Puerto Ricans are the Stealth bombers of the Latin world. Since so many of us have been off the island for so long and we don’t always look or speak like non-Puerto Ricans expect us to, you don’t always realize that we are flying among you. In the same way, Puerto Rican food has always flown under the radar of world cuisines.
When you think Caribbean food, folks are more likely to think Jamaican jerk chicken or coconut shrimp. When you think Latin Caribbean food, Cuban black beans and rice get all the attention. When you think Latin food in general, Mexico is the juggernaut that obscures the rest of us.
But Puerto Rican cuisine, with its trifecta of African, European, and indigenous influences, with its range of ingredients borrowed from South Asia, the mountains of Spain, the altiplanos and river basins of South America, and the sea all around it…well it is a kaleidoscope of flavors and cooking styles that is a delicious world all its own.
This is the cuisine I grew up on. Pink beans seasoned with aromatic culantro and sweet little bonnet peppers and bits of savory salt pork. Oregano-infused spit-roasted suckling pig with molar-cracking skin. Green banana tamales called pasteles, stuffed with pork, raisins and green olives, wrapped and tied in banana leaves. Soupy shrimp and rice, rich with tomato and cilantro. Airy salt cod fritters. Garlicky fried and mashed plantain formed into a cup overflowing with seafood stew. Crab and rice. Chicken and rice. Pigeon peas and rice. Coconut rice desserts.
Clever visitors to the island will sidestep the continental cuisine and head for the small mom-and-pop restaurants that line town centers and beachfronts (make sure to get recommendations first!) and try everything they possibly can.
And when they go home, they will suffer what all boricuas suffer when they are far away. A food nostalgia so terrible, it drives us to make our relatives Fedex pasteles and breadfruit to our doors.
These days, however, it is much easier to reproduce the flavors at home. In my suburban New York town, I find ingredients enough to satisfy my craving, my longing, my yearning for the flavors of The Enchanted Isle without resorting to overnight delivery. Goya Foods is making inroads everywhere; look for them in the International section of your supermarket. If there is an Asian or South Asian market anywhere near you, they will have many of the fruits and vegetables familiar to the Caribbean kitchen. Italian, Spanish and Portuguese hot, dry sausage can be used in a pinch. Acorn squash makes a worthy substitute for our calabaza pumpkin.
I make it work and so can you. I explain some of that in my culinary dictionary Eat Your Way through Puerto Rico: What to Eat and How to Order It http://www.amazon.com/Eat-Your-Through-Puerto-Rico-ebook/dp/B007XXRXHU or https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/eat-your-way-through-puerto/id521502640?mt=11
and I show folks how to make it on my blog, Hot, Cheap & Easy, http://hotcheapeasy.com/ which chronicles the simple family recipes my family enjoys, including many of the classic Puerto Rican dishes that I grew up on, adapted for the mainland kitchen.
I leave you with two recipes that will get you started on the road to great home-cooked Puerto Rican food. One is your basic rice and beans with ham and pumpkin http://hotcheapeasy.com/2012/11/15/arroz-con-habichuelas-rosadas-puerto-rican-rice-and-beans-authentichow-to-fake-them/
. The other is pastelón de amarillos/plátanos http://hotcheapeasy.com/2012/04/02/pastelon-de-amarillos-puerto-rican-lasagne-with-ripe-plantains/ , a savory meat and sweet plantain lasagna-style casserole that epitomizes what our food is about. I hope you will join me in this exploration of a cuisine that deserves a lot more attention..and that you deserve to have a lot more of!
Food, wine, and travel writer Natalia de Cuba Romero is author of Eat Your Way Through Puerto Rico: A Culinary Dictionary (ebook, Forsa Editores 2012), is a regular contributor to edible Long Island. She blogs on simple meals for busy people at Hot, Cheap & Easy (http://hotcheapeasy.com). She is also a fulltime ESOL instructor at Nassau Community College and frequently lectures, presents and, publishes on issues of language learning, college readiness, and teaching methodology. Her son is a rice-and-bean-loving first-grader who is already a prize-winning baker.
Author website http://www.nataliadecuba.com/
©Natalia de Cuba Romero