“re: Puerto Rican Cuisine”
this is a letter I sent in response to an article in The Denver Post on Puerto Rican cuisine.
I thoroughly enjoyed your articles on Puerto Rican cuisine. I worked in San Juan & the Caribbean – in the fine wine business – for several years and am married to a Puerto Rican girl from the center of the island. Both of us feel you did a good job describing typical dishes of the island.
My first experience with mofongo was at a roadside kiosk near Luquillo. It was quite strange – I ordered it out of curiosity and partly because of its funky name. Definitely an acquired taste for gringos. I later learned that it is best when served “wet” – usually with a tomato-based sauce that includes lobster (my favorite), chicken, fish, shrimp and even beef. Another delicious way is in en caldo (chicken broth) which might appeal to purists. My wife is allergic to shellfish so I have a favorite recipe for mofongo that incorporates a chicken, mushroom and tomato sauce. Not exactly typical – I call it the gringo version of mofongo (although it probably borrows more from Spain)…
Many restaurants serve mofongo in an actual wooden pilon. I hope you were able to dine at Ajili Mojili in Condado. They are responsible for turning Puerto Rican food into a fine dining experience. It is a big favorite among locals although some may complain that expansion over the years has affected the quality. Some Puerto Ricans may also argue that it is too expensive for what is simply good Puerto Rican food that can be found elsewhere all over the island. I am impressed that you found your way to La Casita Blanca which used to be sort of an island secret.
As I worked in the wine business, I had frequent contacts with island chefs. Wilo Benet is probably the darling of Puerto Rican nouvelle cuisine. Wilo’s restaurant is Pikayo and he works diligently at promoting Puerto Rican cuisine. He was the official representative for Puerto Rico at the summer olympics in Barcelona and introduced Puerto Rican cooking to the world. I have seen Wilo on all kinds of TV food shows promoting good food with a Puerto Rican flair. Another important island chef is Alfredo Ayala who opened Chayote a little over ten years ago. He glorified root vegetables (staples dear to all Borinquenos) and like Wilo, elevated a national cuisine and stirred a lot of interest from chefs all over the world. I guess you could call them sort of the Alice Waters’ of Puerto Rico…
I hope that you were able to experience another Puerto Rican delicacy: pinchos de cerdo. Although not exactly in the realm of fine dining, these pork kebabs are sold in the street and are very delicious. Cooked on a charcoal grill (usually a makeshift one wherever the vendor might be) with barbeque sauce, these chunks of pork are skewered on a stick and topped with a slice of criollo bread (basically, the Puerto Rican version of French bread.) Pincho vendors are sometimes hard to find but if you go to enjoy Puerto Rican baseball, pinchos are the equivalent to the American hot dog. Unfortunately, these days, you most likely find only hot dogs at Coliseo Roberto Clemente and it takes a trip out to one of the smaller baseball stadiums – such as Mayaguez – to find “The Puerto Rican Hot Dog”. Pinchos are also plentiful in Old San Juan around the holidays and usually easily found at any of the island’s many festivals.
Pasteles is another national dish and is especially prevalent around Christmas. They are sort of Puerto Rican tamales made from either green plantains or yucca and stuffed with a stew of meat and garbanzos. Oddly, many Puerto Ricans will pour Heinz (or Hunt’s – depending on your political persuasion) Ketchup over these strange little pies. We have lived all over the world and never fail to run into a small Puerto Rican community. When our Puerto Rican friends travel to the island, they often come back with large bags of frozen pasteles which – to them (my wife included) – are like bags of precious gold. A Puerto Rican without pasteles at Christmas time is a real crime! For gringos, they are definitely an acquired taste. But over the years I have come to truly enjoy them.
I would also like to mention another unique culinary delight: quenepas. This odd little fruit is sold in the street during a brief time of the year (summer, I think, but I am not totally sure). You will see a vendor with what looks to be an oversized bunch of grapes. Quenepas are similar to lychees only they have a more tart taste. Eating them requires a lesson from a local: Bite softly into its green outer skin until you come in contact with the center; gently pull (with your teeth) half of the sphere off to expose the inner pink flesh which has a unique, fruity and tart taste with (and not to detract from the experience) the look and texture of raw tuna. You can use the other half of the skin as a little container or you can pull it on out with your front teeth and work it around in your mouth to get as much meat of the seed as you can. There are also rum-based drinks made from quenepas.
One last mention: Puerto Rican coffee. It is the best in the world. Supposedly, it is the preferred choice of The Vatican. While the stuff in the cans in the island supermarkets is pretty good, it is worthwhile to seek out freshly roasted beans. The Puerto Rican coffee industry is sadly, a very underdeveloped one. There is a very interesting and well-preserved coffee plantation (now a museum) – Hacienda Buena Vista – near the town of Ponce that is a must see. I have checked sources all over the US and although you can find coffee from Tanzania in Starbuck’s or Williams-Sonoma’s mail order houses, I doubt you’ll find cafe puertorriqeno. When I go to Puerto Rico for visits, I usually have to explain to Customs agents what all of the little white bags in my suitcase are.
There are tons of other uniquely Puerto Rican food / drink discoveries. And many of them are off the beaten path – far from the hotels and casinos of Isla Verde and Condado. Sounds like a road trip to me! I only wish we had a Puerto Rican restaurant in Denver…Thanks again for the enjoyable articles.