By Mandi Rogier
Puerto Rican cuisine is a unique blend of Taino, African and Spanish foods. The term “cocina criolla” means creole food. Anything described as creole is local to Puerto Rico. This unique style of cooking includes many delicious dishes, some so popular that tourists have been known to visit Puerto Rico for the food alone.
The varied cultures that have come to create the Puerto Rico you know today all played a vital part in the evolution of cocina criolla. The Tainos were the first inhabitants of the island and used corn, tropical roots and local peppers in their cooking. Spaniards brought with them beef and pork, as well as rice and wheat. The process of cooking complex rice dishes in pots is also credited to European influences. African slaves were later brought to the island. With them came taro, okra and the process of deep frying food. American influences have also affected Puerto Rican cuisine over the last century. Corn oil and recently olive oil from the United States has replaced lard in many fried foods.
Daily Puerto Rican cuisine consists of a wide variety of dishes. One staple of this diet is the pastelon de carne, a meat pie made with salt pork and ham. Carne frita con cebolla, made with beefsteak and onions, is another common dish. Chicken is prepared in a variety of ways such as arroz con pollo–chicken with rice. Also popular are sweet and sour chicken, broiled chicken and chicken in sherry. Tortilla Espanola is a Spanish omelet made with chopped onions and potatoes. More unique Puerto Rican dishes include calf’s kidney, stuffed beef tongue and breaded calf’s brains.
Puerto Rican meals commonly begin with an appetizer or soup. Popular appetizers include bacalaitos, which are crispy cod fritters and empanadillas–turnovers with a filling of crab, conch or lobster. One popular soup is sopon de pollo con arroz, a chicken soup with rice, pumpkin and yautias. Another Puerto Rican soup is a fish soup known as sopon de pescado. Finally, the most traditional Puerto Rican appetizer is asopao. This is a gumbo that can be made in a variety of ways depending on the chef, but usually includes chicken, garlic, chile peppers, onions, tomatoes and pimentos.
Aside from the traditional daily foods, Puerto Rican cuisine includes many festive dishes used at holidays and celebrations. One of the most well known is lechon asado, the barbequed pig. The pig is basted with sour orange juice and spices, then served with a sour garlic dressing and a side of roasted plantains. This meal is popular for a variety of festivals and can serve up to 15 people. Popular Christmas fare includes roast pork, cooked yam and arroz con gandules, a dish of rice and pigeon peas flavored with annatto oil, cumin, bay leaves and capers. Some Puerto Rican tables will also serve ensalada de pulpo, which is an octopus salad flavored with oregano, garlic, olive oil, peppers, lemon juice, red onion and red wine vinegar. Arroz con dulce is a holiday dessert consisting of rice pudding made with coconut milk, coconut cream, vanilla, cinnamon and sugar. One common holiday drink is coquito, made with coconut milk and an eggnog-like rum.
Puerto Rican cuisine often focuses on foods that can be obtained locally. Fresh fish and shellfish are easily found in this island locale. Mojo isleno is a popular fried fish served with a sauce made from olives, onions, tomato sauce, vinegar, garlic and capers. Lobster and shrimp are popular in local cuisine as well. Many unique fruits and vegetables are grown locally as well. A pear-shaped vegetable called the chayote is a Puerto Rican favorite, as well as breadfruit that is a common accompaniment to many meat dishes. The most popular local fruit is by far the plantain. Baked, fried and boiled plantains are one of the most popular side dishes on the island.