The Flavors of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean
Puerto Rican cuisine is a blend of Spanish, African, Taino and American influences. Locally known as cocina criolla, or creole cooking, the cuisine features many local ingredients such as coriander, papaya, cacao, plantains and yampee. Many elements of the modern Puerto Rican cooking can be directly traced back to the islands earliest inhabitants, the Tainos. Their diet centered around seafood, tropical fruit and corn. The Spanish explorers brought beef, pork, rice, wheat and olive with them to the island and incorporated them into the local cuisine. The Spanish are also responsible for the cultivation of sugarcane. They began transporting slaves from Africa to support this new industry. The slaves brought okra and taro along with them. From the broad mix of ingredients brought by the different various groups to the island throughout history, modern Puerto Rican cuisine has developed.
Appetizers and Soups
Most meals begin with an appetizer such as cod fritters (bacalaitos), cornmeal fingers (surullitos) or empanadillas (turnovers filled with lobsters, conch or beef). Soups also play a prominent role in the meal. One of the best loved soups is frijoles negros (black bean soup). Another favorite is sopon de pollo con arroz (chicken soup with rice). Fish soup is also very popular. Sopon de pescado is made with the head and tail still attached. The type of fish used will depend on the catch that particular day. A Spanish soup, caldo gallego (Galician broth) was directly imported from the northern provinces of Spain. The soup is made with salt pork, white beans, ham and collard greens. Chorizo sausage adds spice to the dish. Sopon de garbanzos con patas de cerdo (chickpea soup with pig’s feet) is a rich mélange of ingredients. Pumpkin, chorizo, salt pork, chilis, cabbage, potatoes, tomatoes and cilantro combine to create a soup that new visitor should miss. For a true taste of Puerto Rico, visitors should try the local traditional gumbo called asopao. Made with either chicken or shellfish, this is a dish that every Puerto Rican makes. Chicken is flavored with garlic, onions, cilantro and oregano. Other ingredients, such as pork, ham and green peas, are sometimes added.
Throughout the country, visitors will find two foods that they may not be familiar with – adobo and sofrito. Adobo is a mixture of peppercorns, oregano, garlic, salt, olive oil and lime juice that is used to flavor meat for roasting. Sofrito is a mixture of onions, garlic, coriander and peppers. It gets its bright yellow color from achiote seeds and is used to flavor rice, soups and stews.
Stews plays a prominent role in the local cuisines. Popular stews, such as guisada puertorriquena (Puerto Rican beef stew) are found on many restaurant menus. Chunks of beef are stewed with ingredients such as green peppers, chilies, onions, garlic, potatoes and cilantro. Meat pies (pastelon de carne) are also popular menu items. Roasted meats with the rich adobo flavors are available in most restaurants.
For special gatherings, Puerto Ricans will often have lechon asado, or barbecued pig. As the family gathers, the barbequing of the pig becomes a social event. The pig will be slowly based with juices and achiote. Green plantains will also be roasted for the meal. Interestingly enough, though plantains are grown on the island, the demand from visitors expecting plantains with most meals has caused Puerto Rico to have to import additional quantities from Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic.
When you visit Puerto Rico, expect to eat at lot of chicken. Its love by locals is represented in the many different preparations that can be found ranging from pollo agridulce (sweet and sour chicken) to pollitos asados a la parrilla (broiled chicken).
Fish and shellfish are also prominent foods on the Puerto Rican table. Mojo isleno is a popular sauce for fish. Made is olive oil, onions, capers, tomato sauce and garlic, it brings out the natural flavors of fresh fish whether it is fried or grilled. Puerto Ricans also have a love of lobster, shrimp and crab. Sometimes these are boiled in beer for additional flavor.
Lastly, no meal would be complete with tostones. Made from plantains, they are fried until crispy and golden. They may be served as an appetizer with drinks or as an accompaniment to the entrée.
Regardless of where or what you eat while in Puerto Rico, know that you will be fed well on locally based dishes that were created based on ingredients and techniques that are based in years of history.