Eat Your Way Through Puerto Rico
Christopher Columbus may not have found the Spice Islands he was looking for when he lurched onto the shores of the Caribbean Islands, but he did find treasures in the form of foods that the known world had never seen. The Columbian Exchange he started has transformed the way the world eats.
When Columbus arrived in Puerto Rico in 1493, indigenous maidens in the Americas decorated their hair with popcorn garlands made from the maize that fueled New World Empires. Corn would go on to help the world population boom in the following decades and even centuries.
Hot chilis did not exist in the Old World until Columbus and his mariners brought them back. They traveled so quickly and hybridized so easily that today there are hundreds of varieties specific to many national cuisines. It is easy to forget that before Columbus, there was no such thing as a mouth-searing Thai sambal or screaming hot Sichuan dishes.
The natives made both bread and poison from the prolific cassava (yuca) plant that would later become tapioca and feed hungry populations of Africa. The honored American tradition of barbecue comes from the Taíno technique of barbacoa – cooking meats on a grill over fire.
The Spanish began to make their own contributions upon their arrival: large domesticated mammals, especially pigs; olives, capers, rice.
Later, the slave trade that tore Africans from their homes to become slaves in the New World also brought different beans, okra, gourds. The Africans had already learned to use the plantains that first appeared on the Indian subcontinent; when they arrived in the New World, they began to adapt their cooking techniques to the materials they found and learn new ways to prepare their own familiar foods.
The result of this encounter of so many worlds, cultures, and agricultural products is a cuisine that is tasty, hearty and open to change.
Rice and plantains are the main staples; chicken, pork and fish are the primary sources of animal proteins, while beans are an integral part of everyday eating. Aromatic herbs like cilantro and culantro bring lightness and brightness to the dishes. Salted pork is a condiment as much as a protein source. Seasoned and salty stews are balanced with bland and sometimes sweet, stodgy root vegetables and plantains. Puerto Rican food is highly seasoned, but generally not searingly spicy; hot sauce is added by the individual diner at the table.
Ask Puerto Ricans in New York what they miss most about their island home and they will very likely say: the food. From fried plantains dipped into garlic and oil to crackling roast suckling pig to rice and beans aromatized with herbs and spices from five continents, modern Puerto Rican cuisine draws on rich cultural and agricultural heritage to load up the table with creatively seasoned comfort food of the first order.
With four million inhabitants living on the island and an estimated 4 million living in the continental United States, plus tens of thousands of tourists visiting the island per year, you’d think that Puerto Rican food would be a celebrated American cuisine right along with Cajun and Southwest kitchen. But it’s not.
Puerto Ricans on the mainland have been marginalized since the island was ceded to the United States by the Spanish in 1898. As poor migrants to New York in the 1950s their cuisine was largely ignored and their produce hard to come by. They lacked the cachet of the Cuban exile population.
Back on the island, the burgeoning tourist industry fed North American visitors what they were used to: burgers and fries and continental cuisine. Because the population is largely Spanish-speaking, visitors who didn’t speak the language would have a hard time finding real local cuisine. Only the most adventurous would get to taste the authentic flavor of Puerto Rican cuisine.
Puerto Rico today enjoys relative wealth when compared to its Caribbean and Latin American neighbors. Puerto Ricans living on the mainland United States have integrated into the mainstream so successfully that their old neighborhoods are now populated by Spanish-speaking immigrants from other developing countries.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t still salivate over arroz con pollo. They roast whole pigs in their New York backyards, and Fedex pasteles to Chicago for Christmas. And because of the island’s 78 degree year-round temperatures, gorgeous beaches and modern commodities, tens of thousands of tourists discover the island each year.
The only thing stopping many second- and third-generation Puerto Ricans from getting completely oriented to their culinary traditions is the same as the one stopping those thousands of tourists from being more adventurous in their explorations of island cuisine. It is language.
The words for different dishes and types of produce are often specific to the island and its history of cross-cultural exchange. One example is Abelmoschus esculentus, the green slender tube of a plant with sometimes gooey insides that originates in Ethiopia and is known as okra in the United States and lady’s fingers in other English-speaking countries. The word okra comes from okuru, a Nigerian word for the plant. The Puerto Rican word for it: guingambó, derives from a Portuguese corruption of quillambo, the East African word for Abelmoschus esculentus.
This is why I love food. It’s not just an agricultural experience, or a cooking experience, or a dining experience. It is history you can eat, sink your teeth into, savor.
As the New York-born daughter of a Puerto Rican mother and an Aruban father, I was exposed to Caribbean food early and often. The back and forth of relatives and friends between the island and New York and the summer and Christmas journeys we made regularly meant that I got a chance to try it all and even help get the ingredients out of the garden and smell it cooking.
So it has always been frustrating to me that our cuisine is not better-known. And when I began to live in Puerto Rico as an adult, I discovered that the rich heritage has its own lexicon that may make it less accessible to non-speakers of Puerto Rican Spanish.
I hope this dictionary can fill in some of the mysteries of our special food language and open pathways to more people to try our ingredients and recipes and dishes, either at home or during visits to the island. And I look forward to the dictionary growing as I hear from readers and users about special dishes I have failed to mention, or other regional names that I may have missed!