Puerto Rico: Culinary Background

Puerto Rico MapWhen Columbus first visited Puerto Rico in 1493, it was inhabited by the Taíno, an Amerindian people who called their home "Borikén." The Taíno diet made use of indigenous ingredients such as cassava, sweet potatoes, calabaza squash, beans, peppers, pineapple and guava. They hunted small prey like birds and iguanas and cast nets for fish and turtles. With the arrival of Europeans, much of the original population was decimated, and Spanish influence came to dominate politically, culturally and culinarily.

A large population of African slaves brought their own ingredients and dishes to the island's cooking. And in the twentieth century, American food culture added to the mix. The blending of these diverse influences led to a distinctively Puerto Rican cuisine known as cocina criolla.

Common Ingredients and Cooking Methods

Typical ingredients in Puerto Rican cooking are chicken, fish, seafood, avocados, calabaza (pumpkin), greens, chayote, okra, gandules (pigeon peas), apio ñame (yams), plátanos (plantains), sweet potatoes, yuca (cassava), yautía (taro root), rice, bananas, coconuts, guavas, mangoes and guanábanas. Cilantro, culantro (recao) and oregano are popular herbs.

Puerto Rican cooking is distinguished by its use of adobo and sofrito. Adobo is simply a marinade or rub, typically with garlic and lime juice or vinegar, that is used to season meat and poultry. Sofrito is a blend of ingredients - usually onions, garlic, peppers, sweet chilies, oregano, cilantro and some ham - that is used to start off and flavor a dish.

Another hallmark of Boricua cuisine is achiote, a reddish-yellow oil made with annatto seeds. It imparts a distinctive hue to rice and other dishes.

Puerto Rican food is not particularly spicy, but sweet-sour combinations are popular. Vinegar, sour orange and lime juice lend a sour touch, while dried or fresh fruits add a sweet balance to dishes.

Popular Dishes & Recipes

Asopao is a gumbo-like stew that is made with chicken or pigeon peas. Pork is roasted at home as pernil al horno or sold at roadside stands, where pieces are cut off a whole roast pig. Mofongo, mashed plantain mixed with pork cracklings, often serves as a meal's starch. Plantains are also popular as fried chips called tostones that are served with garlicky mojo sauce. Arroz con pollo, or chicken with rice, is considered something of a national dish. Pasteles, a type of tamal wrapped in banana leaves, are typical fare around Christmastime.

And don't forget rum! Puerto Rico makes some of the world's best.