Note: This post was originally published at Daisy Martinez’s Boriqua Blog on November 7, 2008.
Greetings, Daisy’s webmaster and good friend Jason Perlow here. I know Boriqua Blog is a site for all things Daisy, but trust me, you’re really gonna like this series of posts. I can’t promise to have Daisy’s sense of humor and bubblicity, but I can definitely show you some good food.
Some of you may know me from my food blog, Off The Broiler, and the culinary food discussion site eGullet which I co-founded in 2001. Daisy and I met three years ago when she did a podcast for my blog which if you’re a big Daisy fan I encourage you to listen to. At the time we did that podcast, I was a big fan of her show, Daisy Cooks! on PBS. We became great friends, and eventually, I helped her build DaisyMartinez.com and Boriqua Blog.
I’m sure of you many of you are aware that Daisy is of Puerto Rican heritage. I, on the other hand, am an estadounidense — an American, and specifically Jewish and of Eastern-European origin. While I can speak Spanish semi-fluently — I studied it in college and I grew up learning it in my household because my mother has a masters degree in Spanish, I never truly understood what it meant to be a Latino.
Sure, I’ve travelled to several Spanish-speaking countries, including Spain, Mexico, Colombia and Panama, but in those trips, I’ve never truly “gone native”.
Even in my previous travel to Puerto Rico, I stayed within the confines of the Caribe Hilton and San Juan, and never ventured out to see what America’s foremost tropical island was really all about. The next time I went, I voved that it would be different.
I recently returned from a trip to Puerto Rico with my wife, Rachel, and we stayed in the Palmas del Mar resort near Humacao, which is on the Southeast side of the Island. The majority of the places we visited were along the Southern and Eastern side of the island, so if my report looks a little skewed for not featuring cuisine and culture on the West and Northern parts, you’ll understand. While not as large as its two other prominent Caribbean islands such as Cuba and Hispaniola in the Greater Antilles, Puerto Rico is still pretty big and is really too large to try to get a full sense of in just one week.
Puerto Rico is still the size of Connecticut, and despite having several autopistas still has a lot of one lane roads which prevent fast cross-country travel. A trip from Humacao to the east to Rincon or Aguadilla in the western part of the island can easily take more than 3 hours, particularly if you need to go thru mountain roads for part of the trip.
I knew a decent amount about Puerto Rican and Caribbean food before this trip — I’ve been to other Caribbean islands such as Jamaica, Aruba, St. Thomas and St. Maarten, and of course I have prepared food from Daisy’ show and from her cookbook. But even so, nothing really prepares you for eating in real Puerto Rican restaurants as opposed to places that are geared more towards tourists.
Puerto Rico is certainly no exception to tourism or Americanization — in fact, I’d say that since Puerto Rico is a US territory, its become more Americanized probably than any other country in the Caribbean. Legit Puerto Rican eateries serving the native Criollo cuisine are becoming fewer and far between, as mom and pop restaurants are giving way to big American fast-food chains and old neighborhoods are being demolished in favor of luxury condominiums for wealthy Americans.
It’s not unusual to drive into a modestly-sized town and find within less of a 1/4 of a mile of each other a Burger King, a McDonalds, a Wendy’s, a Church’s Fried Chicken, a KFC, a Pizza Hut, a Domino’s, and Pollo Tropical. I’ve even seen a Krispy Kreme and Wal-Marts and COSTCOs.
The only difference between these chains in Puerto Rico and the ones in the US is their menus are in Spanish.
A Burger King menu from Puerto Rico.
And you know what? Puerto Ricans are all eating at these places, not necessarily tourists. Sadly, a lot of independent Puerto Rican restaurants have closed down or limited their hours due to the economy — the island has been experiencing a deep recession for about 4 years now.
Now that I’ve gone ahead and gotten you all depressed, the good news is real Puerto Rican food in Puerto Rico does exist, but you have to make an effort to seek it out.
Click on the “Read the rest of this entry” link below for more.
The first thing you should probably know about Puerto Rican and a lot of other Caribbean Latino food is that much of the traditional diet is heavily based on starches and proteins. Green vegetables are practically non-existent, and the preferred method of cooking is frying or sauteing in oil and animal fats.
If you’re looking to keep the pounds off, I strongly suggest you stay the hell away from Puerto Rico. However, if you want to eat some of the tastiest Caribbean food in existence, Puerto Rico is your kind of place — just be prepared to hit the stairmaster and eat mass quantities of spinach and leafy veggies when you get home.
The three big staples in Puerto Rico are Beans, Rice, and Plantains. While some might say that the first two really define the cuisine, from my own experience, I’m gonna have to say that they play second fiddle to the mighty platano.
Green Plantains at a roadside stand in Fajardo, Puerto Rico.
Plantains are eaten in a number of different forms in Puerto Rico. When fully matured and gone towards yellow-black, they are sweet and fried in butter and eaten as Maduros. Their most common method of consumption is when they are in their green state, sliced into chunks, washed in water and seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic, slammed into disks (usually with a coffee can, a brick or a device known as a tostonera) and then deep fried into tostones.
To say that I sampled tostones in Puerto Rico is an understatement. I think i can say with fair certainty that I consumed more tostones in a single week than human beings should be allowed.
Tostones at El Roble Restaurant in Salinas, Puerto Rico.
The photo above depicts a typical preparation of Tostones. We probably had these with literally EVERY meal we ate in Puerto Rico, and that doesn’t count the fact that we would also have plantains in other forms during the meal as well, such as mofongo and maduros (which we’ll get to in another post).
Typically, they are served with ketchup as well as a Ketchup/Mayo dipping sauce mix. I’d like to say I got tired of eating tostones in Puerto Rico, but I can’t. Tostones are even better than the best french fries — they are like crack.
Tostones con ensalada de Carrucho, at the Sheraton Las Palmas in Humacao.
Above are tostones served with a Conch Salad. Conch, or Carrucho, is a very popular seafood, and for the lack of a better description is the chopped up innards of a giant marine snail. In other Carribean cusines, conch is typically made into fritters and put into chowders, but in Puerto Rico its most commonly served as a simple salad with lime juice, olive oil, chopped up red onion and celery. This salty dish goes great with the fried maduros, and when you’re at the beach sipping an ice cold beer, its hard to beat.
Toston filled with Lobster at Paradise Seafood in Punta Santiago, Puerto Rico.
Tostones are also frequently made into cup-like shapes and also filled with lots of tasty stuff, such as lobster and other kinds of seafood, as shown above.
Tostones de Panfruta con Salmorejo de Jueyes at Caracoles Restaurant in Palmas del Mar, Puerto Rico.
Tostones can also be made out of other starchy vegetables besides plantains. One of the most memorable ones we had was at Caracoles restaurant in Palmas Del Mar, which used deep fried breadfruit cups filled with Salmorejo de Jueyes (Crab Stew) over a really nice salad — the only decent salad we ate the entire time we were on the island. Salmorejo de Jueyes is also another dish we probably ate way too much of in Puerto Rico, but again, we’ll get to that soon.
Tostones relleno de yuca con camarones ajillo, at Ajili Mojili restaurant in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
We also had an excellent stuffed tostones at Ajili Mojili restaurant in San Juan. Ajili Mojili is a fancy Crillolo restaurant in the really expensive Condado neighborhood where all the luxury hotels are, so naturally its incredibly overpriced. However, these Yuca tostones filled with garlic sauteed shrimp were the highlight of the meal.
Lastly, but not least, I would like the point out that tostones are so important to Puerto Ricans that they have even been extended to non-Criollo cuisine. Why, you can even expect to get it with Chinese food. Yes, really.
A Chinese restaurant in Ponce, Puerto Rico.
Egg Foo Yong de Carne Ahumada con Tostones y Arroz Frito, at China Sun Restaurant in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Chopsuey de Camarones con Tostones y Arroz Frito
See you next post!