Article: Do Puerto Ricans know the origin of their typical food?

By Michelle Estades

This article was originally published in December 2014 in Diálogo, the newspaper of the University of Puerto Rico.

Puerto Ricans, without a doubt, are passionate about eating. They are willing to try different foods, but when asked what their favorite dish is; rice, beans and roasted pork have the lead. According to Cruz Miguel Ortiz Cuadra, a History Professor at the University of Puerto Rico in Humacao (UPRH), this is demonstrated at the start of each school year when he asks their students “what is your favorite dish?”

“Rice, beans and stewed chicken,” one responds, while another writes “Greek rice and breast with sauce.” There are some who indicate that they prefer “pasta with shrimp”, to which Ortiz Cuadra calls the phenomenon Macaroni and Grill. But there are students who always say that their favorite food contains rice: “rice, stewed beans and chicken” or “white rice with fried spam”. They also mention tubers with cod or other dishes with mofongo (mashed plantain).

“There is no doubt that domestic food is the favorite of people,” said Ortiz Cuadra. But do Puerto Ricans know the origin of their gastronomy?

The professor of the UPR in Humacao, who has specialized in capturing the history of Puerto Rican food, said that the Taino Indians and the Spaniards, as well as the Africans, influenced the gastronomy of the Island.

“Our food is a mongrel and mulatto food. It is a combination of food known to the Indians, food that came in the Spanish conquest, the result of slave trade and the desires for survival of Africans who came as slaves,” Ortiz Cuadra said.

Among the foods that the Puerto Rican cuisine adopted from the Tainos are: cassava, yautía, maize, beans, batatas, pepper, sweet and spicy chilli and recao. From the Spanish conquest were acquired foods such as pork, beef, rice, oil and various enriching flavors such as oregano, cumin, basil and almost all herbs used to make sofrito. While directly from Africa came the famous plantain, banana, yam, okra and beans, but also came a starter food in Puerto Rican cuisine, the gandules (pigeon peas).

Ortiz Cuadra clarified that Puerto Rican gastronomy was shaped as the result of a globalization after discovery. “After Columbus discovered America, there was something going on and on and food was distributed throughout the rest of the world. This was not from one day to another, this was something of centuries. This ours has to do with that globalization and with the transfer of food by the result of the movement of the populations,” he pointed.

Although Puerto Rican cuisine was created as a result of colonial and imperial projects of Spain, it has had the ability to adapt dishes from other parts of the world and turn them into something local. For example, Ortiz Cuadra mentioned arroz con dulce. This came from Spain where it is known as rice with milk. When they brought it to Puerto Rico they did not have the milk, but they did have coconut. Then they modified it to their realities and developed arroz con dulce.

“If you come to see, our food is the result of globalization, colonial projects and imperial projects. If Spain does not have as mission to create an expansion in America to develop Christianity and mercantile companies, these foods do not arrive. Same with the slavers, if they do not have the interest of bringing slaves to America, they do not get these foods,” he mentioned.

 

Rice with pigeon peas

In his book “Puerto Rico in the pot, are we still what we eat?,” Ortiz Cuadra highlight that although the rice was brought to Puerto Rico by the Spaniards this began to be cultivated by the Africans. Not by the Taino Indians because they did not know the food and not by the Spaniards because they “used it more as food than as a seed.”

The author indicates that when the Africans arrived to Puerto Rico they had to immediately relate to the agriculture of the Island and sowed and produced crops that they knew for their subsistence, including rice.

However, the rice culture of Puerto Rico began when they saw the potential for dissemination and the effective techniques to grow it by the 16th century. With this also came the different ways of cooking it. One of the techniques of cooking rice was incorporating other elements such as legumes or meats, which became known as compound rice.

To cook the compound rice, they started making the sofrito that at that time was simply the part of adding spices and other condiments to give it more flavor. But, why did Puerto Ricans start making rice with pigeon peas like the typical rice made up of parties?

According to Ortiz Cuadra, compound rice were specifically made on special occasions or parties because it was a way of cooking two different foods and “increased the volume of a food service.” Rice was also combined with ingredients that were available in seasons. This is the case of the pigeon peas.

“The absence of the plate [rice with pigeon peas] at Christmas Eve, New Year and Three Kings dinners, today would be considered a true lack of Christmas gastronomic tradition. But what is not known is that at the time when the kitchen was not modeled by the agro-industry, but by the agricultural cycles, the collection of the gandul (pigeon peas) coincided in the calendar with the Easter parties,” explained the author.

 

Recipe of traditional rice with pigeon peas

Since there is no Christmas in Puerto Rico and there are no parties without typical food, here we present a recipe of traditional rice with pigeon peas taken from the Sazón Boricua food blog.

Ingredients:

2 cups long grain rice or the grain of your choice

2 cans of green pigeons or 2 pounds of pigeons, softened (not drained)

3 tablespoons of annatto oil or canola oil

½ cup of diced ham

1 cup of pork, optional

3 tablespoons of sofrito

¼ cup of olives

2 cups of water or less depending on the type of rice grain you use

Salt and pepper to taste

1 red bell pepper

Cilantro or coriander to taste

Seasoning powder with cilantro and annatto, optional

Process:

Saute the pork for about seven minutes or until they turn pink, add the ham and knead it. Add the sofrito, olives, cilantro, seasoning, the pigeon peas and liquids, then cover the pot and cook for a few minutes. Stir the rice, taste, let it cook uncovered until the liquid begins to evaporate, stir and mix well. Then add the red bell pepper cut into strips and do not move the rice any more, cover it.

Note: If you wish to add a touch to the rice with pigeon peas, you can grate ½ green banana and add it to the casserole before adding the rice. You can also place a clean banana leaf on the rice after it has been moved. But first clean it and pass it over the burner or a hot surface to seal it.

Thanksgiving with BU Gastronomy Students

We hope you had a great Turkey Day and spent lots of time reflecting on what you are grateful for!  BU is off for the holiday and we were curious about how Gastronomy students spend Thanksgiving.   Meet Michelle and Catherine who have shared their Thanksgiving traditions with us!

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Photo: Oscar Rohena, Flickr CC Search

For Puerto Ricans, Thanksgiving, or the day of the turkey, is a very special holiday. It represents the start of our favorite time of the year, Christmas. All my life, on this special day, my family and I have gathered at my maternal grandparents house. My grandmother has always been responsible for preparing the turkey with a special filling of “mofongo” (mashed plantain) and ground beef, and to make rice with “gandules” (pigeon peas), which is our official symbol of festive food.

My aunt always brings boiled root vegetables and pieces of roasted pork (simply because a Puerto Rican party without pork is incomplete). While in my home we take care of the desserts, whether a good homemade carrot cake, a flan or a “tembleque”, which is custard made with coconut milk, cornstarch and cinnamon. In addition to that, at the table we will always find “pan criollo” (our traditional bread), potato salad with mayonnaise, “pasteles boricuas” (similar to Mexican tamales but based on plantains), “coquito” (a drink made whit coconut cream), and finally “ron caña” (a clandestine rum, illegal for not paying taxes and for not meeting the requirements of health and quality controls).

After chopping the turkey and serving all the plates, my grandparents, my uncles, my parents, my siblings and I stood around the outdoor dining table, and my grandfather lead a prayer of thanks. Once my grandfather finishes the prayer, we say to each other “buen provecho” (a typical phrase that is said before beginning to eat to desire a good digestion) and we run to enjoy the exquisite food that adorns the dishes. The evening is distinguished by the typical Christmas music of Puerto Rico, the loud jokes of my father and planning the parties for the rest of the Christmas.

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Photo: Oscar Rohena, Flickr CC Search

This year is the first time I will celebrate Thanksgiving away from my warm home, but with my extended family.

My Puerto Ricans friends who live in Boston will come to my apartment and we will recreate the typical Puerto Rican Thanksgiving party that I described earlier. I’m sure the only difference will be the cold weather and the possibility of snow, but we will do our best to bring Puerto Rico to us and spend it as warm as if we were at home.

“¡Buen provecho y que empiece la fiesta!”

By Michelle Estades, First-Year MLA Gastronomy

 

It’s All About Pie

One of the key elements of any Thanksgiving meal, arguably the most important, is the dessert. Of course no Thanksgiving dessert spread could ever be complete without the perfect pumpkin pie, at least that is how my family feels. Beginning at a young age I began to help my father make the annual Thanksgiving pumpkin pie. I began to help more and more until, around the age of eleven or twelve, I had completely taken over the pumpkin pie making duties. At that point the only thing I did not do was actually cutting the pumpkins in half. I don’t know many twelve year olds who have the upper body strength to chop a pumpkin in two, so my dad continued to make that contribution for several years.  

It is always vital that I make every bit of the pie from scratch, from the crust to the pumpkin puree for the filling. Absolutely no canned pumpkin in our house. What really turned the tables was the summer that our compost pile in the backyard began to sprout a mysterious vine. By the fall the vine was producing the most perfect pie pumpkins. Not only was our annual Thanksgiving pie made completely from scratch, it was also made from local, metro-Detroit pumpkins, grown in our very own backyard.  

Backyard grown pumpkins are not the only element that I use to create our traditional pumpkin pie. The classic pumpkin spice, the correct balance of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves, isn’t even the most important part of the filling. It is all about the secret ingredient, dark rum. The rich, molasses-like flavor of the dark rum brings the whole pie together in a way that no other ingredient can. Over the years other members of the family have tried to make other things for dessert, like pumpkin cheesecake, or pecan pie, and it is never quite the same. It simply would not be a Santrock family Thanksgiving without a rum flavored pumpkin pie. We usually like to be a little adventurous with our Thanksgiving menu, this year we are replacing the turkey with lamb, some years we don’t even have mashed potatoes! As far as I’m concerned, we could have our entire meal be pumpkin pie and we would still be keeping to tradition.

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Photo: Catherine Santrock
By Catherine Santrock, First-Year MLA Gastronomy

 

 

December Events: Sugar Plum Fairies, Ferran Adrià, and a Hot Cocoa Crawl

The semester is coming to a close and the year is almost over, but there’s still plenty to do! Whether you’re heading home or sticking around town, be sure to schedule in a few of these festive events for the chilly month of December.

Please note that many of the following events require tickets or reservations.


Harvard Science and Cooking Lecture Series


When: Dates vary, but all talks begin at 7:00 PM unless otherwise noted.
Where: Harvard Science Center (One Oxford Street, Cambridge, MA, Hall C & overflow Hall E)
What: A lecture series combining the expertise of food specialists, world-renowned chefs, and Harvard researchers. Lectures vary from week to week and are open to the public.

Monday, Dec. 2
“Evolution culinary theory”
Ferran Adrià, elBulli Foundation
**Tickets will be available on Tuesday, November 26th at the Harvard Box Office, located in the Holyoke Center 1350 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA**

Monday, Dec. 9
“The Accidental Chemist”
America’s Test Kitchen
Jack Bishop, Editorial Director at Cook’s Illustrated and an Editor on The Science of Good Cooking
Dan Souza, Senior Editor of Cook’s Illustrated
Science Center Hall C, 7 p.m.


Harvard Square Hot Cocoa Crawl

When: Friday, Dec. 6 from 5:30 to 8:30 PM
Where: Harvard Square, 18 Brattle St, Cambridge, MA 02138
What: A winter crawl for only the most serious of chocoholics. Stops include L.A. Burdicks, Crema Cafe, Cardullo’s and more!


Eat Boutique Holiday Market

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When: Saturday, Dec. 7 from 11:00 AM to 5:00 PM
Where: Cruiseport Boston’s Black Falcon Cruise Terminal, 1 Black Falcon Avenue, Boston, MA
What: This foodie gathering includes more than 50 makers, cookbook authors, culinary experts, beverage brewers, and more. Shop for specialty food items, sample treats from local food trucks and local Beer and Wine purveyors, and attend various events like cookbook signings, culinary workshops and special tastings. Tickets required, general admission costs $20.


Downeast Cider Launch Party


When: Saturday, Dec. 7 from 2:00 to 9:00 PM
Where: Downeast Cider House, 200 Terminal Street, Boston, MA
What: The local cider house is opening its doors to celebrate its grand opening with hard cider, music, games and more! Tickets required and cost $25.


South End Holiday Cookie Fest


When: Saturday, Dec. 7 with tours at 11:00 AM, 1:00 PM, and 3:00 PM
Where: South End, Boston, MA
What: A holiday tour of the South End’s best cookies from top Boston bakeries. Each stop comes with its own special occasion cookie in flavors like Ginger Molasses and Blueberry Pancookie! Tickets are $20 and must be purchased online in advance. A portion of each ticket will benefit the Boston Center for the Arts.


9th Annual Candy Land Tournament

When: Saturday, Dec. 14 from 10:00 AM to 12:00 PM
Where: Faneuil Hall Marketplace, 4 S Market Bldg, Boston, MA
What: An annual Candy Land board game tournament for kids and kids-at-heart benefiting Pitching in for Kids. Entry fee is $5 per person. Additional donations appreciated. Bring your own candy for game-time snacking.


“Pop It Like It’s Hot” Hot Chocolate Pop-Up

When: Friday, Dec. 6, Friday, Dec. 13, Friday, Dec. 20, and Friday, Dec. 27 from 3:00 to 6:00 PM
Where: Revere Hotel Boston Common, 200 Stuart St, Boston, MA 02116
What: A gourmet hot chocolate pop-up just in time for the holidays and that blustery Boston winter. Each Friday through the month of December, the Revere Hotel is hosting the holiday pop-up shop featuring unique hot chocolate recipes by local area chefs using hot cocoa mix from Taza Chocolate. Hot cocoa is free, but donations are encouraged and go towards The Home for Little Wanderers.


Boston Ballet Presents “The Nutcracker”

When: Various showings through Monday, Dec. 30
Where: Boston Opera House, Boston, MA
What: A Boston holiday tradition, this year’s version of the classical ballet features new sets, costumes, and choreography. Tickets start at $35 and first-time buyers receive a 10 percent discount.


Be sure to share any food events you find by commenting below or on the BU Gastronomy Facebook page. Show us your gastronomy finds this month by following us on Instagram and Twitter and using the hashtag #bugastronomy.