Drawing inspiration from Latin, African and American cuisines, this "cocina criolla", as the locals call their food, is a colourful melting pot in the north-east caribbean.
By
Thomas Woodgate, Rachel Bartholomeusz

12 Sep 2013 - 9:24 AM  UPDATED 30 Mar 2021 - 3:49 PM

Heavily influenced by Spanish and Latin American cuisines, many dishes – especially soups, sauces and stews – are based on sofrito (a purée of capsicums, tomatoes, onions, garlic and coriander). African influences are also notable, with okra, yams and root vegetables often used, and staple foods of the Taino people, the indigenous inhabitants of Puerto Rico, also feature heavily in this cuisine.

Naturally, close ties and proximity to America would result in an infiltration of its food and cooking methods into Puerto Rico, and the use of corn oil for frying is one example. From an ingredient perspective, bacon is perhaps the biggest American influence, which is used in stewed beans, rice and to stuff mofongo (a plantain-based dish).

Meat, fish and chicken are often seasoned with adobo (a mix of salt, pepper, oregano, onion and garlic powder, and turmeric) but its most high-profile use is in one of the country’s most popular dishes: lechón. A young pig is rubbed with the spice mix prior to cooking on a spit over hot coals. It’s turned frequently to reduce the grease from under the skin, known as cuerito, which becomes crackly and paper-thin. Everything is consumed from the pig, even the innards which forms the basis of gandinga, a stew said to have soothing hangover powers.

Pasteles is another popular dish. It’s one that is labour-intensive and often made around Christmas. A dough made of green bananas and yautía (a root) is placed on top of a banana leaf and stuffed with a stew-like pork mixture seasoned with sofrito, adobo spices, bay leaves and annotto oil. It is then folded into a parcel, tied up and cooked in boiling water. Other variations include a seafood mixture, a chilli version, and one with par-cooked seasoned rice. It’s then served with roasted pork or another popular Puerto Rican dish, arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas).

 

Puerto Rican ingredients

1. Rice
Known as arroz, rice forms the basis for a number of staple dishes, whether it’s cooked in a sofrito with a variety of ingredients including beans, peas and chicken, or when it’s used to make arroz con dulce, a popular rice pudding.

2. Culantro or coriander
Recao (culantro), is a long-leafed relative of coriander, and also gives the Puerto Rican sofrito  its distinctive flavour. The chopped leaves are added to many dishes, and the plant is also used for medicinal purposes. Due to availability, we’ve used coriander (pictured), however, culantro has a much stronger taste.

3. Limes
Lime is a key ingredient in the adobo marinade and lime wedges are often served as an accompaniment.

4. Tomatoes
Used in the sofrito, which is the starting point for a number of cocina criolla dishes, tomatoes are also commonly used to make salsas and sauces.

5. Plantain
A staple food in Puerto Rico and one of its key agricultural crops, the plantain is a type of banana with a starchy, firm flesh and can be used either green or ripe. Popular plantain recipes include mofongo, plantain mashed with garlic, and tostones (plantains fried in corn oil).

 

Photography by John Laurie. Food preparation by Angela Nahas and Rebecca Kirk.