In my previous post, I shared the changes that Puerto Rico has faced in the last couple of years and the reasons why I was inspired to write about this beautiful island.
I wanted to focus this blog on the food in Puerto Rico for two reasons: First, Puerto Rico has one of the most delicious cuisines in Latin America, which is another reason why I love to visit. And second, despite the major natural disasters that Puerto Rico has gone through, tourism in the island continues being pivotal towards helping the island’s economy to recover. Food, along with their gorgeous beaches, adventure experiences, and ecotourism are the top reasons why tourists travel to Puerto Rico.
Since food is a main part of the tourism experience, this post focuses on the rich history of Puerto Rican food.
Puerto Rican cuisine has its roots in the cooking traditions and practices of Spain, Africa, and the native Taínos.
The Taínos were the indigenous people of the Caribbean at the time of European contact. In the late fifteenth century, they inhabited most of what is now Cuba, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas and the northern Lesser Antilles. The Taíno were the first New World peoples encountered by Christopher Columbus during his 1492 voyage.
From the diet of the Taínos come many tropical roots and tubers (collectively called viandas) like yautía (Xanthosoma) and especially yuca. Viandas are starchy root vegetables, including yuca, ñame, yautía, batata, malanga, and the Puerto Rican apio, all locally grown in the mountain regions of the island. One of the primary crops cultivated by the Taíno was the cassava or yuca, which they ate as a flat bread. They also grew corn, squash, beans, peppers, sweet potatoes, yams, peanuts as well as tobacco. Birds, lizards, and small animals were hunted for food.
When Ponce de León arrived with Christopher Columbus in 1493, the Spanish brought cattle with them such as beef, pork, rice, wheat, and olive oil to Puerto Rico. Soon after, the Spanish began planting sugarcane and importing slaves from Africa.
When the Spanish brought African slaves to Puerto Rico in the early 1500s, the enslaved Africans brought a lot of their foods and cooking techniques with them. Large numbers of enslaved black Africans were introduced to the island after 1519, mostly from several West African tribal regions.
Coconuts, coffee, okra, taro (malanga), tamarind, yams (ñame), sesame seeds, gandules (pigeon peas), plantains, many varieties of bananas, other root vegetables and Guinea hen, were introduced by the Africans. Africans also introduced different cooking techniques including deep-frying food and mallet mashing (which was the technique of using a mallet to mash large amounts of starchy foods). The mash was then softened with liquids and fats. This is how the famous Mofongo is made, a traditional dish from Puerto Rico.
Mofongo is one of the most popular dishes in this island. It is a must-try if you are visiting Puerto Rico and want to experience this island’s culture.
Mofongo’s main ingredient is fried plantains. Plantains are picked green and fried, then mashed with salt, garlic, broth and olive oil in a wooden pilón. It is traditionally served with fried meat and chicken broth soup. Different proteins and vegetables, chicken, shrimp, beef, or octopus, can also be added to the mofongo.
Spanish also influenced a lot of Puerto Rican cuisine. When the Spanish colonized the island in the 1500s, they brought olive oil, olives, parsley, onions, garlic, cilantro, oregano, basil and many varieties of citrus. They also brought cattle, including beef, pork, rice, and wheat, to the island. Sugar cane and coffee, also made their way to Puerto Rico through Spain.
The mingling of flavors and ingredients passed from generation to generation among the different ethnic groups that settled on the island, resulting in the unique blend of today’s Puerto Rican cuisine. Cocina criolla (Créole cooking) is the name of Puerto Rican cuisine resulting from the mixture of different cultures who settled on the island.
I often discuss on my blog my dislike for the way indigenous people were treated when the Europeans arrived to the Americas, as well as how Africans were enslaved and taken away from their land and forced to come to the Americas. Despite the negative outcomes that colonization brought upon the indigenous people and slaves brought from Africa, the one thing that amazes me is how resourceful and creative the new inhabitants in Puerto Rico became with their food. By mixing herbs such as culantro and annatto seeds from the Taínos and combining them with the savory tomato sauce, made of garlic, olives, olive oil, and rice brought from the Spanish, African slaves adding gandules (pigeon peas) for their own flavor touch and together they created a new dish called Arroz con Gandules – a traditional Puerto Rican rice dish prepared for any special occasion. To me this blending of different cultural ingredients combined to create these delicious dishes such as Mofongo and Arroz con Gandules as the result of colonization, will continue to amaze me.
I hope this blog post encourages you to try Puerto Rican food, and if you are able to, visit this beautiful island, you will love it!
Stay tuned for my future blog posts on Puerto Rico After the Pandemic.
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