Lunch and dinner generally begin with sizzling-hot appetizers such as bacalaitos, crunchy cod fritters; surullitos, sweet plump cornmeal fingers; and empanadillas, crescent-shaped turnovers filled with lobster, crab, conch, or beef.
Alcapurrias consists of a seasoned meat or crab filling wrapped in a seasoned dough of mashed green bananas and taro root (yautía), which is then deep fried.
Arepas/Domplines are fried rounds of flour-based dough. Sometimes they can contain coconut (known as arepas de coco). They are sometimes stuffed with seafood.
Bacalaitos Fritos are fritters made from a pancake-like batter containing codfish, flour, and seasoning. Morcilla is a type of blood sausage. Surullos is fried corn meal logs, sometimes stuffed with cheese. Queso Frito is fried cheese.
Empanadillas de carne/mariscos/queso – Meat, seafood, or cheese turnovers usually called “empanadas” in other Spanish-speaking countries. On the eastern side of the island empanadillas are known as pastelillos, although pastelillo also refers to a pastry turnover.
Soups are a popular beginning for meals on Puerto Rico. There is a debate about whether one of the best-known soups, frijoles negros (black-bean soup), is Cuban or Puerto Rican in origin.
Another classic soup is sopón de pollo con arroz -chicken soup with rice- which manages to taste somewhat different in every restaurant. One traditional method of preparing this soup calls for large pieces of pumpkin and diced potatoes or yautias (the starchy root of a large-leaved tropical plant whose flesh is usually yellow or creamy white).
The third classic soup is sopón de pescado (fish soup), prepared with the head and tail intact. Again, this soup varies from restaurant to restaurant and may depend on the catch of the day. Traditionally, it is made with garlic and spices plus onions and tomatoes, the flavor enhanced by a tiny dash of vinegar and a half cup of sherry. Galician broth (caldo gallego) is a dish imported from Spain’s northwestern province of Galicia. It is prepared with salt pork, white beans, ham, and berzas (collard greens) or grelos (turnip greens), and the whole kettle is flavored with spicy chorizos (Spanish sausages).
Garbanzos (chickpeas), are often added to give flavor, body, and texture to Puerto Rican soups. One of the most authentic versions of this is sopón de garbanzos con patas de cerdo (chickpea soup with pig’s feet). Into this kettle is added a variety of ingredients, including pumpkin, chorizos, salt pork, chile peppers, cabbage, potatoes, tomatoes, and fresh cilantro leaves.
The most traditional Puerto Rican dish is asopao, a made with either chicken or shellfish. One well-known version, consumed when the food budget runs low, is asopao de gandules (pigeon peas). Every Puerto Rican chef has his or her own recipe for asopao.
Asopao de pollo (chicken asopao) takes a whole chicken, which is then flavored with spices such as oregano, garlic, and paprika, along with salt pork, cured ham, green peppers, chile peppers, onions, cilantro, olives, tomatoes, chorizos, and pimientos. For a final touch, green peas or asparagus might be added.
Puerto Rican dishes are well seasoned with combinations of flavorful spices, though they are not as spicy as dishes from Mexico, India, or parts of China. The base of many Puerto Rican main dishes involves sofrito, similar to the mirepoix of French cooking, or the “trinity” of Creole cooking.
A proper sofrito is a sauté of chopped garlic, onions, recao/culantro (not cilantro, but a similarly flavored green leaf), a sweet pepper like Italian cooking peppers, tomatoes, coriander, peppers browned in either olive oil or land and colored with achiote (annatoo seeds), imparts the bright-yellow color to the island’s rice, soups, and stews and small chunks of fatback bacon. The aroma that wafts from kitchens throughout Puerto Rico comes from adobo and sofrito -blends of herbs and spices that give many of the native foods their distinctive taste and color.
Adobo, made by crushing together peppercorns, oregano, garlic, salt, olive oil, and lime juice or vinegar, is rubbed into meats before they are roasted. Stews loom large in the Puerto Rican diet. They are usually cooked in a caldero or heavy kettle.
A popular one is carne guisada puertorriqueña; (Puerto Rican beef stew). The ingredients that flavor the chunks of beef vary according to the cook’s whims or whatever happens to be in the larder. These might include green peppers, sweet chile peppers, onions, garlic, cilantro, potatoes, olives stuffed with pimientos, or capers. Seeded raisins may be added on occasion.
Meat pies (pastelón de carne) are the staple of many Puerto Rican dinners. Salt pork and ham are often used for the filling and are cooked in a caldero. This medley of meats and spices is covered with a pastry top and baked.
Other typical main dishes include fried beefsteak with onions (carne frita con cebolla), veal (ternera) a la parmesana, and roast leg of pork, fresh ham, lamb, or veal, a la criolla. These roasted meats are cooked in the Créole style, flavored with adobo.
Puerto Ricans also like such dishes as breaded calfs brains (sesos empanados), calfs kidney (riñones guisados), and stuffed beef tongue (lengua rellena).
A festive island dish is lechón asado, or barbecued pig, which is usually cooked for a party of 12 or 15. It is traditional for picnics and al fresco parties; one can sometimes catch the aroma of this dish wafting through the palm trees, a smell that must have been familiar to the Taino peoples. The pig is basted with jugo de naranjas agría (sour orange juice) and achiote coloring. Green plantains are peeled and roasted over hot stones, then served with the barbecued pig as a side dish. The traditional dressing served with the pig is ali-li-monjili, a sour garlic sauce. The sauce combines garlic, whole black peppercorns, and sweet seeded chile peppers, flavored further with vinegar, lime juice, and olive oil. Puerto Ricans adore chicken, which they flower various spices and seasoning.
Arroz con pollo (chicken with rice) is the most popular chicken dish on the island, and it was brought long ago to the U.S mainland. Other favorite preparations include chicken in sherry (pollo al jerez), pollo agridulce (sweet and sour chicken), and pollitos asados a la parrilla (broiled chickens).
Most visitors to the island seem to like the fish and shellfish. A popular fried fish with Puerto Rican sauce (mojo isleño) is made with olives and olive oil, onions, pimientos, capers, tomato sauce, vinegar, and a flavoring of garlic and bay leaves. Fresh fish is often grilled and perhaps flavored with garlic and an overlay of freshly squeezed lime juice -a very tasty dinner indeed. Caribbean lobster is usually the most expensive item on any menu, followed by shrimp.
Puerto Ricans often cook shrimp in beer (camarones en cerveza). Another delectable shellfish dish is boiled crab (jueyes hervidos).On certain coastal towns of the island, such as Luquillo, Fajardo, and Cabo Rojo, seafood is quite popular, although much of it is imported. Only a tiny number of fishermen ply the waters off Puerto Rico today, and their catch never leaves their seacoast towns.
The fact that the island sits next to the deepest part of the Atlantic means there is no wide continental shelf to foster a rich offshore fishery; neither are there any large rivers to dump extra nutrients into the sea that could build up a fish population. Popular seafood include bacalao (codfish), chapín (tropical fish), pulpo (octopus, not always canned), carrucho (conch), camarones (shrimp), langosta (lobster) (most commonly caught in the surrounding waters), and jueyes (crabs).
Many tasty egg dishes are served, especially tortilla española (Spanish omelet), cooked with finely chopped onions, cubed potatoes, and olive oil.
The rich and fertile fields of Puerto Rico produce a wide variety of vegetables. A favorite is the chayote, a pear-shaped vegetable called christophone throughout most of the English-speaking Caribbean. Its delicately flavored flesh is often compared to that of summer squash. Breadfruit, prepared in a number of ways, frequently accompanies main dishes. This large, round fruit from a tropical tree has a thick green rind covering its starchy, sweet flesh. The flavor is evocative of a sweet potato.
Tostones -fried green breadfruit slices- accompany most meat, fish, or poultry dishes served on the island. Tostones may also be made with plantains. In fact, the plantains seem to be the single most popular side dish served on the island. Plantains are a variety of banana that cannot be eaten raw. They are much coarser in texture that ordinary bananas and are harvested while green, then baked, fried, or boiled. When made into tostones, they are usually served as an appetizer with before-dinner drinks. Fried to a deep golden-yellow plantains may accompany fish, meat, or poultry dishes.
Arroz Con Gandules is Puerto Rico’s national dish, it is a rice-and-pigeon-pea dish seasoned with sofrito and smoked ham.
Arroz Con Habichuelas – Literally “rice and beans”, this dish is so common that the phrase “rice and beans” means essentially the same as “our daily bread” in northern countries. Dried pink beans are slowly stewed with chunks of calabaza (tropical pumpkin) flavored with a sofrito base, and then ladled over a mound of rice. Sticky medium-grained rice is more popular in Puerto Rico than long grain rice. Almost as popular as arroz y habichuelas are plátanos (plantains, or cooking bananas). They are daily fare, whether cooked green, deep-fried and mashed as tostones, or boiled and seasoned with escabeche. They can be let to mature until they are spotted outside and golden inside, and then deep-fried as maduros or amarillos. Sometimes they are baked instead of deep-fried.
Mofongo is a popular Afro-Boricua dish, made from fried green plantains seasoned with garlic, olive oil and pork cracklings, then mashed. Mofongo is usually served with a fried meat and a fish broth soup. Rice is a mainstay of the Puerto Rican diet and it can be prepared in a variety of ways be it “white” served with kidney beans or prepared with gandules (pigeon peas) or garbanzos (chick-peas) or in a variety of other delicious ways.
Desserts usually include some form of flan (custard) or perhaps nisperos de batata (sweet-potato balls with coconut, cloves and cinnamon). Equally traditional would be a portion of guava jelly with queso blanco (white cheese). Chefs take the bountiful harvest of Puerto Rican fruits and create any number of desserts, including orange layer cake, banana cupcakes, and guava cake. The most delicious dessert may be a freshly prepared fruit cocktail. Pumpkin, which grows in abundance on Puerto Rico, is used not only to flavor soups and as a side vegetable, but also to make the succulent base of a traditional Puerto Rican cake. Similarly, the sweet potato is used both as a side vegetable and in making a regional sweet-potato cake. Coconut is probably the most common dessert ingredient.
Many delectable desserts are made with its milk (leche de coco), including coconut flan, coconut cream desserts, crunchy coconut squares, coconut with meringue, and candied coconut rice. Another classic preparation is coconut bread pudding (boudin de pasas con coco). Polvo de amor (“love powder”) is prepared with grated coconut meat after the milk has been extracted. The coconut is mixed with a lot of sugar and placed in a kettle to cook rapidly, then served crisp and golden brown.
Puerto Ricans make a number of preserves and jellies. Both sweet and sour guavas are used for various concoctions -not only guava jelly, but guava shells in syrup, guava paste, and guava pudding. Papayas are made into preserved or desserts with sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla extract. A mango dessert is made with virtually the same ingredients. Mangoes may be used for mamey preserve (dulce de mamey) or may be consumed raw.
Meals are ended with strong, black, aromatic Puerto Rican coffee. Originally imported from the nearby Dominican Republic, coffee is still among the island’s exports. The island produces very little wine so it is proper to order a cold beer before looking at the menu.
Beer, of course, is called cerveza throughout the Spanish-speaking world, the most popular brand on Puerto Rico is Medalla.
Rum is the national drink, and you can buy it in almost any shade. Puerto Rico is the world’s leading rum producer; 80% of the rum consumed in the United States hails from the island. Today’s rum bears little resemblance to the raw and grainy beverage consumed by the renegades and pirates of the Spanish Main. Christopher Columbus brought sugarcane, from which rum is distilled, to the Caribbean on his second voyage to the New World, and in virtually no time it became the regional drink. It is believed that Ponce de León introduced rum to Puerto Rico during his governorship, which began in 1508. In time, there emerged large sugarcane plantations. From Puerto Rico and other West Indian islands, rum was shipped to colonial America, where it lent itself to such popular and hair-raising 18th-century drinks as Kill-Divil and Whistle-Belly Bengance.
After America became a nation, rum was largely displaced as the drink of choice by whiskey, distilled from grain grown on the American plains. It took almost a century before the rum industry regained its former vigor. This occurred during a severe whiskey shortage at the end of the World War II. By the 1950s, sales of rum had fallen off again, as more and different kinds of liquor became available on the U.S. market. Rum had been a questionable drink because of inferior distillation methods and quality. Recognizing this problem, the Puerto Rican government drew up rigid standards for producing, blending, and aging rum. Rum factories were outfitted with the most modern and sanitary equipments, and sales figures (encouraged by aggressive marketing campaign) began to climb.
The color of rum is usually gold, amber, or white. The lightest, driest rum is white. It can easily replace gin or vodka in dozens of mixed drinks that are eminently suited for consumption in the tropics.
Many Puerto Ricans make Bloody Marys with rum instead of gin or vodka. The robust flavors of the gold or amber rums make them an effective substitute for whiskey. White (clear) rum, orange juice and tonic water are the most popular mixers; amber rum is often served on the rocks. Puerto Ricans are fond of mixing it with various cola drinks. Gold rums, aged between four and six years (sometimes longer) in wooden casks are called ánejos. They are considered the most flavorful and distinctive on the island rums. They are smooth; drink them straight or on the rocks.
Bacardi is the Puerto Rican rum most widely consumed in the United States. It is followed by other popular brands, including, Ronrico, Castillo, and Don Q. The ánejos rums carry such labels as Bacardi Gold Reserve, Ron del Barrilito, and Seralles’ El Dorado.
Each bartender worthy of the profession in Puerto Rico likes to concoct his or her own favorite rum libation. Every resort offers the piña colada, which is made with cream of coconut, white Puerto Rican rum, and canned pineapple juice. The ingredients are thoroughly blended and served frappé-style in a tall cool glass, usually garnished with a maraschino cherry and a small paper parasol. But you may want to be more adventurous and sample some of the island’s other cocktails, many of which are made with fresh fruit juices.
Planter’s punch, served over cracked ice, is the second most popular mixed rum drink for tourists. Often, it combines dark Puerto Rican rum, dark-brown Jamaican rum, citrus juice, and Angostura bitters. Of course, you can substitute rum in many mixed drinks such as rum collins, rum sour, rum screwdriver, and rum and tonic.
The classic sangría, which is prepared in Spain with dry red wine, sugar, orange juice, and other ingredients, may be given a thoroughly Puerto Rican twist with a hefty dose of the island’s rum.
From November to January Puerto Ricans enjoy holiday parties and large family dinners almost daily, starting with the Thanksgiving turkey which is stuffed with a ground beef and/or pork mixture containing almonds, raisins, olives, hard boiled eggs, tomatoes, and garlic. Instead of the thin slices seen in the North, a baked turkey in Puerto Rico is often cut into large blocks or chunks to be served on a plate.
Rice is a mandatory course in dishes such as Arroz con Gandules (rice with pigeon peas), Arroz con Tocino (rice with bacon), Arroz Mamposteao, and the sweet dessert Arroz con Dulce (rice pudding). Pork is central to Puerto Rican holiday cooking, especially the lechón (spit-roasted piglet).
Holiday feasts might include several pork dishes, such as pernil (a baked fresh ham shoulder seasoned in garlic and oregano), morcilla (a black blood sausage), tripa (tripe), jamón con piña (ham and pineapple), gandinga (stewed pork innards) and chuletas ahumadas (smoked cutlets).
For many Puerto Rican families, the quintessential holiday season dish is pasteles, which English-speakers often literally translate to “cakes”. Pasteles are not a sweet pastry or cake, but a soft dough-like mass wrapped in a banana or plantain leaf and boiled. In the center of the dough are choice pieces of chopped meat, chicken, raisins, spices, olives, red peppers and often a garbanzo bean. Puerto Rican pasteles are similar in shape, size, and cooking technique to Mexican tamales.
The dough in a Mexican tamal is made from corn meal; while in a Puerto Rican pastel it is made from either green bananas and/or starchy tropical roots. The wrapper in a Mexican tamal is a corn shuck or a banana leaf; the wrapper in a Puerto Rican pastel is a banana leaf. Pasteles also use different spices than tamales. The making of pasteles is a labor-intensive social activity. Many family members will get together for hours or days to make dozens to hundreds of pasteles to share with friends and loved ones. Pasteles from the Island are often shipped overseas packed in dry ice during the long Christmas season. They are received as a nostalgic, much treasured gift. Sweets are common in Puerto Rican cuisine.
During the holidays, the most popular are deserts such as Arroz con Dulce (sweet rice pudding), Budín de Pan (bread pudding), Barriguitas de Vieja (deep-fried sweet pumpkin fritters), Tembleque (coconut pudding), Flan (egg custard), Bizcocho de Ron (rum cake), Mantecaditos (manteca=lard; shortbread cookies), Polvorones (pólvora=gunpowder, another crunchy cookie with a dusty sweet cinnamon exterior), Ajónjoli (a toasted sesame seed bar bound together by honey), Mampostiales (mampostería=an early form of concrete, used in the forts of Old San Juan; a very thick, gooey candy bar of caramelized brown sugar and coconut chips, challenging to chew and with a strong, almost molasses-like flavor), Dulce de Leche (milk caramel pudding), Pastelillos de Guayaba (guava pastries), Besitos de Coco (coconut kisses), Tarta de Guayaba (guava tarts), and Tortitas de Calabaza (pumpkin tarts). A popular Christmastime drink is coquito, an eggnog-like rum and coconut milk-based homemade beverage. The holiday season is also a time that many piña coladas are prepared, underscoring the combination of tropical America (pineapples) and Africa (coconuts) seen in Puerto Rican cuisine.
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Dictionary: Taino Indigenous Peoples of the Caribbean Retrieved: February 21, 2008. (Based on the encyclopedia “Clásicos de Puerto Rico”, 2nd. edition. Ed. Cayetano Coll y Toste. Publisher: Ediciones Latinoamericanas, S.A., 1972.).