Puerto Rico Tips: Its Culinary Scene and Must-Try Dishes
Puerto Rican Cuisine, known today as ‘Cocina Criolla’ is a fusion of mostly Taíno Indian, African, Spanish and Latin American cultures, and a great part of my heritage. The Taíno Indians (our local indigenous people) cultivated root vegetables like yuca (cassava). The Spanish (who arrived in 1493) introduced foods such as olives and olive oil, sugar cane, cilantro, onions, garlic, garbanzos and breadfruit.
Sofrito, the base of Puerto Rican cooking that’s added to soups, stews and beans, is made of chopped onions, garlic, cilantro and peppers sautéed in olive oil.
The African slave trade also brought important foods and techniques to the Island. The most important were plantains, bananas, yams and gandules (green pigeon peas). I can’t imagine my Christmas without arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas)!
The slaves also introduced the cooking technique of frying, which quickly became our most popular way of cooking. So all those savory Puerto Rican fritters that I love, were influenced by African cooking traditions. Piñones is my favorite place to find them.
Now, about mofongo… This fried, garlicky bundle of goodness is made of peeled, chopped and deep-friend green plantains mashed with garlic, herbs, butter (or olive oil) and stock. I always go to Casita Miramar, a local, family-owned restaurant to eat great mofongo.
For masitas de mero (grouper fritters), my choice is La Alcapurria Quemá in La Placita de Santurce. Their passion fruit ceviche is spectacular too. As a side dish, I always go with tostones. These twice-fried green plantains have a crisp outer layer and soft interior. We (Puerto Ricans) typically eat them with mayoketchup (a mayo, garlic and ketchup dipping sauce).
When going to Puerto Rico and in the mood for conch salad, La Cueva del Mar on Calle Loíza is your pick. In its simplest form, the ensalada de carrucho contains chopped peppers, onions, cilantro, lime, olive oil, vinegar and it’s seasoned with salt and pepper.
Our Christmas is pretty much synonymous with lechón, spit-roasted pig. Its slow cooking under a fire results in a crispy skin on the outside and juicy meat on the inside. Kevin Roth at La Estación has lechón November – April on Sundays, but to get the best lechón all year round, take a trip to Lechonera La Ranchera. Apá is a master at lechón; even Eric Ripert takes trips to this humble locale to get his dose of fatty goodness.
Last but not least, if there’s a thing Puerto Rico is known for, is its passion for rice and beans. The most common beans are red and white, cooked with sofrito, Calabaza (local pumpkin) and ham. Arroz mamposteao is another version of rice and beans but instead of having the rice and beans separate, in this dish, they are cooked together. So if you’re ever between the mofongo or rice and beans, go with both.