The Puerto Rican Pantry
Rich History Enhances Flavor of Island's Culinary Delights
A fusion of European, Afro-Caribbean and Latin American cultures has produced one of the most palate tempting cuisines throughout the western hemisphere. Although Puerto Rican cooking is similar to Spanish and Latin cuisine, it has a unique style, using indigenous seasonings and ingredients such as coriander, papaya, cacao, nispero, apio, plantains, cassava and yampee.
This can be traced back to the Arawaks and Tainos, the original inhabitants of the island, who thrived on a diet of corn, tropical fruit, and seafood. With the arrival of the Spanish in 1493, other ingredients such as beef, pork, rice, wheat, and olive oil were incorporated into the native diet.
The spanish soon began planting sugar cane and importing slaves from Africa, who brought with them okra and taro known in Puerto Rico as Yautia. The mingling of lavors and ingredients passed from generation to generation among the different groups that passed through and settled on the island resulting in the exotic blend of today's Puerto Rican cuisine.
Lunch and dinner generally begin with sizzling hot appetizers such as bacalaitos (cod fritters), surullos (corn fritters) , and empanadillas (turnovers). Soups also are popular and there are many to choose from among the different regions of the island: sopa de pollo (chicken soup with rice), sopa de pescado (fish soup), sopa de garbanzos (chickpea soup with pigs feet).
Not really a soup, the most traditional Puerto Rican dish is asopao, a hearty gumbo for which every kitchen has its own recipe. One well known and low budget version is asopao de gandules (pigeon peas). Another is asopao de pollo (chicken), which takes a whole chicken flavored with oregano, garlic and paprika, and adds it to a rich gumbo of salt pork, cured ham, green peppers, chile peppers, onions, cilantro, olives, tomatoes, chorizo and pimientos.
Stews, which are usually cooked in heavy kettles called calderas, loom large in the Puerto Rican diet. A popular one is carne guisada puertorriqueña (Puerto Rican beef stew). The ingredients that flavor the beef vary but might include green peppers, sweet chile peppers, onions, garlic, cilantro, potatoes, pimento-stuffed olives, capers and even seeded raisins.
Pastelón de carne, or meat pie filled with salt pork, ham and spices, is a staple of many Puerto Rican dinners. Other typical dishes include carne frita con cebolla (fried beefsteak with onions), ternera a la parmesana (veal parmesan) and roast leg of pork, fresh ham, lamb or veal, which are prepared Créole style and flavored with adobo. Exotic fare, such as Cabrito en Fricasé (Goat Meat Fricasse,) Carne Mechada (Larded Pork or Beef Loin with Chorizo Sausage,) Cuajito and Mollejas Guisadas (stews popular during Christmas season), are also enjoyed by locals.
A festive island dish is lechón asado (barbecued pig), which is usually cooked for a party of 12 to 15. A recipe dating back to the Taino Indians. It is traditional for picnics and outdoor parties. The pig is basted with jugo de naranja agria (sour orange juice) and achiote coloring. Green plantains are peeled and roasted over hot stones, then served as a side dish. The traditional dressing served with the pig is aji-li-mojili, a sour garlic sauce consisting of garlic, whole black peppercorns and sweet seeded chile peppers, flavored further with vinegar, lime juice, salt and olive oil.
Chicken is a Puerto Rican staple, arroz con pollo (chicken with rice) being the most common dish. Other preparations include pollo al Jérez (chicken in sherry), pollo agridulce (sweet-and-sour chicken) and pollitos asados a la parrilla (broiled chicken). However, most visitors to the island prefer the fresh fish and shellfish. A popular dish is mojo isleño, fried fish in a typical sauce of olives, olive oil, onions, pimientos, capers, tomato sauce, vinegar, garlic and bay leaves. Caribbean lobster is usually the most expensive item on any menu, followed by shrimp and crab. Puerto Ricans often cook camarones en cerveza (shrimp in beer) or jueyes hervidos (boiled crab).
Rice and plantains are a staple of the Puerto Rican diet and, prepared in dozens of ways, accompany nearly every meal. Rice (arroz) is simmered slowly with sofrito and generally served with habichuelas (beans) or gandules (pigeon peas). Another typical rice specialty is pegao, which is rice that is prepared so that it sticks to the bottom of the pan and gets crispy. Plantains also are served in many forms. Amarillos are ripe plantains fried with sugar to enhance their sweetness. Green plantains are either mashed into discs and deep fried to make tostones or mashed into balls of mofongo and mixed with pork or seafood and spices.
The rich and fertile fields of Puerto Rico produce a wide variety of vegetables, such as the pear-shaped chayote, which is reminiscent of summer squash; breadfruit, which is similar to the sweet potato; and plantains, which are the single most popular side dish on the island. Plantains are a variety of banana that cannot be eaten raw. They are coarser in texture, harvested when green and then baked, fried or boiled.
Of all that is grown in Puerto Rico, none is more famous than coffee or sugar cane, from which the national drink of rum is produced. Coffee beans have been produced in the island's high-altitude interior for more than 300 years and still rank among the island's leading exports. Only three coffees in the world belong to the top super-premium class: Blue Mountain coffee of Jamaica, kona coffee from Hawaii and Puerto Rico's homegrown Alto Grande. The best brand names for Puerto Rican coffee are Café Crema, Café Rico, Rioja and Yaucono. Visitors can ask for their brews puya (unsweetened), negrito con azúcar (black and sweetened), cortao (black with a drop of milk) or con leche (with milk).
It is believed that Ponce de León introduced rum to Puerto Rico during his governorship, which began in 1508. Since then, sugar cane cultivation and rum production has become a national pastime. Puerto Rican rums are generally light, gold or dark - ideal for mixed drinks or on the rocks, depending on which type is selected. There are 24 different rums from Puerto Rico sold in the U.S. under 11 brand names: Bacardi, Don Q, Barrilito, Ron Bocoy and Ronrico, to name a few.
Restaurants & Specialities
The island's topography and mix of urban and rural areas accounts for the variety in cuisine from region to region. For example, the restaurant scene in the metropolis of San Juan is booming with international cuisine enhanced by Puerto Rican flavors. The central mountainous region of the island is known for coffee plantations and the taste of lechon asado. The southern end of the island grows in root vegetables and sugar cane, and is home to the Don Q rum headquarters. Finally, the western region of Porta del Sol offers a large variety of gastronomic inns, or Mesones Gastronómicos, small, family restaurants serving up the freshest seafood, citrus fruit and other local produce, served in traditional or new "nuevo criollo"-style Puerto Rican cuisine.
Celebrations of Food
Because food is an intrinsic part of Puerto Rican culture, it is no wonder festivals celebrating regional specialties take place practically year round. The southern region of Salinas, known for seafood, is host to the Salinas Carnival in April. Shrimp lovers should consider visiting the western town of Moca in May for the Festival del Camarón de Río (The River Shrimp Festival), where local restaurants and kiosks hold tastings and showcase local recipes. In Lares, located in western Porta del Sol, one can sample at least 12 varieties of bananas at the Banana Festival. Those with a sweet tooth should visit the island during the last weekend of August for the Puff Pastry Festival in the western town of Añasco. In October, the northern town of Corozal hosts the National Plantain Festival. The coastal town of Arecibo, where the sardine is considered a delicacy, holds the annual Cetí (a miniature relative of the sardine) Festival. These are just a few of the culinary celebrations that visitors traveling to Puerto Rico might stumble across at any time of year.
No matter what part of the island, Puerto Rico offers visitors a treasure of culinary flavors. Through its food, one can see the international influences that created a fusion of cuisine, long before "fusion" was mainstream. pography and mix of urban and rural areas accounts for the variety in cuisine from region to region. For example, the restaurant scene in the metropolis of San Juan is booming with international cuisine enhanced by Puerto Rican flavors. The central mountainous region of the island is known for coffee plantations and the taste of lechon asado. The southern end of the island grows in root vegetables and sugar cane, and is home to the Don Q rum headquarters. Finally, the western region of Porta del Sol offers a large variety of gastronomic inns, or Mesones Gastronómicos, small, family restaurants serving up the freshest seafood, citrus fruit and other local produce, served in traditional or new "nuevo criollo"-style Puerto Rican cuisine.
There are some basic, inexpensive, and essential ingredients that should be handy in your kitchen for Puerto Rican cooking which can be kept for some time with proper storage.
If you could only keep one item on hand sofrito would be it! This aromatic puree can be stored frozen for months and can be added to almost any recipe. Although there are store bought varieties remember fresh is best!
Adobo is a dry mix spice seasoning used to flavor any meat and almost any dish and can be stored in sealed jars for months. There are store bought varieties but again remember fresh is best!
Achiote oil is a simple to make oil from achiote seeds that is mildly nutty flavored and used for coloring dishes. When purchasing do not confuse with achiotina which is lard flavored with achiote seeds. The prepared oil can be stored up to three days at room temperature.
Most puerto rican rice dishes are best with long grain white rice. For paella or rice desserts use a medium or short grain rice.
Almost all varieties are used. The most commonly used of this high protein, low fat, low calorie, low sodium, cholesterol free food are pink beans, kidney beans, pigeon peas, chick peas, and black beans. They can be purchased dry or canned.