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.
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
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.