbanzo beans and more. The dough in a pastele is not made from cornmeal like tamales; instead, pastele dough is made of green bananas, plantains or a starchy root. A favorite at holiday meals, pasteles are a treat any season.
A classic coconut custard or pudding whose name translates to “trembling,” tembleque is a popular dessert in Puerto Rico. The name describes the dish’s gel-like consistency, which comes from its ingredients: coconut milk, milk, salt, cornstarch and sugar. Tembleque recipes branch out from the basic and simple beginning, and spices like cloves, cinnamon, vanilla and nutmeg are often added. More adventurous cooks may include almonds, dried fruit, chocolate, orange blossom water and more.
This famous Puerto Rican dish is a whole, roasted pig — quite the delicacy. Cooked slowly all day over a fire, the meat of the lechon is smoky, tender and moist, and the skin is browned, crisp and rich. This dish is so well-loved by locals and tourists, that there’s a road that’s been named La Ruta del Lechón. However it is served — in a torta or with rice and beans — once you put it in your mouth, it is easy to understand why lechon is a national obsession.
Mofongo is an Afro-Puerto Rican dish that has its roots deep down in the eating history of West African Fufu, which is a dish made from starchy vegetables that was introduced to the Caribbean islands by slaves. The starch utilized in mofongo is the green plantain. It is fried and then mashed into a dough-like consistency with broth and seasonings. Fillings ranging from seafood to vegetables to meat are added. The unofficial king of Puerto Rico’s food culture, mofongo can be tailored to almost any diet or taste — so long as you like plantains. The finest restaurants often have their own version of mofongo, and the proprietors of roadside shacks make their living selling it. It can be a side dish or an entree and is often accompanied by rice and beans.
Arroz Con Gandules
A simple dish, arroz con gandules is pigeon peas and rice cooked along with sofrito. It also usually has pieces of meat — like chorizo or bacon — throughout. The spices and seasonings can vary, but you’ll often find plenty of cumin, annatto oil, capers, bay leaf and oregano. Part of Puerto Rico’s national dish, arroz con gandules is usually enjoyed as part of a celebration.
Pastelon is a Puerto Rican lasagna where sweet plantains are used in placed of pasta. The meat in the dish varies according to the region of the island, but the meat in pastelon is always in a picadillo. A filling that is used in everything from empanadas to fritters, picadillo is a mixture of ground meat sautéed in annatto oil and cooked with a variety of other flavors including: thyme, cumin, bay leaf, tomato sauce, rum-soaked raisins, potatoes, capers, pork, adobo and olives.
Puerto Rico has much to offer tourists and travelers. Its beaches, nightlife and historical sites are reason enough to board a plane, but the food will really flavor your stay and leave you nostalgic for Puerto Rico long after you’ve returned home.
About the Author: Jeffrey Hanes is a contributing blogger and frequent world traveler who travels to Puerto Rico to eat and sun whenever he can.