Tucked between the North Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, Puerto Rico is a sun-drenched archipelago where the local cuisine – known as cucina criolla – reflects an intriguing potpourri of native Taino Arawak, African, Spanish, and American influences.
Influences on Puerto Rican Cuisine
Before the Spanish arrived to the islands, the indigenous Taino Arawaks’ thrived on corn, tropical fruit, seafood, and yucca, which they processed into flour and made a flatbread called casabe.
In 1493, the Spanish colonizers arrived and brought their own foods and techniques. Although cattle and pigs were abundant on the island, olive oil, bacalao salt cod, wine, and wheat flour had to be imported from Spain. The Spanish also introduced many vegetables and fruits to Puerto Rico, such as bananas, coffee, sugarcane, mangoes, tamarinds, and plantains. Their influence is evident in dishes such as asopao and arroz con pollo, which are based on arroz caldoso and Valencian paella.
Soon after, with the influx of African slaves, Puerto Ricans were familiriazed with vegetables such as okra and taro, as well as food preparation methods such as pounding and grating of starchy vegetables. Nowadays, grating and pounding are two basic Puerto Rican techniques, best performed in a pilón, a wooden mortar and pestle that’s traditionally used to prepare mofongo.
In 1898, the United States invaded Puerto Rico and brought cheap processed foods to the island such as canned Vienna sausages, Spam, oatmeal, dried milk, and canned corned beef, which were incorporated into dishes such as arroz con salsichas (rice with Vienna sausages) and Thanksgiving turkey stuffed with mofongo.
The dishes are colorful and laced with herbs such as bay leaves, oregano, and culantro. Rice and beans are eaten every day in most homes, especially red kidney beans, pink beans, chickpeas, and pigeon peas (gandules). The favorite meats include pork, beef, chicken, and offal, used to make dishes such as mondongo (tripe) and mollejas (gizzards). Canned meat is quite popular due to its low price, while salt cod, conch, and octopus are some of the most popular seafood items.
Fruits such as bananas, guavas, oranges, and mangoes are grown in many households, while coconuts are prized for their sweet flesh and water that’s used to make refreshing desserts. And let’s not forget about the versatile sofrito, made with onions, garlic, sweet chili peppers, and culantro, and used in beans, stews, rice, and meat dishes.
The most popular Puerto Rican dishes include arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), pasteles (plantain cakes), tostones (twice fried plantain slices), cuchifritos (fried appetizers), and flan de queso (cream cheese dessert). Criollo foods are traditionally paired with beer or rum with cola or fruit juice.
Arañitas are a Puerto Rican specialty consisting of shredded and fried plantains. The name of the dish is derived from the eponymous Spanish word, meaning little spiders, referring to the visual appearance of this crispy dish. It is usually served with dips such as guacamole or a garlic-based dipping sauce on the side.
9 Bistec encebollado
Bistec encebollado is a flavorful dish popular throughout Latin America, consisting of an adobo-spiced, marinated beefsteak combined with onion sauce and large onion rings on top. The wonderful flavors of bistec encebollado come from marinating the meat over a long period of time, usually anywhere from 10 to 12 hours.
It is recommended to pair the dish with rice, pigeon peas, and fried plantains.
Pasteles are rectangular meat pies filled with a variety of ingredients, encased in masa dough that is then wrapped in a single banana leaf. The dough can be made with numerous ingredients such as cassava, taro, potatoes, or green bananas. The fillings are usually prepared with pork or chicken, with the addition of herbs and spices such as coriander and garlic, used to bring out the flavor of the meat.
The typical condiments served with pasteles are ketchup, tabasco, or pique criollo, a hot sauce made from local hot chilis that have been pickled in vinegar. The history of pasteles is debated, as some say that they originate from Taino Indians who were already living on the island when Columbus arrived, while the others claim they were invented by African slaves who used to work on sugar plantations.
Asopao is a Puerto Rican dish that is best described as a cross between a soup and a stew. It always contains rice, and can be made with beef, pork, seafood, pigeon peas, or chicken – which is also the most popular and traditional version of asopao, called asopao de pollo, where the chicken is typically flavored with various spices and cooked with ham, peppers, onions, tomatoes, olives, and sausages.
Due to the fact that asopao is usually very filling and flavorful, it can be found in numerous local restaurants and most households.
Tripleta is a popular sandwich from Puerto Rico, its name derived from the fact that it is filled with three types of meat: grilled steak, lechon pork, and ham. The meat is placed in a loaf of fresh bread and topped with fries, ketchup, mayonnaise, cheese, and vegetables such as lettuce, cabbage, tomatoes, and onions.
The sandwich can be consumed as is or it can be grilled, depending on personal preferences. Tripleta is usually so large that one sandwich can easily feed two people.
5 Arroz con gandules
Arroz con gandules is a one-pot national dish of Puerto Rico consisting of rice, pigeon peas, and sofrito, and every family in the country has their own version of the recipe. Sofrito is the aromatic flavoring base for a variety of Puerto Rican dishes, made with green peppers, onions, garlic, and coriander.
Some people may fry bacon in sofrito to add a smoky flavor to the finished dish. Other spices and garnishes in arroz con gandules might include cumin, bay leaves, oregano, tomato paste, olives, lime juice, and (not traditionally) sour cream. Although flavorful in its original, vegetarian version, it can also be made with added pork meat or sausages.
Tostones is a traditional side dish that’s popular throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, especially in Puerto Rico. Unlike platanos fritos, where only ripe plantains are used, tostones are made with unripe, hard, very green plantains. They are sliced into pieces, fried on each side, then smashed or flattened and deep-fried one more time until they become golden.
Once prepared, the tostones are sprinkled with sea salt and served as a side dish to various dishes. They are often served with garlic mojo sauce (mojo de ajo), either on top of the tostones, or on the side as a dip.
This plantain-based casserole is a staple in Puerto Rican and Dominican cuisine. It consists of sliced or mashed plantains that are layered with minced meat. The meat used in the dish is usually the Puerto Rican version of picadillo—a hearty stew prepared with a combination of ground meat and tomato sauce, while the common additions often include shredded cheese or green beans.
Pastelón can be enjoyed as the main course or a filling side dish. It also goes under the name piñon.
Mofongo is a Puerto Rican dish made from fried unripe plantains which are then pulverized or mashed. The starchy dish is further enriched by the addition of ingredients such as lobster, prawns, garlic, chicken, or bacon. Although mofongo is Puerto Rican, it has African origins, as it was originally brought to Puerto Rico by slaves from Western and Central Africa.
Today, it is also popular in Cuba and the Dominican Republic, where it’s called mangu, and the plantains are not fried but boiled. Mofongo is usually consumed as a main dish, served with broth and fried meat, due to its starchiness that is ideal for absorbing all of the flavorful juices.
Pernil is one of Puerto Rico’s most famous dishes, a succulent roasted pork shoulder that is traditionally seasoned in a marinade called adobo mojado, consisting of paprika, salt, vinegar, garlic, and oregano. The name of the dish is derived from the Spanish word pierna, meaning leg, but it is also a Catalan word for ham, referring to the traditional recipe that calls for fresh ham.
Because pork shoulder is more available and costs less than ham, it has become a key ingredient in pernil. Many people prefer it since it is believed to be much more flavorful than ham. The dish is a staple at numerous Puerto Rican festivities such as birthdays or weddings, where many people feast on the crunchy skin and tender meat that falls off the bone.