The depth of Puerto Rican cuisine rarely gets its due. Vacation visitors often leave and spread word that everything is fried, that it’s hard to find a fresh vegetable. I would say that they haven’t looked very hard or dug very deep. Diverse foods are served all across the archipelago, but it takes many forms and often requires a Jeep to traverse its terrain.
Here the blend of indigenous Taíno, west African, and Spanish cuisines does lead to many frituras (fried foods), whether they be beef alcapurrias or pastelillos stuffed with crab found at a beach kiosk in Piñones or tostones (twice-fried green plantains) at the upscale La Marqueta in Condado, but also to Bacalao Guisado (stewed codfish) with Güanimes (a corn-based dumpling); Almojábanas (cheese-filled rice fritters) with Ají Dulce Jam; Arroz con Calamares (rice with calamari); and Cazuela, a rich dessert. Many of these foods can be traced back to both pre-colonial traditions.
There are not just fried foods, pigs roasted on spits, and rice and beans, but the freshness of chayote ceviche and pickled gandules (pigeon peas). There are not just bananas, papaya, and passionfruit, but guava, jobos, and acerola. There is a bounty that unfolds over time and over travel to the different coasts and to the different mountain towns. On every table, a new homemade pique—a vinegar-based hot sauce—at a different level of spice, perhaps also made sweet with fruit.
The glory of the local cuisine can often be obscured by the United States’ imposed reliance on a century-old colonial policy known as the Jones Act, which requires everything coming into the archipelago be brought via U.S. ships crewed by U.S. workers. To boot, local agriculture was all but destroyed in the mid-20th century by policies that pushed rural people away from farms and toward factory work.
But in the last two decades, the agricultural sector has had a resurgence, though often it can be difficult to access the bounty that is available without direct contacts with farmers whether personally or through markets. Many people have their own subsistence gardens in order to consume fresh foods at no cost, growing what they like most. All of this has an impact on the cuisine, which is subject to socioeconomic and political forces, and dishes differ according to a family’s taste.
Some chefs have made it their priority to preserve tradition while infusing new flair. Paxx Caraballo Moll, of JungleBird, brings Puerto Rican flavor and ingredients to Taiwanese style. Gabriel Hernandez, of Verde Mesa, turns local ingredients into delicate, surprising fine dining. Natalia Vallejo, of Cocina al Fondo, brings beet and goat cheese together into a sweet terrine and fries ají dulce peppers (most often found in the staple sofrito) in tempura batter. Mario Juan Pagan brings pernil (roast pork) to new heights in sandwiches served at Lote 23. There is so much ingenuity to be found in what is growing here.
That ingenuity doesn’t only apply to food, either. At San Juan Artisan Distillers, an agricole rum called Ron Papón is being made with the sugarcane juice of a resurrected sugar variety replanted not too far from the city. Craft beer makers like Pura Vida and BoxLab bring local fruits and sensibilities to their products, as well. The local coffee scene, too, has seen a moment of renewal, with shops like Finca Cialitos in Old San Juan showing off beans with the bright flavor of lemon balanced with the bitterness of chocolate.
There is so much nuance and so much newness, always rooted in tradition, to find in Puerto Rico, and there is so much joy to be found in cooking its cuisine in your own kitchen. From adobo to sazón seasonings, from pique to pitorro (rum moonshine), Puerto Rican cuisine offers a complex flavor opportunity for all who cook it.
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