How to Puerto Rico — Local Cuisine
The Wikipedia article on Puerto Rican cuisine describes it very eloquently so I’ll just borrow their wording.
“Puerto Rican cuisine has its roots in the cooking traditions and practices of Europe, Africa and the native Taínos.”
Make sure to bring the stretchy pants and if you end up eating with a local family to be offered lots of food to try. Visiting someone on a full stomach is a mistake ;).
A few things to know about it
- …generally not spicy, but that can be fixed if you want it to be. Just ask for “pique” and most restaurants will likely hand you a local spicy condiment made out of vinegar, garlic, and peppers or something like Tabasco.
- …tend to be heavy and low in vegetables (a common complaint from friends that visit and are health conscious). We eat a lot of plantains, rice, and beans, but things like zucchini, broccoli, lentils, while may be available are not as common although that is slowly changing in some restaurants.
- …there are a lot of fried foods.
- …vegetarians should be careful as meat tend to sneak in unexpected dishes. When in doubt ask “tiene carne?” (does it have meat?) as sometimes we will, for example, add pieces of meat to rice for flavoring. There are usually some vegetarian options you will probably just have to ask and they are getting a bit more common in the more touristic areas.
Local things to try
- Arroz con habichuelas (rice and beans) — This is a staple of Puerto Rican food. You’ll probably find it at any restaurant, Puerto Rican or not. It is usually accompanied by some protein (commonly pork, chicken, or fish).
- Bistec encebollado — Usually only found in more traditional restaurants and at home. Delicious particular when made with a good soft cut of meat. Often with a tomato sauce accompanying the onions.
- Mofongo — Made with smashed plantains, it is another staple of Puerto Rican cuisine that you will find in almost every menu. 99% of the time made out of plantain, but relatively new variations with other things like cassava are becoming common. It is sometimes served as a side or as a main with something inside, called “mofongo relleno” (again… pork, chicken, or fish). You can also find “tostones” which are just twice-fried smashed plantains.
- Lechón — Our name for pork. This can be anything from pig roasted on a spit in a very traditional way to “pernil” (pork shoulder) which is most often roasted and served during festivities like Christmas dinners. It is often served with “arroz con gandules” (rice with pigeon peas). Gandules look a bit like lentis, but a bit bigger and have a mild taste to them.
- Sancocho — A local stew made with corn, plantains, and usually other local roots. It will sometimes have beef in it as well.
- Flan — You may have tried it in other Latin countries. Most of the time it is vanilla or cheese flavored, but you may find other interesting flavors like guava or coconut. The texture and flavor vary quite a bit, but if it is homemade (“flan de la casa”) it is probably a good bet to try.
- Tembleque — A coconut flavored custard-like dessert. Very common in celebrations like Christmas, but often available at restaurants and food trucks.
- Arroz con dulce — It is rare that you will find this except at someone’s house during Christmas time, but if you run into it give it a try. It is coconut flavored rice usually with raisins and cinnamon.
- Coquito — A coconut flavored drink. Usually alcoholic and a lot more common during Christmas time when people tend to make it at home.
- Piña Colada — I am sure you have seen this one before, but it was invented in Puerto Rico so you may as well have one. It often comes with whipped cream which I personally don’t like, but you can ask for it without.
- Pitorro — A distilled spirit referred to as Puerto Rican “moonshine rum”. It is also known as “lagrima de monte” (mountain tear). Often 80–90% proof is it taken as a shot. Most of it is made and sold illegally so it can be hard to find, but a few brands of a commercial version of it have popped-up.
- Seafood — I am not the biggest fan of seafood, but being an island there is plenty of fresh seafood to try. “Ensalada de pulpo” (octopus salad), “ensalada de carrucho” (conch salad), and “pez entero” (whole fish) are some of the common dishes you will find.
- Frituras — Just a generic name for fried foods. These are common in “quioscos” or “chinchorros” (small local food kiosks). One variation to include is called “alcapurria” (a mass of green bananas and “yautia”, a local root, filled with ground beef, but sometimes veggies). Other variations are “bacalaito” (fried codfish in a flour batter) and “empanadillas” (come in a variety of flavors from ground beef, “pizza”, cheese, potato, and more).