We Try: Puerto Rican Cuisine

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By Cooking Panda

If there’s one thing I know how to do, it’s travel with no regards to moderation, my health or — apparently — the sun (I am rocking a nasty full-body burn right now). 

Luckily, I know this about myself, and was therefore reasonably assured that I would be able to taste-test a respectable variety of foods and drinks during my three-day vacation in Puerto Rico — and then write about the experience.

Here’s some background information:

The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is an island and unincorporated U.S. territory, found just east of the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean Sea. Before visiting, I knew about Puerto Rico for its white-sand beaches and affinity for Rum (yum). Those who are more educated than I was, however, will know that PR is also famous for its food. Although Puerto Rican cooking is in many ways similar to Spanish, Cuban and Mexican cuisine, it is also a unique blend of Spanish, African, Taino, and American influences.

While this list is by no means exhaustive, here are my favorites of the Puerto Rican dishes, drinks and snacks I was able to try:

Frituras/Cuchifrito

Frituras is the generic term for fried treats, and they were sold everywhere. We found them as appetizers and at little street vendors on the side of the road; some were stuffed with cheese or meat, while others were thin, traditional finger-foods.

Almojabanas

Although it isn’t strictly Puerto Rican, my personal favorite was the Almojabana. Typically enjoyed with a cup of coffee in the morning, Almojabanas are small, gluten free (!) bread rolls found throughout Latin America, especially in Colombia, Puerto Rico, and Panama. Made with cheese and cornmeal, their sweet, crispy exterior gives way to a soft and cheesy center, and eating these made me feel like I was being greeted by a hug — welcome to San Juan! I’ve been back home for less than 24 hours and have already scouted out a local bakery that serves up a similar roll — “pan de bono” — in my neighborhood, so I can keep getting my breakfast fix.

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Cafe con Leche

Considering that PR is America’s leading coffee producer, it should come as no great shock that the three variations I tried in PR blew me away. While I was able to enjoy a cup of it black (the taste was powerful yet soft, and had mild but fragrant sweetness), my fellow taste-testers raved about the cafe con leche. It was similar to a latte, but seemed to involve a large dollop of frothed, sweet milk in a larger cup.

Tostones (pictured here sandwiched between ceviche and quinoa salad)

There is only one thing that could get me to swear off french fries for life without regressing into my 7-year-old, tantrum-throwing form, and that is tostones. Traditionally served as either an appetizer or a side dish, these little discs are twice-fried plantain slices, and make a great conduit for transporting generous dollops of different sauces and condiments into your mouth. They’re golden brown and crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, and are sprinkled with just enough salt to make them flavorful without being overpowering. When given the choice, I ordered these with every meal, and I’ve been scouring the internet for recipes ever since returning.

Mofongo

Before I left, I asked a few Puerto Rican friends to recommend their favorite dish, and every single one of them told me to try mofongo. Essentially, mofongo is a mashed mound of plantains (usually flavored with garlic) that serves as a sort of subtly sweet and fried edible bowl. As if that weren’t enough (I like the idea of dishware you can use and then consume), the starchy mound is commonly filled with a combination of seafood, meat, or vegetables, and drizzled with a warm broth, making it something of a national staple amidst a wide assortment of local food offerings.

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Ceviche

Seeing as Puerto Rico is an island right in the middle of the Caribbean, it follows that seafood and shellfish are amongst the most common and tasty things to eat there (even though much of the seafood is imported). I had both a shrimp ceviche (light, flavorful and refreshing) and a conch ceviche served inside a “1/2 avocado” which was probably the size of my five-year-old niece’s head. 10/10, would attempt to devour again.

Medalla Light

The Compania Cervecera de Puerto Rico is one of two breweries in Puerto Rico, and its main brand is Medalla Light. I don’t think I went to a single establishment that didn’t offer up this beer.  The taste, smell, and feel are all what you would expect from a light lager, and it was highly, highly drinkable. As in I didn’t have any qualms downing one after the other in rapid succession as I got sunburnt lounging by the ocean — the booze-buzz, at least, helped to temporarily mask the searing pain. 

Pina Colada

Rupert Holmes knew what he was talking about: I actually tried my first Pina Colada after being caught in the rain on the beach in Rincon. I am not a particular fan of creamy coconut flavor profiles, so this was a pass for me, but come on: I wasn’t about to go to PR and not sample at least three different rum-based cocktails. As a fellow traveler noted:

“The best part about rum punch happy hours in Puerto Rico is that they are much longer than an hour.”

Turron de Ajonjoli 

I flew out of Rincon back to San Juan in a tiny plane that boasted a total capacity of around eight passengers. Because only four of us were flying that trip, our pilot introduced himself personally to each of us… and immediately recoiled when he got to me. Perhaps it was all the drinking and sunbathing, but three days in PR left me with a stuffed nose, a blocked ear, unwashed hair, and a pretty remarkable sunburn. As a consolation prize — or maybe because I just looked truly pitiful — he gave me a Turron de Ajonjoli at the end of the flight, and then recommended his favorite brand of aloe for my nose (thanks, pal).

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The bar itself looks like a small, rectangular tablet, and has a strong, almost savory, sesame smell. I’ve had more brittle sesame snacks before (my old, wheezy babysitter used to keep a stash in her purse), but these roasted sesame seeds seemed to be held together with a sweet, caramelized brown sugar and biting into the bar was very soft. It left a pleasant and comforting goodbye-taste of Puerto Rico in my mouth.

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Photo credit: chalmerman/Instagram, Pac, Food Network (2)

Tags: pina colada, puerto rico, rincon, san juan, Taste Test
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