Sunday, September 23, 2007

Puerto Rico: A Brand New Flava In My Ear


Ah September.

This September is particularly important to me because it marks A) the fact that my husband and I have survived one year of
marriage without killing each other and B) the fact that in a year, we haven't taken any sort of vacation. Those two facts combined was enough reason for us to pack our bags and head eastward to my husband's native Puerto Rico.

They call the island "La Isla Del Encanto" (The Island Of Enchantment) and after a visit of only a week, I can see why. Because after that one week, there are many things I miss about it already. I miss that all its buildings, no matter if in wealthy community or in a not-so-wealthy one, are painted in colors that make you think of ice cream and salt water taffy. I miss the singing of the
coquí, a type of tree frog native to the island, at night. I miss the warmth and hospitality of my in-laws and everyone else that I met. And the food...

Yes, I miss the food dearly.

Until last week, my understanding of Puerto Rican food has been based on four meals: two good but very limited meals from a
Puerto Rican cafe in Maui of all places and from my husband's grandmother, and two bad ones from a couple of half-assed but rare-to-come-by Puerto Rican-slash-Mexican-or-pan-Caribbean joints here in the Southland. Until last week, my knowledge of Puerto Rican food was limited pretty much to pasteles, a dish similar to tamales but made with plantains instead of corn masa and wrapped in a banana leaf instead of a corn husk, and arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas). But after my trip, my experience with Puerto Rican flavors expanded in a big way, and I was lucky enough to taste it both the home-cooked- and restaurant-cooked way.

So what is Puerto Rican food like? Well first let me show you where and what I ate...

Mami's (a.k.a. my Mother-In-Law's) meal of carne mechada, arroz y habichuelas, amarillos, and guineos en escabeche could not have been any more comforting after a long trip out from the mainland. Beef braised with potatoes, green olives, onion and tomato paired with Puerto Rico's "daily bread"--medium-grain rice with a nice hint of oil, stewed pink beans, and sweet plantains--warmed and soothed the soul despite heat and humidity that made one feel like they were breathing hot mud.

carne mechada

A dish that I'd never heard of was guineos en escabeche, a dish of green bananas marinated in oil, vinegar, onion and garlic. Both filling and slightly refreshing from the unripe banana flavor, this is a dish that has a definite acquired taste.

guineos en escabeche

Mami's arroz con salchichas, or rice with vienna sausages, was downright ghetto, and I loved it. How many times have I thrown Spam and corn together to make fried rice? How many times did my Grandma slice hot dogs up and throw them into her fried rice? How do you think kimchi bokum-bap was created? The same way arroz con salchichas was invented, I'm sure. I gobbled this up, along with a delicious pastel filled with tender pork and a pastelillo, an empanada-like pastry filled with a tasty ground beef and cheese mixture.

pastel y arroz con salchichas


pastelillo

My husband and I stayed in Isla Verde, a beachy area near the airport that's densely packed with hotels and tourists. I think it's where alot of Caribbean cruise goers make their layover, hence the abundance of tourist trappy chain restaurants such as Ruth's Chris Steak House and Momoyama in the area. For us, however, it was pretty much all about roadside food, and in Puerto Rico, there is definitely no lack of it. We ate at Bebo's BBQ one night, drive-in like joint located in Carolina right alongside the highway. We were the only tourists amongst a long line of locals--a good sign if you ask me. For a little over thirteen bucks, we got ourselves three huge plates of food: a half pound of lechon asado (roast pork) roasted so that the meat stayed juicy-tender and the skin had a perfect crackly crunch, one half a pollo asado (roast chicken) also perfectly roasted, some amarillos (sauteed plantains) and a plate of morcilla (Sausage stuffed with blood and rice).

lechon asado

I wanted to like the morcilla--I really did--but it was the intense culantro flavor in the thing that sent me away. Culantro is an herb used frequently in Puerto Rican cooking--an herb that's like cilantro's evil-er twin brother--and those that know me well know that I'll eat pretty much anything--stomach, intestines, blood, liver, kidneys--but nothing makes me gag faster than that vile soapy weed. No offense, cilantro and culantro lovers.

morcilla sausage

One of the favorite parts of this trip was the drive along the northeastern coast of the island. As we left Isla Verde and headed east into the towns of Piñones and Loíza, there was literally food kiosk after food kiosk on the sides of the road. This had to be unreal, right? Was I dreaming that I could literally stop and get some good, down-home food and snacks, drive off, stop at the beach and play, get back in the car, drive down the road some more, stop at another food kiosk and repeat the process over and over again? If I had been dreaming, I'd never want to wake up. But it was all real. It was not a dream.


imagine this times a hundred


I think it was a good thing that it was still relatively early and that many of these kioskos were not open for business yet, else I would have had to stop at all of them. And then I would have gained 40 pounds solely from all the fried snacks I would have eaten. No, fortunately for me, we stopped at only a few and I perhaps gained only 10 pounds from all the delicious snacks I ate. At any one of these kioskos, you can get mofongo (a dish made of mashed fried green plantains), arroz con jueyes (rice with crab), a variety of seafood cocktails, and best of all, a variety of deep fried snacks. My favorite one was the pionono, made of sweet plantain stuffed with seasoned ground beef and deep fried--so fucking good with its crispy, caramelized exterior that gave way to a juicy interior of both sweet and salty flavors.


alcapurrias and bacalaitos being prepared

pionono

a closer look at the pionono

I also loved the popular alcapurria, a fried tube-shaped snack made of a mixture of plantains and yautia and stuffed with meat, in this case, ground beef.


alcapurria

I wish that the place that made my bacalaito, a salt cod fritter and another local favorite, had made it better. The one we had tasted of stale oil and we were just too stuffed to try one from another place.


bacalaito

For about a buck more at most of these kioskos, you can add a cup of ice cold mavi, a drink made of the bark of the Colubrina tree and sugar. Definitely an acquired taste, mavi has a sweetish-tartish taste to it and is probably what drinking liquid haw flakes would be like. Sorry, but I think I like my haw flakes better in solid form.


mavi

And as if the kioskos in Piñones and Loíza were not enough, there are even more a little further eastward in the coastal town of Luquillo. Here, there is about a three block stretch of end-on-end kioskos selling the same types of foods.

luquillo's seemingly endless stretch of kioskos

It was here that I tried mofongo for the first time and fell in love. It's a dish made with fried green plantains mashed with garlic, oil and chicharrones, served either with a side of meat or relleno (filled) with some type of meat. I chose to have mine con carne frita, with fried pork chunks. The pork was fried until the meat was a wee bit crispy and until its luscious layer of fat had a nice snap to it. Paired with the garlicky salitiness of the mofongo, I was in heaven.


mofongo con carne frita

now that's beauty

Afterwards, I had some cold coconut water (coco frio) served in a whole coconut to wash it down. Good, but the place we got it from needed to serve it colder.


coco frio

While in Luquillo, we also tried a place called King Seafood that Mami recommended, a place not within the slew of kioskos, but tucked away on another street. It was here that I really discovered how fresh Puerto Rican seafood can be. Though the name in Spanish escapes me, we had these fried mahi-mahi nuggets that were so damn fresh that I almost mistook them for chicken.

mcfreshfishnuggets

Asopao, a soup made with some sort of meat (in this case shrimp) and rice, was enjoyed by all except yours truly because of its heavy culantro flavor.

asopao de camarrones

Ensalada de pulpo, a cocktail-like salad of octopus, peppers and onions, was refreshing after having eaten so much fried food and red meat and further showcased the island's fresh seafood.

ensalada de pulpo

On the side, some tostones, fried patties of green plantain, and sorullitos de maíz, fried corn fritters reminiscent of hushpuppies, were welcome additions to our meal.


tostones

sorullitos de maíz

So what is Puerto Rican food like, you ask? From what I know now, it's a cuisine that combines Indian, Spanish, and African influences into a flavor all its own. Fried, stewed and roasted meats are popular and are often served with rice and beans or some sort of tropical starchy fruit/root/tuber such as the plantain or yucca. Foods are generously seasoned, say, with sofrito, adobo, achiote or sazón, but are not spicy in a scotch bonnet pepper sort of way. I could go on and on with my descriptions and observations about Puerto Rican cuisine, but the most important thing I took away was that wherever I ate, whether it was at Mami's house or at some guy's pincho stand on the side of the road, there was alot of heart put into this food...the kind of passion that comes only when one reaches to the depths of one's soul to cook like it's the last time they'll ever cook. That, my friends, is Puerto Rican cuisine.

60 comments:

Sarita said...

Wow, that was one amazingly tasty entry! Definitely see the Spanish influence with the adobo, morcilla and so many other elements. Yum!

Christine D. said...

What a plethora of different sights, sounds, and TASTES! Good to see that you had a great (though long overdue) vacation!

Congrats to you and Isaac!

themirthmobile said...

wow that looks fun! do you ever watch daisy cooks on pbs? she does latin american cuisine but focuses on her native puerto rico. her recipes look so delicious!

KirkK said...

Hi Pam - Happy Anniversary! Looks like lots of good eats!

Horus said...

All that stuff looked great! I'm panamanian and a lot of it looked familiar but had different names. The pionono looks kinda like the empanadas my mom used to make and the mofongo looks like something she used to make me for breakfast. Did you see very much Yuca in Puerto Rico? I LOVE that stuff. (It's kinda like Taro.)

One Food Guy said...

Oh Wow! I'm jealous! My wife and I were married in Puerto Rico, at the Westin Rio Mar in Rio Grande. Friends of ours were also married in PR, at the Water Club right on Isla Verde where you were. While taking care of our marriage certificate, you know, the legal crap, we stopped road side for some bacalaito and some cocos frio. Good stuff.

We also at this place in Old San Juan called El Jibarito, a real down home Puerto Rican kitchen/restaurant. Mofongo to die for! I can't wait to go back.

Did you ride the mechanical bull at The Ranch (roof top at the El San Juan)?

Food Marathon said...

Brilliant.

Elma Merro said...

Pam, que bueno que te gusto estar de vacaciones en Puerto Rico y que disfrutaras de la comida. Vuelvan pronto que yo los invito a comer y a comer todo lo que quieran :-)
Say hi to Yunito!

Reid said...

Pam,

I am so jealous. I haven't been to Puerto Rico since I moved back to Hawaii. When I lived in New York, I used to visit at least 3 times a year!

You are soooo lucky! HAPPY ANNIVERSARY!

Daily Gluttony said...

hi sarita!!!

thanks! i wish i could have tasted some of spain's better flavors when i visited. i made the mistake of taking a tour and they took us to all these tourist trap places to eat. i plan on returning one day though...maybe i can drop by & say hi! =)

christine d,

thanks so much! yes, the vacation was certainly long overdue! it's crappy that the minute you walk back in to the office doors, though, all feelings of being rested go away.

hi mirthmobile,

i've heard of that show, but i've never really watched it. now i'm going to have to make it a point to tivo it! thanks for the rec!

hi kirk!

thank you for the anniversary wishes! yes it was a lot of good eats and i can't wait to go back & have more. did you have fun in peru? i can't wait to read your posts!

horus,

yes, i did see yuca over there...it came as a side w/ many dishes, but i opted for plantains or rice & beans since i like them more. thanks for stopping by!

OFG,

how cool that you got married in PR!!! we are thinking of one day renewing our vows at the el convento in old san juan. it's so pretty there! and no, we never rode the mechanical bull--those things scare me!

food marathon,

thank you so much! it was a joy to write about b/c it really is an amazing place!

elma,

haha, i'd respond in spanish but unfortunately don't know how. it was so nice to finally meet you! hopefully we'll be back very soon to visit!

hi reid!

wow! and i'm jealous that you got to visit PR 3x a year! it is such a cool place. there's got to be some PR food in oahu, right? i know, but no match for the real thing. thanks for the anniversary wishes!

Eddie Lin said...

Puerto Rico. Que rico!!

Chubbypanda said...

OMFG. You're quiet for over a month, and then you hit us with this. It's like intellectual bulimia for the gastronomic voyeur. I'm wasn't sure if my eyeballs could take it all.

Awesome pictures with your clean, breezy writing style; gods I've missed it.

Jeni said...

Happy Anniversary Pam & Isaac! Mami's dishes looks soo delicious. Does Isaac have a brother??? I kid...I kid.

Now that you've guys had your year together...Auntie Jeni is awaiting the pitter patter of Baby Gluttony feet! OMG...I can't wait. Anyways, we miss you guys. Once it cools down you guys have to come over for some hot pot time!

Captain Jack said...

Great post DG,

I wish I could try some of the amazing food items you documented.

Daily Gluttony said...

Yo Eddie!

¡Ay, que bueno...hablas español muy bien! LOL!

CP,

haha, love the "intellectual bulimia for the gastronomic voyeur" part. thanks for the props!

J,

no, isaac doesn't have a brother. but you don't need to leave D to try mami's food--we'll just have her cook you guys some next time she's in LA. LOL!

ooooh hot pot!!! last year's nabe/you tube fest was so much fun! let's get together real soon--i miss you guys!

CJ,

PR's a wonderful place to visit--you should go one day!

Hirono said...

Hi Pam,

I’m a long time reader of your blog but this is my first time leaving a comment. I just wanted to congratulate you and Isaac on your the anniversary! This post made me want to take a fabulous vacation!

Hirono

Tokyoastrogirl said...

You're back on the blogosphere! Ok, first of all, I love how most of this food has the lovely, golden-brown hue that comes only with deep frying in copious amounts of FAT...er, I mean oil. What the hecks not to like about that?? Everything looks crazy delicious.

But yo- why ya gotta go 'round hatin' on my CILANTRO or CULANTRO or any kind of antro?! It ain't no soapy weed, it's good weed!

;)- missed you! post more often!!

pleasurepalate said...

Wow, what an awesome culinary report. It was like I was almost with you, every bite of the way. The foods you described aren't like anything I've seen or tasted here in LA.

I think a trip to Puerto Rico sometime in my future is a must and it'll be great to use your blog entry as something to work off of. :)

Liza, Edgar y Rodrigo said...

OMG.. I stumbled with your blog on the Nest DW board.. I'm drooling over all that yummy food here.. I'm dominican, and our food is the same as in Puerto Rico and now I'm so hungry for some Mofongo!!! BTW.. I'm "bizcochito73" on the Nest.

Niquita said...

¡¡Precioso!!! ¡Me encantaron las fotos! The food was beautiful documented. It is like that in most Puerto Rico. Some places we have variations (like the black blood sausage, they have it without rice in the West).

I think you would love a lot to taste "piñón" o "pastelón de amarillos", it is like a sweet plantain pie exactly like the pionono, but a entire pied (it is cooked in the lasagna pan).

You made me very happy with that blog.

Keep enjoying our food.

Niquita said...

I forgot!! Maybe you should take pics from another angle of the Alcapurria and Empanadillas.

Also, you can see the North American influences in our table: I can see the Dasanni bottle and the Coca-Cola :) Next to the Dasanni there is a "spicy sauce" named Bohío.

The Yautia is actually the Taro Root as someone mentioned before me.

Culantro is named "recao" in Puerto Rico.

In the Western side of the Island the "corn sticks" (sorrullitos) are salty. Everywhere else are sweet.

I loved this so much that I posted it on my Facebook profile.

fasteddie717 said...

WOW! This is the best overview of the best Puerto Rican foods me and my whife have ever read! It literally brought tears to our eyes. Over here the P-Rican food sucks. It's just not as fresh and tasty as the real thing and your article made us feel like if we were right there again eating. We'll be in Pinones and Luquillo soon eating those healthy foods. Can't wait and thanks for the appetizer. WWWEEEPPPAAA!!!!

the survival gourmet said...

Dang that looks good! I could go for some Asopao and tostones right now.00000.

yussef dosman said...

que rico despues de una noche Vamperico

Antonia Pujols said...

wow, I found your blog by looking for an image of an alcapurria, I am Puerto Rican living outside the island and at 11:30pm I can only thing of a crab alcapurria. As I read this entry I lived vicariously through it, I feel much better now. thanks for an excelent post about the food of my country!

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Jazzy said...

hey dat is really cool..
im doing a project on puerto rican food.. well im puerto rican.. its just i dont know what foods i should choose b/c their are sooo manyy of them..
Anyways thnkz for helping out with this blog

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Ednita said...

Looking at all this wonderful food made me deliriously hungry. I am a BORICUA and havent had these dishes in awhile. Those foods are not known in these parts. I was born in LA ISLA DEL ENCANTO and although raised out here in the US, i always looked forward to MAMI OLES good puerto rican food... Thanks for the memories

Melanie (Modern Mami) said...

Awesome pictures of the food. We're heading to PR in a few days & I can't wait to eat!!! ;)

betty said...

Wonderful,yummy site-thanks for the pictures and info! Betty

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Burn Belly Fat said...

Lots of foods!

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Elizeth said...

Hai.. These look good.Great presentation and your Photography is also good

Anonymous said...

I will tell you what , you did an amazing job with the presentation,the photos and explaining what everything is,great job,you should feel good coming from a puerto rican.Great job.

Anonymous said...

I will tell you what , you did an amazing job with the presentation,the photos and explaining what everything is,great job,you should feel good coming from a puerto rican.Great job.

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Dee said...

I enjoyed your post on Puerto Rican food. I am Puerto Rican and live in the USA. I visited with my family in 2007 to celebrate my little Princess 3rd birthday in Isabela and San Juan. She had 2 birthday with my husband family in Isabela and San Juan with my family. We visited in 2012 to celebrate her 8 birthday in Cabo Rojo Puerto Rico. Es la Isla De el Encanto. I love what you wrote at the end that is the way I cook and my family in Puerto Rico.